Updated: Dec 9, 2020
Welcome to my little November lockdown project where, each week, I post about a particular tree, plant, place, element of the outdoors etc that is accessible to everyone during our time outside over the coming month. I'll be talking about some of the fascinating folklore associated with each week's chosen element, will recommend and link you to a particular story, and I'll also share some of our favourite outdoor storying ideas and activities for you to try out when you next slip outside for some much needed fresh air and exercise!
It's basically all about encouraging you to create a 'folktrail ' for yourselves - a kind of story-orientated walk - for you to enjoy when you are next outdoors!
For adults, this might take the form of enjoying listening to the story while sat under the relevant tree - relaxing and meditating on all you might draw from the story and pondering which bits feel most relevant to life that day or the world at large. (I'm hoping that it will also inspire you to listen to a few more folklore podcasts, to return home and cook up some story-informed feast or even perhaps become as obsessed as I am about subjects such as tree lore, natural navigation and the healing power of plants!) For kids and families, my plan is to provide you with a focus for your walks that can feed your love of story, inspire your outdoor play, fill you with curious facts and encourage some new and unique outdoor adventures for everyone!
THIS WEEK'S FOCUS - ANIMALS OUTDOORS
Now this is slightly trickier than trees! It's hard to find a fox along your walk. But this week is not actually about seeing and spotting certain creatures when you are outdoors - more about increasing your awareness of them just being there - somewhere - acknowledging their presence, their perspective and their importance in the bigger scheme of things!
Several years ago, I read Charles Foster's 'Being a Beast'. This is a book in which a 'normal' man 'sets out to know the ultimate other': the creatures that live alongside us. How? Well he tries to be like them - badger, otter, fox, deer, and even swift. This man actually eats earthworms, catches fish in his teeth, has his clothes pinched when he's swimming with the otters and gets pulls out of a bush by a policeman on one particular urban adventure...
I've never forgotten it. Aside from being entertainingly bizarre and providing the perfect material for a quick comic story, it also, more positively, encouraged me to start actively considering the wild world around me as a 'home' - a place where other creatures actually live. I started thinking about what they got up to when I wasn't there. I started looking for their hidey holes, their tracks, their unfinished dinners. From that point on, I sought to slip out of my body (bear with me - I'm not claiming to be a shaman) and imagine how things might look, and things might be, to a creature that happened to appear on or near the path I walked. It's not only an incredibly mindful practice that distracts and relaxes, but also a lesson every time that the natural world is carrying on as usual. It prompts us to quit with the narcissistic self-indulgence that is wondering only about ourselves as we walk, and turn towards other tiny lives that really need us to take a proper look - case in point: Guardian article 'Birds are keeping me sane, we need to do more to protect them'...
Animals in folklore
Wow - this is an enormous topic! Talk about biting off more that you can proverbially chew. I'll give it a quick bash though so you've got some fun facts to fling about on your next walk outdoors...and also, more importantly, as Terri Windling points out on her blog Myth and Moor, Ruth Padel reminds us in her essay 'Into the Woods' to consider "What would Robin Hood have made of recent excavations into the fantasies of British 7-to-14-year-olds concerning the wild life and wild places of their native land? Two thirds had no idea where acorns come from, most had never heard of gamekeepers (do they mug people or protect the Pokemons?), and most believed there were elephants and lions running round the English countryside."
Which is concerning and needs to be remedied!
It’s not that the folklore I’m about the share is any less fantastical, but what’s key is that it gives kids and adults alike a glimpse into how important our native wildlife was to people – to embody, reflect or be connected to themes of human existence like finding your way in the world, struggling against the negative, thinking, feeling, dreaming...surviving and thriving!
