Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Journey of a story

This week’s blog aims to tell the story of a story. Or should I say, one of the stories of what must be by now a very old story in which it has acquired countless new stories of how it’s travelled through our world. Mine is only one of them.

The story begins:

Innumerable years ago, the Snohomish people of North-West America would tell the story of pushing up the sky. In the beginning, they’d say, the sky was too low. People were unhappy with it. They felt oppressed. They felt there was insufficient space to do things, create things, scarcely enough room to breathe. Besides, sometimes there’d be someone who would go missing by getting lost in the sky – a boy climbing a tree, maybe, or someone exploring a hill.

The people decided to change things. They decided to try lifting the sky. In their area were many trees. They cut down the trees, chopped off their branches and made the trees into lifting poles. Then they appointed a day when they’d use these poles to try lifting the sky.

The elders of the people agreed a call they’d use to co-ordinate the lifting. The elders would call out ‘Ya’ to get people ready and then the people with the poles would call back ‘Ho’ as they started to heave.

The first time they tried this on the appointed day, nothing much happened. It made no difference. But they continued to push and now, as they did, they felt the sky starting to lift. So they went on until – ‘Ho’ – the sky rose to where it is today.

Now the people were content. They went about their business feeling they had plenty of room. But one thing that happened during the lifting left another lasting effect. Three hunters were chasing four elks at the time. They did not know about the lifting plan and, just as the people were starting to push the sky up, they came to the place where the earth nearly met the sky. The elks jumped into the Sky World and the hunters followed. When the sky was lifted up, the elks and hunters went too.

In the Sky World they were changed into stars. The three hunters became the handle of the Big Dipper. The middle hunter has his dog with him, now a tiny star. The four elks made the bowl of the Big Dipper, a constellation we can still see today and which we call the Plough this side of the Atlantic.

The story moves on:

Many years later, when there were books, this story of the Snohomish people got into a book called American Indian Myths & Legends. The book was put together by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz and published in 1984. In its short introduction to the Snohomish story, it reports as follows: ‘Chief William Shelton, who relates this story, says he was told it as a child by his family elders to teach him what could be accomplished if people worked together.’

One person who read that Snohomish story in that book was me, probably somewhere around the time when I was regularly telling stories at the Royal Observatory down in Greenwich. Maybe my mind made an unconscious link between the long telescopes used for searching the sky and the poles the Snohomish people used for lifting it. Or perhaps, with very mixed audiences for my storytelling, I realised the potential of that Snohomish call, Ya-ho, for getting people to participate. The story of pushing up the sky became part of my programme for my Royal Observatory storytelling.

The story starts its way back home:

Years later came an invitation to go to the Olympic Peninsula in the North-West of America as a guest storyteller. This meant that in May 2001, I’d be telling my stories at a couple of big concerts to be given by the North American Welsh Choir. At the same time as giving me this invitation, the conductor of the choir, Mari Morgan, asked if I could suggest a story that would be set to music for the choir by the composer Victor Davies, lyrics to be created by the poet Carolyn Maddux.

I searched my mind. One of the Greek stories of Mount Olympus? The story of the Welshman often said to be the first discoverer of America? During those uneasy stirrings of memory you sometimes get when you know there’s something there to be remembered but can’t quite get there at first, the Snohomish story sprang back into my mind. I checked it out. Yes, the Snohomish people lived in the area of the Olympic Peninsula. And surely that choric Ya-ho could be great for a choral piece.

The story comes home:

Lifting the Sky was created. Victor Davies composed the music. Carolyn Maddux set the words, her first and third sections to be sung by the choir, the middle section to be told by me as the storyteller. In Carolyn’s retelling the story gained new meaning for us today, making the point in its first section that we are all sometimes very fed up, feeling we can’t make sense of our lives. But if we get together, realise we are part of a community, life gains a new sense of purpose.

The story leaves its aftermath:

It’s quite some years now – 2001 –  since Lifting the Sky was first performed. But participating in it on the Olympic Peninsula made some very strong memories for me. I talked about these soon afterwards while visiting an old friend, Mike Rosen, by Lake Kasshabog in Ontario. As we sat out under the sky after dinner, I retold the story of Lifting the Sky. A friend of his who was also there became very stirred by the story, thinking she might tell it to her little boy. We later heard that she did and that, loving the story, he’d wanted it again and again.

Now these memories are about to be reawakened. Next Sunday, Paul and I will be travelling to Canada for two weeks. We spend the first week in Toronto, which will give us a chance to spend good time with the composer of Lifting the Sky, Victor Davies and his wife Lori. Then we’ll go on to visit our old friend Mike a few hours north of Toronto. No doubt, during both parts of our trip, the story of Lifting the Sky will become part of a new skein of experience.

PS: My two pictures this week speak for themselves. The top pic is, of course, The Big Dipper. The bottom is of copies of Lifting the Sky.

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