Students of storytelling

It’s a dark Thursday evening and twenty storytelling students are sitting in a small empty room. Storytelling comes under the Aesthetics department at Oslo University College but anything less aesthetic than this bare room would be hard to find. Utterly soulless, the hum of 20 smartphones and the ventilation, windows you can’t open and selflocking doors you need a code to enter. We start to sing. We sing our way out of this dry and empty room and into another. As we pass nearer or further from one another our voices vibrate together jarring and ringing in the air. They listen to my story and it’s like I can sense their keen visualization in the atmosphere. This kind of ‘teaching’ is a bit like surfing on a wave. I provide a kind of structure but all the time tuning into their energy, their questions, their worries and their great enthusiasm. And the sea that’s carrying me and them is essentially a sea of trust without which none of this can happen.

Something funny happened at the end of the evening. A confident teacher and coach shared her dread of the coming performance with me. I talked about how my own terror abated and how dread can contribute. Then I tried something new. At the next session I want them to open out their stories into a whole days experience for kids. So I splashed up my website on the wall with bits of video from various projects. Ow! Suddenly I found myself very uncomfortable and nervous as if I was painting a huge selfie on the wall. Had to cut it short. So weird the way an image of myself made me feel vulnerable and fake.

Our next session was yesterday. I had given them copies of stories which Marte and I are working on for a book. Of course as soon as they start to work on them they discover the holes. Holes I half knew were there but in the act of telling or preparing to tell they surface. This is going to make this book even more fabulous. Like the woman who was working on the story of Johnny Appleseed picked up on something that has been bothering me. How come Johnny Appleseed went round America planting apple trees when you have to graft apple trees to make them produce proper apples? She had gone home and dived deep into the story of the real Johnny. I called Marte who is a biologist – ‘Johnny was against grafting, so his apples were used for pie and cider.’ Those true life stories are tricky as hell. You are bound to end up lying because as you weren’t there and are not God you have no chance of knowing the truth. But my heart swelled as I saw that lady turn into young Johnny Appleseed boy, pick up a piece of imaginary earth from the horrible aestheticless room and bring it to life, complete with earthworms and the autumn smell of a thousand rotted leaves. M1 The students went to town. They opened up what was just a story to a day where the kids are getting a huge experience which involves maybe 3 or 5 subjects in their curriculum. Whats wonderful, in my experience, is that the children will remember both the story, the knowledge and the day for years. In the story where the King of the Deer turns India vegetarian the students brought in a domestic science teacher so all the kids can learn to cook a good veggie dish. In ‘The First Wolf’ they got all the kids to create their own animal from sticks and moss and bits, and then make their own story in their own setting in the forest. They taught the kids to plant a fig tree, to sow seeds with and without water.  A cornucopia of creativity it was. And they taught us to sing. Again.

Voice of the forest

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESHere is Linneaus before the kids arrive. Note his horn. We wanted a horn to call the kids after they had run out to play.  My mum had an old hunting horn she used to call us in to lunch, so we borrowed it. But would Carl Linneaus, the father of botany, do such a thing? Imagine our delight when we discovered that Linneaus did in fact actually use just such a horn to call his students to botanically thrilling items. Linneaus would then also encouraged his students to call out ‘Vivat Linne!’ – Long live Linneaus! The man had a fairly high opinion of himself. He once said “God created, Linneaus brought order.”

Linneaus (aka Torgrim), met the children for our new project called ‘Skogens Stemme’ or ‘The voice of the forest’ on Hovedøya. This island is in the centre of the Oslo fjord, five minutes boat ride from the town centre and filled with history and rich nature. As he instructed them in Latin, I was hidden up a mighty Ash tree, chuckling to myself as I heard their lusty cries of ‘Vivat Linne!’

I had climbed high up in the tree, sitting on a cushion of green moss, and resting on the broad trunk with my body. Cradled and supported. Hearing the whispers of the leaves in the treetops, louder up here. For some reason I got the image of a kind of invisible blood network going from the tree and into me. And I got questions, big questions of how I come to be alive and why. Then after this immensely long time of about 20 minutes Linneaus comes over and the kids see me and they go kind of demented. You can see some of this on YouTube, filmed by Heli Aaltonen who is researching the project.

