Listening for Stories

The busi­ness of sto­ries is not enchant­ment.
The busi­ness of sto­ries is not escape.
The busi­ness of sto­ries is wak­ing up.                                             

—Mar­tin Shaw 

Each morn­ing, when I can, I walk two and a half miles.  I walk for exer­cise because I write most of the day.  But main­ly I walk to lis­ten for sto­ries.  I hear them in the cheer, cheer of the car­di­nal and the fierce, splin­ter­ing cry of the red-shoul­dered hawk.  I crouch to hear the soft drag of a slug’s jour­ney over con­crete.  The very air car­ries sto­ries in the wing­beats of the owl I heard the night before and the breath of a bear on a dis­tant Blue Ridge mountaintop.

Sto­ries shape our small, every­day lives and make us aware that we are part of a larg­er sto­ry.  Mary Oliv­er cap­tures it much bet­ter:  “It’s the rela­tion­ship of my own mind to land­scape, to the phys­i­cal world — espe­cial­ly to the part of which over the years I have become inti­mate.  It’s no great piece of fur­ni­ture in the uni­verse — no Nia­gara, or rain­for­est, or Sahara.”

ScatterlingsIn his book Scat­ter­lings, tale-teller and mythol­o­gist Mar­tin Shaw touch­es on the clam­or for a sto­ry to fix our bro­ken world:

We hear it every­where these days: time for a new sto­ry — some enthu­si­as­tic sweep of nar­ra­tive that becomes, overnight, the myth of our times.  A con­tain­er for all this eco­log­i­cal trou­ble, this peak-oil busi­ness, this malaise of numb­ness that seems to shroud even the most priv­i­leged … I sug­gest the sto­ries we need turned up, right on time, about five thou­sand years ago.

Those old tales, Shaw adds, “are not wig­gled from the penned agen­da of one brain-rat­tled indi­vid­ual but have passed through the breath of count­less num­ber of oral sto­ry­tellers. What’s more, those sto­ries — told in caves, around bon­fires, and, in my case, at the kitchen table — are stamped with place.

Each after­noon in ele­men­tary school, I did my home­work at the kitchen table.  My moth­er, still in her white cafe­te­ria uni­form, would start sup­per.  Swing­ing my legs as I daw­dled over arith­metic, I’d ask Mama to tell me about the long-ago days.  She was nev­er too tired, even after cook­ing for 300 kids (in the six­ties, lunch­es were cooked, none of this microwave-and-serve stuff), to tell me about her child­hood in the Shenan­doah Valley. 

The time was the ear­ly 1920s and the place was Shenan­doah Coun­ty where every­one had a farm and often a busi­ness in their home: black­smithing, bar­ber­ing, lay­ing out and bury­ing the dead, as my grand­fa­ther did.  I loved hear­ing how my six-year-old moth­er shut her cousin Hap­py in a cas­ket, then skipped off to play (Hap­py was okay, but prob­a­bly scarred for life).  I loved hear­ing about the six pies Mama helped bake every morn­ing — her uncle ate an entire pie with break­fast, lunch, and sup­per.  I loved hear­ing about the tiny horse­shoe the black­smith forged just for her.

I first saw the fabled Val­ley when we attend­ed the funer­als of my mother’s aunts and uncles.  Moun­tains sur­round­ed rolling farm­land; com­mu­ni­ties bound­ed by coun­try church­es.  Preach­ers told sto­ries about the recent­ly deceased, grave­stones told an old­er sto­ry.  It was in the Con­icville ceme­tery — not even a foot­stool in the uni­verse — that I real­ized, like a flare of heat light­ning, that I was born in the wrong time, the wrong place.  I belonged here, fifty years ago.  I was ten and felt the breath of my ances­tors on the back of my neck.

Rela­tion­ship,” says Sylvia Lind­steadt, writer and ani­mal track­er, “starts with long­ing … to fol­low the gleam­ing of what delights you, not just in your mind but in your body.”  I remem­ber lying down in that ceme­tery, my body pressed to the ground, the earth puls­ing beneath me, the sky spin­ning above me.  I want­ed to be rec­og­nized by the grass, the ants, the swallows.

I car­ried this knowl­edge inside me, not even telling my moth­er who I believed was too ordi­nary to under­stand.  She cooked and gar­dened and made our clothes, once sewing a pale yel­low satin ball gown for my old stuffed ele­phant, Ellsworth.  It wasn’t until I was grown and failed gravy that I grasped how Mama’s meals appeared like mag­ic and her nee­dle wove secrets in every stitch.  Too soon, she was gone and so were her stories.

