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