Story Walks in the Natural World
The revival of live oral storytelling often goes hand in hand with ethical values of sustainability. Respect for nature as the source of wealth for humans and respect for species in their own right lies deep in Indigenous stories.
The renaissance of storytelling comes as our practical knowledge of sustainability weakens. However the double resource of story walks strengthens creative telling while re-envisioning our place in nature.
Written by Fortellerhuset. Last updated 20. October 2020. Do you want to reuse the content? The contents are licensed for limited reuse
About the tradition and knowledge
There has been a renaissance of oral storytelling over the last 30 to 40 years in the Western cultural world, which is now spreading to countries which have until recently had a stronger immaterial cultural heritage in the oral tradition but where urbanisation is growing and tradition storytelling is being lost.
In many places this revival of live oral storytelling has gone hand in hand with ethical values we can loosely call sustainable. The respect for nature as the source of humanities wealth, and for different species in their own right lies as a foundation in most Indigenous cultures and peoples who live nearer to the land. In many places the clues to stories lie in the land itself and as people migrate these links are weakened or disappear. I have often told stories with immigrants who have effectively forgotten their traditional stories until we begin to work together.
This groundswell of new storytelling with courses, festivals and the increasing use of storytelling in children’s and indeed adult entertainment comes at a time when our understanding of sustainability in our local geography is weakening and thus there is a double resource to be found here. We strengthen our ability to tell stories, use our creativity and the social bonds as we sit together and enjoy a story. At the same time we re-envision our place in the greater scheme of nature. This knowledge of our debt and relation to the rest of nature is fundamental to so many traditional stories globally.
However, ironically the comprehension of such stories becomes harder. How to tell children a story about a donkey who have never seen a donkey, a story of a birch tree when they can no longer recognise the commonest deciduous tree in their own forest?
Fortellerhuset has found a solution to this quandary. During the last ten years we have developed a series of story walks. We are also aware that story walks have been growing other places in Europe notably in cities with Ghost tours, but also as a way of sharing knowledge of nature and sustainability.
To resuscitate a living oral tradition.
To give the audience a direct visceral impression of the world the story is describing. For example, if the story takes place in a forest (as so many stories do) then the story is told in a forest.
To tell stories in a setting where the audience is receiving multiple sense impressions as they hear the story so that their physical and mental cognition are awakened to a level hardly possible in the classroom or theatre.
To bring an awareness and empathy for other living species as a building block for sustainable living and a richer personal life.
To use the Outdoors as an exciting performative arena.
To bring local history to life.
To strengthen local geographical, historical and personal identity.
To pass on the ethical values of our forefathers and foremothers who lived in deeper awareness and respect for their natural surroundings.
To share common traditional knowledge from different cultural backgrounds.
HOW IT WAS DONE
OUR FIRST WALK in 2008 was along the Norwegian Pilgrims way. Since then we have taken around 1000 children every year on this adventure. This is in an area of East Oslo where many young people come from immigrant backgrounds and are not used to walking in the forest. The local Stovner council supported the development of this walk but was sceptical about the ability of the youngsters to sustain a walk of around 7 to 8 kilometres which we proposed should be undertaken whatever the weather forecast predicted.
From the very first day however, this was proved to be an unnecessary worry. We had worked hard to make a walk which is geographically varied, with lovely terrain moving from a stable filled with horses up into the forest, up rocky valleys and out to open rocks and meadow. At the same time, we gave the children a strong narrative drive. They ‘accidentally’ met a medieval pilgrim praying on a bronze-age rock. She shares her (historically true) story. She is undertaking a 7 year long pilgrimage in punishment for her sin in trying to murder her cruel husband. At once the youngsters are not only listeners to a story but become themselves involved. She is grateful to share this dangerous stretch of the way where bandits are common and promises to repay them with gold. Again and again pupils (who are from 10 – 13 years old), share their lunch packs and offer the pilgrim help and comfort.
Parallel with this we tell exciting stories. Per Jostein Aarsand, who has grown up in Stovner, tells some of his own experience when young, and of a pensioner. Øyvind Berntsen, who, at 17 years old, took his fathers gun and began to shoot at Nazi planes on the very meadow where we share our lunch. After lunch Per Jostein also tells the thrilling tale of Olav the Holy. This story of the patron saint of Norway is on the national curriculum but hearing it told in this lively way makes another kind of impact for many of these pupils who have never heard this tale at home but now share it with their fellow countrymen on a dramatic hill-top.