By the Ash tree

The strange thing is though Hazel (me) wakes up and says hallo from the tree, Linneaus cannot for the life of him see or hear me. He finds it extremely annoying that the children go into this fantasy world as he sees it.

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Well I understand Linneaus, it is annoying. To see people who are alive and in touch with a living world which at that moment one does not believe exists. Infuriating to see their joy, their relaxation, their contentment whilst you yourself are busy talking to yourself about all the facts that you are sure you know. Pretty soon you may start to feel the world is conspiring against you. The whole world has decided to turn against you! The weather seems against you, the pavement, or the dogs, the buses and perhaps most of all the people.

Poor Linneaus, maybe it’s the medicine of the massive ego? But the enthusiasm of the kids melts him and the sight of his namesake the mighty Linden tree, with leaves shaped in the form of a heart reminds him of a fairy tale. That first day with the kids seemed like a fairy tale to me. A very chaotic fairy tale, a bit out of control at times. A fox joined us – joined the forty 9 year olds and 4 adults and he stayed with us for over an hour. He was young and clear and seemed curious about who we were. He just kept coming back, following us around.  After some time he also realized we could give him bits of sandwich.

Perhaps it was the wand made of Rowan that did it?

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Dead or alive



Dead or alive is the theme and it comes up again and again as we wander from the churchyard to the Viking graves over dead tree stumps and through the whirling living forest.

Marioak 5

He who made it sells it, he who buys it doesn’t use it he who uses it doesn’t know he uses it. What is it? A coffin. A dead person in a dead tree.

They meet me Marianne North, beside an ancient oak in the graveyard. I am a botanist and artist, a contemporary of Darwin and i am here to collect all the species of tree to be found in the area. From the name of the place it was a holy grove of trees long before the church came.

I tell them I’ve met a woman here who owns almost nothing. A nun who has a tiny sack, her simple dress and scarf and who has walked here from Italy. She meets us, tells us about her hero, Francis of Assisi, and her quest to find the huge living beings he spoke about who live in the forest. I agree to help if she and the kids can help me track down all the species of tree, and on the spur of the moment, devise a competition to find the most kinds of seeds.

 

Frans av Asissi 233 But there is also something I confess to the kids. It’s a little strange, I couldn’t tell everyone, but this morning the oak tree spoke to me. I asked it if it was lonely, whether it had children. What contact it has with them and many other secrets it told me. We walk, they’re eager to find and learn. We go through many tests endurances and stories together.

I’ve been preparing for this project most of the summer. Charlotte (who I work with) really loved it from day one. But at the start of the project I felt dead. I could see it was all happening but not feel it, know the meaning. Was I Marianne North? But then, on the third day it came to life. I came to life. Phew! So this project has really been about death and life for me.

Feedback from the kids, spontaneous:round tree sit cu

“Lets pretend we’re ill and dress up as 6C so we can do it again tomorrow.”

“I want to do the whole walk again. Now.”

“I’ve always liked the forest but now I see its full of different trees.”

round tree

“The tree didn’t talk to me but it sang an old-fashioned song.”

“The tree said: Look after nature.”

“The tree said: Don’t cut me down.”

“Shoes are so 2012.”

“Now my feet can feel mother Nature.”

Two 11 year old boys (on different days) ran spontaneously over to a tree and hugged it.Frans av Asissi 133

 

 

 

Floating on a raft

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A hundred years ago a boy was born down here in Larvik. Today we are in the house where he grew up, the most famous Norwegian ever.

He was crazy. At least that’s what they said when he built a raft and WITHOUT EVEN DOING A TEST RUN AT ALL he sat on the raft, trusting it would float in the right direction over the worlds widest ocean. It did and the world cheered. Maybe because it was right after the 2nd world war and people wanted heroism that didn’t involve dead people.

Anyway here I am with the wonderful Charlotte and for the fifth year running I’m putting on the clothes of Thor Heyerdahls mum and pretending to be her. The first thing I say is: “I moved into this house just over 100 years ago.” Every day one or two of the kids, who are 13/14 years old, say, “Is that really Thor Heyerdahl’s mum?”
Charlotte says its because I look 140 years old that they get fooled. Hahaha Charlotte very funny but they also think that you are Thor Heyerdahl’s wife. The fact is we are fantastic actors. OR the kids love to go along with this stuff.