To write Scat­ter­lings, a col­lec­tion of tales from his native Devon, Mar­tin Shaw walked every day for four years in a ten-mile loop from Dart­moor, where he was from, but main­ly of.  “To be of a place,” Shaw says, “means to lis­ten … to trade end­less pos­si­bil­i­ty for some­thing spe­cif­ic.  It means stay­ing when you don’t feel like it … To be of a place, to labor under a relat­ed indebt­ed­ness to a stretch of earth that you have not claimed but which has claimed you.”

I was claimed by Con­icville. It was there the sto­ries I’d lis­tened to came alive. I saw the Home­place, found the barn where my grand­fa­ther had built cas­kets, put my palm against the grave­stone of an ances­tor who fought in the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War, armed only with a pike made by the black­smith. Ordi­nary peo­ple walked that stretch of land, map­less: stay­ing, lis­ten­ing, telling. Mar­tin Shaw says, “The sto­ries are here, but are we?”

I am. I’ve appren­ticed myself to that place. I go when I’m Wal­mart-weary, when I miss the hiss of sum­mer rain on the black­top, when tas­seled corn rus­tles a fall-is-com­ing breeze.  I go to lis­ten, to hear my mother’s voice again, and those voic­es I nev­er knew. 

Mean­while, I walk the land that’s in front of me, step­ping around that stag bee­tle who is try­ing to tell his own story.

Blue Ridge Mountains
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2 years ago

What a beau­ti­ful essay. Thank you, Candice.

candice ransom
Reply to  rebeccaehirsch
2 years ago

Thank you, Rebec­ca, for read­ing it.

2 years ago

Love­ly. Thank you, Candice!

candice ransom
Reply to  Cynthia
2 years ago

Cyn­thia, thanks so much for read­ing this. I love and hate hav­ing the final col­umn for Bookology.

2 years ago

Thank you. <3

candice ransom
Reply to  carolinestarrrose
2 years ago

Car­o­line, I’m such a fan! Thanks for reading!

Norma Gaffron
Norma Gaffron
2 years ago

I am going to print this out and mail it to my young (age 50+) friend in Geor­gia… she is a chil­dren’s book enthu­si­ast, as I am…
Is there NO ONE who will pick up Bookol­o­gy and run with it???? I am too old (90) to do this kind of thing any more…

candice ransom
Reply to  Norma Gaffron
2 years ago

Nor­ma, I’m as heart­bro­ken as you are! I’m a few years younger than you and while I’d be hap­py to write my col­umn and a new col­umn and more, it’s the cod­ing that takes the time and the know-how, or so Melanie Hill explained to me (I had hoped Melanie and oth­er colum­nists could keep Bookol­o­gy going).

Connie Van Hoven
2 years ago

Love­ly essay, Can­dice, about the stretch­es of earth that have claimed you! Makes me trea­sure and long for the ones that have claimed me.

candice ransom
Reply to  Connie Van Hoven
2 years ago

It is hard leav­ing the place that shaped you. I hope that your new places will claim you in dif­fer­ent ways, my Min­neso­ta-Mon­tana-Ari­zona friend!

Charles Ghigna - Father Goose®
2 years ago

Thank you for wak­ing us up and inspir­ing us to take our dai­ly walks … and listen.

candice ransom
Reply to  Charles Ghigna - Father Goose®
2 years ago

Charles, I don’t walk any­place fab­u­lous – two sub­di­vi­sions in Vir­ginia. But there is ALWAYS some­thing new to see and hear and expe­ri­ence – you just have to look … and lis­ten for the qui­et stories.

April Halprin Wayland
2 years ago

Can­dace ~ Your beau­ti­ful­ly observed col­umn had me nod­ding “yes, yes” at each crea­ture, each description. I have always loved try­ing the weird­est thing on a menu and a dif­fer­ent place to trav­el. But, like you, when I dis­cov­ered a hik­ing trail near my home many years ago, I found hik­ing the same trail every week to be a com­plete­ly new expe­ri­ence. Every day I hike it, a new lay­er of “my” trail reveals itself. Each sea­son is dif­fer­ent from the last time I hiked it in that season. I am beyond bereft about the loss of Bookol­o­gy for our com­mu­ni­ty. And though I will point my stu­dents to the… Read more »