Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Tree-thoughts

15Tree barkSit under a tree awhile and listen and I bet you’ll hear it speaking to you in the rustle of its leaves and branches. OK, it’s not speaking in any tongue of  humankind. But in its own way, it’s speaking, perhaps of the wind or the seasons, perhaps of its place in the landscape, rural or urban, perhaps of the scenes it has witnessed over the length of the time it has been there. Walk past a long line of trees, it’s the same, though now you’re listening to what I hear as the trees’ conversations  with each other. Each time you go past, you can tune in. Their talk will be there – except, of course, when the trees are gone.

Ariel’s story in The Tempest:

This week, two experiences made me think about the way we humanise trees – or perhaps I should say the way they humanise us. One occurred in a fabulous performance of Shakespeare’s late play, The Tempest, at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse at the Globe Theatre. Pippa Nixon was superb as Ariel, making her feel like pure spirit brought into human form. When Prospero, the magician and manipulator who conjures all the events of the play into reality as if from thin air, reminded her of the plight she’d been in when he first came to the island, it created a horrifyingly poignant image that made immediate sense of her demand that he now set her free from having to serve him and do his bidding. When first on the island, Prospero told Ariel, he’d found her imprisoned in a tree. The evil witch Sycorax had trapped her in it, a cloven pine, and because the witch subsequently died, Ariel had had to remain trapped there and groaning for a whole dozen years before Prospero  released her and made her into his servant.

Shakespeare’s image harks back to the story of Daphne as told by the Roman poet, Ovid, in his Metamorphoses. It’s been retold many times since, in painting, sculpture and poetry. Like Shakespeare’s story of Ariel, it is also a very dark story, though ultimately beautiful. The god Apollo, taking a fancy to the nymph Daphne begins to chase her and she flees before him – it’s potentially a rape scene – until she reaches her father’s stream. There, stretching forth her arms, she implores her father to protect her. Hearing her plea, he covers her with bark and leaves until gradually she changes into a laurel tree. But even as she transmogrifies, she continues speaking until the encrusting bark has covered her mouth. Now clasping her in his arms, Apollo sadly declares that, ever afterwards, this tree will be his favourite tree.

The troll-tree painted by Nikolai Astrup: 

P1010396My second tree image of the week occurred at an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery of the paintings of the Norwegian painter, Nikolai Astrup. Astrup died in 1928 and was a formative influence in Norwegian painting. I’d never heard of him before and was particularly struck by a painting in which a willow tree beside a river looked like a human body reaching its arms towards the sky. The upper part of its trunk was surely a head and in the head was what certainly looked like an open mouth. According to the caption, the tree was ‘a troll-tree’. Can trolls be women? I wondered. To me the body was definitely that of a woman and across the horizon of the landscape was stretched another woman – the Ice Queen according to the caption – whose head, breasts, stomach and bent knees formed a distant range of hills.

These two images, the one from The Tempest, the other from the paintings of Nikolai Astrup, have made me think a lot about our relationship to trees and how important trees are to human life. They’ve made me appreciate all over again how important storytelling can be in bringing to our fresh attention  the features of our natural landscape. For children, stories of trees provide a very direct way to encourage looking, appreciating and imagining. For adults, they do the same, clothing our feelings about the world around us in perhaps more complex ways and in so doing, renewing our relationship to the earth where we live.

All this brought back to my mind that well-known story, The Rajah With Big Ears. After all, a  tree plays a highly significant part in the tale. Some weeks ago, I’d been reminded of the story by some children who’d remembered me telling it to them about five years ago. This time, I told them how fascinated I’d been over the years of knowing the story by finding out how it crops up with small differences in many different cultures, including the Welsh and the Irish. But more of all that next week when I’ll make that particular story my subject.

 PS: My illustrations this week are two photos of tree bark where you can see so many different patterns – another reason,  I think, why trees deserve our attention.  

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