Where do stories come from? Why do they surface in our memories at unexpected times and make us want to tell them to anyone who will listen?
In the Blue Ridge Mountains, where I grew up, storytelling is a part of life, like breathing air and swatting mosquitoes.
It originated with the Native Americans, who lived there long before settlers showed up from faraway places and started telling stories of their own.
The storytellers in those mountains were sometimes known as “liars” — not because they were deceitful, but because their stories were often more fabricated than factual. Yet they were cleverly true of the human condition, intended not just to inform, but to entertain and enlighten and inspire.
I come from a family of “liars.” My grandparents and parents, aunts and uncles, dozens of cousins, my blind baby brother, the dogs that slept under the porch, even the fleas that slept on the dogs — we all told stories.
Maybe you do, too. Most of us do. Every place I go, every state, every country, every culture, people will tell me their stories and listen politely to mine.
Why? Stories tell us who we are and how we’re alike. They let us connect and stay connected with one another and ourselves.
I told you all of that to tell you this. My husband I were talking with Henry, our 7-year-old grandson, who is an expert on all things animal. He was telling us about a “tanuki,” a kind of dog that looks like a raccoon.
“It’s one of my favorite animals,” Henry said. “It lives in Japan. Maybe someday I’ll go there and get to see a real one.”
“You will,” I said. “And it will tell you a story that you can come back and tell me!”
He laughed his weasel laugh. It sounds a lot like a weasel.
Suddenly I recalled a day that I never want to forget.
“Wanna hear a story?” I said.
Henry’s eyes lit up. He loves stories almost as much as he loves animals. So I told him how, years ago, while on a speaking trip to Nebraska, I put on everything I had packed in my suitcase and went out in freezing weather at 5 a.m. to stand in a duck blind and watch hundreds of thousands of birds wake up and take wing.
Not just any birds. They were big, graceful, ghostly gray sandhill cranes, 3 to 4 feet tall with a wingspan of 6 feet, and weighing 8 to 12 pounds. I wish you could’ve seen them.
Every spring, for what some say has been 9 million years, a 60-mile stretch along the Platte River (from Grand Island to Kearney to Overton) becomes a stopover for a half million or so sandhill cranes that take a break from their migration to fatten up in the area’s vast cornfields before the long flight north.
“Henry,” I said, “when those birds took off, all those wings flapping together sounded like a train! Can you imagine looking up at a sky filled with hundreds of thousands of giant birds?”
“Whoa,” he said, “that just sounds amazing, Nana!”
It’s fun to impress a 7 year old. I don’t manage to do it often, but when I do, I like it a lot.
While I was telling Henry that story, my husband found some TV documentaries on sandhill cranes and the three of us watched them together.
They were stunning. A picture is, after all, worth a thousand words. But seeing and hearing for yourself is believing. Even in freezing weather at 5 a.m.
Nature is a master storyteller. Birds and valleys and rivers and stars tell tales we need to hear.
Henry said, “Maybe someday I’ll go to Nebraska and get to see those cranes for myself.”
“You will,” I said. “And they will tell you a story that you can come back and tell me!”
He laughed his weasel laugh and added, “And then I’ll go to Japan and see a tanuki.”