In this somewhat manic programme we tell them about his thrilling life, teach them about climate change, how to grow your own food, how to slaughter chickens, they make a mini story board with solutions to CO2 emissions, and go into role as one of 16 nations experiencing climate change. All in two hours. And then we do it again.

After I change out of Thor’s mums clothes I say “Charlotte what’s the big problem with Climate change? I mean it would be great if Norway got a bit warmer.”
This year for the first time these teenagers are saying “No!” In this country one can no longer ski in the winter as before. But as an oil nation Norway still has a high proportion of deniers. So its great that at last sense is dawning.

When we first started the kids were quite hostile as soon as we mentioned climate. But we have worked out a way that they really get into it. To explore the challenges, the fun and creativity involved in living a life out of the sofa. Finding solutions, we have a lot of laughs as they get in role. They portray a man from South Korea who thinks the solution is becoming vegetarian, a woman from Mauritius who sees sea levels rising, a Tanzanian who worries tourists won’t come because so many of the wild animals are dying.

The solutions the kids come up with can seem a trifle naive. Today as a solution to the growth of the Sahara desert a boy suggested importing earth to plant trees. Where from I asked. Buy it in the garden centre. But that’s all they know. I’m sure to God my solutions seem equally naive. None of them ever suggest buying less crap. But during this whirlwind programme they get more ideas. And its such a thrill when they remember it and talk about it. Planting forests, free public transport, alternative energy, buying less rubbish and more local food.
Yesterday was a boy who really went for it. He put on a super North Sami accent, and in a mixture of rage and begging us to see sense he made us both laugh and feel something about how it is to see their reindeer suffer.

As a Somalian lad said today – “We need to work together.” Or to quoteThor Heyerdahl –  “On this globe it’s like we are living on a raft. We are all together, and together we will either sink or float.”

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The old soldiers

We had 70 lads and lasses walking with us yesterday.

Øyvind  og barn

We always try to have a pensioner too. This is Øyvind Berntsen. He was 90 or 91 when he last walked with us. He had walked in this forest his whole life, and he knew this area when it was still farmland. He said that when he was a kid they never wore shoes all summer. And by the end of the summer the soles of their feet were tough like leather. One of the results of this life is that at 90 he still sprang over the rocks nimbly. Every day he went out for a walk, and every day even in the midst of winter he would bring something back for his wife. Some little twig or stone or whatever caught his eye. This was one of the most romantic couples I’ve ever seen.

One of the funny things that happened with Øyvind is that the first time he came out with us he was speaking a different language than the kids whose parents come from all over the world. A beautiful old fashioned Norwegian I rarely hear. But already by the second time he had modified it. What was in his favour was that he had an amazing story to tell. The day war broke out in Norway, the 9th April 1940 he went down to the corner shop where his friends hung out and heard what had happened. At the time he was 19 and he knew exactly what he felt about the Nazis. He went home, took his dads gun from the shed, snapped on his skis and walked up the valley where we walk with the kids, the Pilgrims way. The ancient motorway to Trondheim. There at the top where we eat our lunch and play he waited. Until he saw the army planes with swasticas on their bellies flying overhead. And he shot. And, luckily, he said, I missed.

The story goes on, including swallowing poison, being wounded and the poison running out in the blood, etc. Great stuff. I could have sat and listened to him for hours, and several times we did.

This week we had a pensioner called Erica. The kids asked how old she was and she said in 16 years she’ll be 100. She said that she was one of a million people the world has forgotten. A German speaking people who had lived for 100’s of years in Czechoslovakia.  As a child she had seen Hitler driving through the streets, making his little Heil. She said he did it like that so no-one would see how short he was. And he would never allow anyone taller than him to stand beside him as he was rather short. At the end of the war everything they had was taken (by Russians? not sure). And then they were put into cattle trucks with no latrines, everyone men women and children of all ages and transported to Germany. Well I had certainly never heard that story before.

She then transfixed us all by telling us how she had then met some negroes (the norwegian word is kind of a mix of negro or nigger). The children, many of them with African background, started giggling. She said that Hitlers propaganda had told them that these people were criminal and without morals, and went round raping people. (more nervous giggling) But then she actually met these people who were extraordinarily kind to her and gave her chocolate, very rare at the time.

She walked with us on the super wet day, the rocks were treacherous. She even fell over once and the kids were trying to help. What a lovely brave old lady.