So, quick fire animal folklore: did you know...the fox is often the trickster (so my story this week is a welcome change!) but they also have magic associated with them - did you know that the Finnish fox can conjure the Aurora Borealis when it's fur touches the snow? Badgers apparently bring bad luck and are omens of death but at the same time they can protect you from witchcraft, you just need to gather some badger hair in a bag made from the skin of a black cat and tie it around your neck when the moon is not more than seven days old (apparently). Some say the hare is the messenger of a Great Goddess and that rabbits represent the gift of fertility (who would have guessed that?) In Celtic tribes it was taboo to eat hare because it would be tantamount to eating your own grandmother, and you'll all be familiar with the Anglo-Saxon's goddess of the moon Eostre who is often depicted with a magical egg-laying hare/rabbit providing the gifts for the spring fertility festivals - aka the Easter Bunny! Then there's the crow - which some say is actually the Morrighan (Celtic goddess of war) and the raven associated with prophecy, transformation and is, of course, a stealer of souls (my two favourite ravens Huginn and Muninn ("thought" and "memory") belonging to Norse God Odin! We ought not to forget the common mouse - so cute, yet mice are often viewed in mythology as the embodiment of impure, chthonic forces, sometimes even inhabited by unclean spirits and demonic creatures. (That word by the way means connected to the underworld!)
If we want to get kids interested in the outdoors again and even better connect ourselves, then we need to ‘recapture the magic’! My girl’s ears prick up when I start to tell them a story about how badger hair was through to protect you from witchcraft – they yell ‘no way!’ at me and giggle but they’ve remembered the badger and it doesn’t take long before they start scouting for a set! In the brilliant book ‘Hag’ that I’m reading at the moment, Carolyn Larrington talks about how ‘human existence often calls for exploration through the imagination’ and that’s what’s happening here. Story is a step towards a better connection and a better experience with the great outdoors!
I've barely really begun - ha! Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, here's a story where the fox isn't busy tricking anyone. It is a Cree story; a First Nation's people who live in Canada. It is simple, it is beautiful and it feels very relevant today.
STORY #3: THE CURING FOX
In this week's blog, I've asked the wonderful storyteller Nana Tomova if I might share the first story she ever told on her podcast - the story of The Curing Fox.
Outdoor storying ideas for adults
Listen to the audio story above: on your walk this week spend some time considering what this story is telling us. Could it be related to our current Covid crisis?
Have you ever tried working with birdsong on in the background? Try it - pop the RSPB's Birdsong Radio on quietly in the background.
When you walk make a point of noticing where the animals were, are and will be later...
Browse this BBC article to find out more about the restorative effect of natural sounds.
Animal tracking is great fun whatever age you are. Hone your skills with this app: Mammal Mapper. Enjoy building a library of the creatures you have encountered and you can even contribute towards the survey! You can follow The Mammal Society on Instagram as well. If you really start to get into this tracking business, you might enjoy following Jonah Evans (we did when we visited America last year),
Find out more about the folklore attached to our wildlife and wild places by following some of the fab folklorists out there. If you are on Instagram check out @legendsofbritain and @thefolklorepodcast and if you are on Twitter then look for @folkloreandlegends !
Outdoor storying ideas for kids
Walk the story above: I really recommend playing this story before you venture out. Ask the children whether they think the fox cured the girl or the girl cured the fox, and perhaps even ask them if this is a good story for a Covid lockdown.
Build a den: Discovering animal dens is always extremely exciting and creating your own is also awesome. There are some brilliant instagrammers out there to follow for tonnes of ideas about what else you might get up to when you're outdoors - try @ladybirdsadventures for a start!
Bird identification: we're giving this BirdNET app a go during November lockdown - see what you think!
Art: Create your favourite creatures using natural materials.
Nature Detective: the Woodland Trust have a great selection of activities and resources to provide everyone with plenty of ideas about what they can get up to in the outdoors! It's now called 'Tree Tools for Schools' and you can check them out here! Look at the 'animal' section!
Outdoor adventuring: Visit the wonderful Go Wild Go West's blog for inspiration here!
Little ones might like to listen to more animal tales and lots can be found on Storynory.
Let's share these adventures!
One thing that this year has really done for us is to create powerfully supportive online communities and I'm keen to keep sharing all the incredible adventures that people are having - even when those adventures are a little more local! So make sure you tag @thewildofthewords on Instagram and Facebook. At the end of November, we'll choose a winning picture and create an extra special tailor-made personal podcast focusing on a story selected especially for our winner and including tips on a wide range of fantastic outdoor activities that can be connected to the tale in question!
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