 

 

 

Walking wet

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This is Per Jostein. Together with him for the last five years we have walked with thousands of 11/12 year old kids on the Norwegian Pilgrims way to Trondheim.

Was I soaking wet today! Wet and barefoot and looking forward to getting home and yet..

I wouldn’t have missed it.

About 40 kids walked today.

I swear, pretty much every day, I just can’t believe how beautiful the kids are and I make new friends. Two boys keen at the front, so open, so strong, so kind. One of them invited me to stay with his family, he gave me a samosa his mum made for his lunch. The other kept winning the gold.

 

Well to back-track a bit, I am a pilgrim from the Middle Ages. I am walking because I am a terrible sinner and I have to walk for seven years outside England to atone for my evil ways. When I meet the kids, I’m so delighted to get company and protection against robbers and wild beasts that I offer gold (you know chocolate gold) to the first who touches one of the pilgrim crosses that mark the way.

This boy kept being the first awake and fast . But did he gulp down all the chocolate himself? No, he ate half of one, otherwise he gave them all away. Another girl this week, when she got one, she just threw it in the air for anyone to catch! That’s the first time that’s happened.

Yesterday there was another girl who also said I could come and stay. She asked me how I wash, I said in streams so she wanted me to have a shower at her flat. She had pain in her stomach since she was a child that girl.

 

What is pain?

I ask them, ‘Should it be easy to walk as a pilgrim?’ That’s one thing they always know the answer to. ‘No.’ they say.

Earlier this week walking barefoot was just pleasure, so warm on the rocks, so soft on the grass. But today, and sometimes when we have walked into October it is HARD. And being from the Middle Ages I’ve got no rainproofs, just the wool cloak. But I am happy now. Yes lucky with a job like this.

very wet pilgrim

The story Marathon

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I took this picture from the end of a 17,5 hour train journey to get to Skellefteå for the first ever Storytelling conference in Sweden followed by a marathon. Was it worth it?

The conference was fantastic, loved sharing my stories with such a lively listening audience.

Then you look at the marathon programme from 12 to 21 with hardly room for breath and are suspicious it may suffocate you.
Christina Claesson starts. She has reworked her story since yesterday and decided to tell only in nouns.

What? Can it work? Especially for me can i fathom a story told only in Swedish nouns? She tells the story on 3 levels. She is quite hot, her eyes wide. She is giving a lot. Nouns are pictures and beneath the gallows tree I see Yggdrasil. Wow, it works, I follow all three levels.

When Ida Junker tells you a story you hardly notice she is doing it. Before you know what has happened she has picked you up and taken you on a journey. You are safe. Its a really enjoyable trip, she points out all the interesting details and you got a gift to take home. Because the story is so clearly told you will remember when you retell.

Abbi Patrix was a joy to hear, Roi Gal Or was so moving, but among all the excellent one storyteller stands out for me that day. Jorgen Stenberg. He seems not a storyteller but a man. A pretty large Sami man. Young. He starts by telling of the men who are his sources. They speak like this he says…………………..

He stands there quite silent staring at us intensely. Sometimes after this kind of speaking the old men say to him – “Well? Answer for hells sake!”

He tells an incredible story of his meeting with a bear. How the bear came nearer and nearer so he could reach out and touch it, so he finally decided to follow the old men’s advice. He warns us this is rude. Then he bends down and holds it in the crutch. It works, the bear stops attacking.

He talks about the Swedish language. It’s a crow language and he squawks in Swedish to demonstrate. We look at one another. Can it be this nice good man hates the Swedish language? He goes on, “Yes, you should be like me,” he says, “speak my language it sounds so much nicer, so much better than yours.”
“That’s what they told my grandparents.”
Oh right yes, thats actually what the Samis were told. For so long. Both in Norway and in Sweden. Your language is ugly, stop talking it. We get it.

Then he tells us how he feels sometimes out on the Vidda. Knowing that climate change, mining, our ignorance and trashing of nature means the life with reindeer, in his family for so long, is drawing to a close. He says he feels so bad he can’t say. He has made a joik. To express the unexpressable.

What a day! Thanks to Rose-Marie, Jonas and all who made such a warm and wonderful festival. The train journey was 21 hours but fantastic trees and breakfast at the Grand Hotel, here is the toilet:

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Stories told in trees

Last weekend ‘Omstilling Sagene’, which may be the first Transition group in Norway arranged a course. The theme was storytelling and trees. After we had sung we sat down and they all said why they were there. One woman said when she was little she used to cry if a tree got hurt. She went out and tied wool round trees due to be cut down, hoping to save them. Someone else had been to a performance in a tree house. They thought the tree would be damaged so they put a wire round the branches to support it. But instead of being pulled down the tree lifted up its branches even higher. It turns out that trees get stronger roots when they’re blown by the wind and someone said the same is true for us. Someone said he had heard of a man who had threatened to burn a tree and then measured that the tree sent out water to protect its leaves. Someone else had played in a forest which had then been cut to the ground. Since that time they felt betrayed by trees and scared of forests. Another was an artist but found trees almost impossible to paint, she was also allergic. Everyone, it seemed, had some kind of attitude including the woman who had been born in the far North where trees don’t grow and said she couldn’t care less about them but had just come for the storytelling.
Everyone got a written story about a tree and without going into all the details we worked with those stories pretty much the whole weekend.

tree story collage tree story collage OJ Tree telling

We told stories to trees (in pairs so as not to look mad to passers by).

We ate trees, everyone brought food which came from trees.

We became trees at least we imagined becoming trees.

We sensed our roots and we listened to stories of people appearing out of trees or being helped by trees. Everyone told beautifully. The woman who said she didn’t care about trees said she realised she did care about trees and she would never deny this again.

The story of Evolution..

The world was covered in slime for about 2.6 billion years, and out of that slime tiny one-celled organisms were created. Then it only took one billion years for those one celled organisms to join together to develop into bacteria, then fish, trees and dogs, us.  This shows that  fundamentally the trees are our great grandfathers and grandmothers, we are distant relatives of trees with common ancestors of bacteria and small one celled beings.

And it makes sense, why else would we be so very like trees?

We all come from seeds. We humans are covered in a layer of skin. The tree is covered in a skin of bark. We have blood and the tree has blood called sap. We have a trunk the tree has a trunk. On the top of our head is a crown, the crown of the tree is high up in the air. Beside our heart are two lungs, they look like small trees. When we breathe out the tree breathes in and when the tree breathes out we breathe in. 

By the way there is a week this summer telling stories and singing in Transylvania, Roumania  – see Forestgarden

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Multi-language storytelling, videos, and telling outside

Geo and Mohi fruit
Here is Mohi, we are telling in two languages, Somalian and Norwegian. This guy is a find! He knows more about Somalian stories than any of the five or six somalians I have worked with the last years. They seem to have two main characters, the terrifying cannibal witch Dhegdheer, and the absurdly lazy Egal Shidal. To hear the witch story with a fantastic cartoon made by kids check Dhegdheer. There its being told by a talented Somalian slam poet Jamal.

My plate is piling up with stories. Fat ones, thin ones and tall gangling ones with leaves on. For more about this see my new website. Not completely finished but what website ever is? www.georgiana.net

Tongues in trees

Title stolen via Malcolm Green from Ashley Ramsden.

So we have spent nine days. Nine full days with nineteen children from five to seven. Nine days intensive. Nine days in the forest becoming intimate with four trees.
First the birch, crisp and silver and maidenly. Pretty as a birch tree as the Russian fairy tales have it. And after the Russian tale was told that first day in May the bubbling of them as they ran up and recognised her, the pink inner bark, checking the colors of their own skin against hers.
birch
Second the fir. Tallest and male and what a clear water we walked beside to visit them. Playing with his cones.
jonas cone
Third the willow. The shrill whistles, soft pussy seeds, bending and planting her branches to thrive again.
twigs

And then the rowan. And she won the children’s hearts. Her red clustered berries, seven, eight, nine leaved leaves, her magic wands. wandShe they climbed most, her smooth shiny nutty bark they loved to cut.

Cut. Cutting with sharp knives they cut clarity into their minds.

I was working with Eva Bakkeslett. She has long long experience working with children to open their hands to the living art which nature pushes out of the ground each moment. I too have a long history watching the play of the small ones, putting in my oar in to spur them further.

But play of words has taken over the last years, story has taken over, now what delight to reenter the riches of craft leaf and twig. blow fire