Another level, which becomes more and more important in the walk is the interest in nature. Georgiana Keable, who is in role as the pilgrim, also tells the story of her daughter who was bullied at school, and hated going for walks. But when she heard her mum had a job to walk 250 km of the pilgrim’s way, she begged to come too. In this way she discovered a love of plants that led to her decision to study the medical properties of plants. In this way the children also learn to recognise plants we meet on the way which have been used in medicine for centuries. (see video)
OUR SECOND WALK takes place at the site of the Viking ship burial at Oseberg. Here we have focussed on botanical knowledge and on the story of Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology.
Once again, the children (in this case all 11 and 12 year olds in the Tønsberg area), are brought into the story. They meet a female Victorian botanist, a contemporary of Darwin called Marianne North, and she asks for their help as she has promised Darwin to research which kinds of trees are to be found in this area.
She then shares with them that she has met an extraordinary woman, Clara of Assisi, who has walked all the way from Italy to meet them. They meet Clara in the church, complete with incense and chanting. Here, Clara shares her personal experience of Francis of Assisi. She is down to earth, and the children get to identify with Francis as a rich kid, perhaps not so unlike themselves, who suddenly becomes revolted by the wastefulness and lack of empathy of the society he lives in.
Again, the walk provides a large variety of activities, from the collecting of specimens to walking barefoot, to carving a small wooden amulet, to a last walk in silence.
And the stories also cover a wide span, from the story of Francis to the story of an oak tree to the story of Wangari Maathai, the Nobel peace prize winner from Kenya, to a fairytale about a tree which helps a boy.
THE VOICE OF THE FOREST is a botanical walk Fortellerhuset created on Hovedøya. Here Lineus, the father of botany met a forest elf and explored the beautiful island together with 7 and 8 year olds. (see short video.)
BJERKESIRKELEN is our newest walk, which takes younger classes into a newly created walk in Groruddalen with yet another mix of storytelling, walking, this time with music and dance and a meeting with the local allotment gardeners and forest specialist. (see video)
1. To make these storytelling walks has been no easy undertaking. In effect we are creating a five-hour long performance. The historical, botanical research, and preparation of a varied and realistic programme for the relevant age-group, should not be underestimated. Like much in the field of Oral Storytelling, when it works it looks easy, but a wealth of preparation and prior experience lies behind it.
2. One reason that these walks seem to have a profound effect on the pupils is that the element of walking is a kind of digestion and a chance to discuss the stories. Also, things in their life or thoughts are triggered by the stories or being outside in nature. We have time and again, found ourselves listening to dramatic personal stories, and discussing at a deep philosophical level as we walk from one place to another.
3. Although there are religious figures in several of the walks, we emphasise the common values between different faiths and non-religious ethical organisations. Often Muslim or Hindu children will recognise elements of their own religious up-bringing and we always have one role who is more sceptical to the religious language but adds a parallel more humanist language.
4. We have walked with groups from 25 to 60 children. If the group is smaller each individual child and their questions, reflections or sharing is given more space.
5. While compared to a theatrical performance it is not costly, we are working over many months a year and this has been properly funded. We are extremely fortunate in Norway to have an institution called ‘the Cultural Knapsack’ which finances and plans artistic and cultural experiences for every school child. This organisation in Tønsberg has been our sole funder. For the pilgrims walk in Oslo we have also received funding from a body which works with integration, from Oslo council and other local councils, and from the diocese of Oslo.
6. The participation of the teachers and other adults is important, also for safety reasons. In Oslo we have often invited local pensioners to take part and this means a greater adult to child ratio. But in addition, the other walkers often come with their own stories too of the local area, adding to the richness of the day.
7. We believe that this is an important day for teachers. They have a day with few formal responsibilities, a chance to see their class in a very different setting, and not least, a chance to reflect on the place of storytelling and of a direct experience of nature in a balanced education. During the 10 years of the one walk and the 5 years of the other its hard to recall more than a very few teachers who did not become very engaged in the day.
Here are some responses from teachers:
‘ Our students experienced the Norwegian and European Middle ages, bringing history to life. The pupils said the storytelling was amazing, and I experienced that the classes were very active and showed huge engagement in the material you presented. Storytelling is important for children of this age and can give deep insights. We had a fantastic day in the forest, I would recommend this adventure to anyone who has the chance to participate.’
‘You will search far and wide to find such skilled storytellers. They caught the attention of the children 110% from the first moment.’
Teacher from school in Tønsberg
‘The level of knowledge was really in depth, I was surprised to see the children so engaged and holding their concentration for the whole day.’
Institute for Forest and Landscape, Lars Dalen
Highly skilled practitioners
Within Fortellerhuset, the storytellers who have been practicing this area of storytelling are Per Jostein Aarsand, Charlotte Øster, Georgiana Keable, Alf Martin Lie and Raymond Sereba. Torgrim Mellum Stene has taken part in 'The Voice of the Forest'. We have also worked with Håvard Pedersen, a good example of someone who has been doing this kind of work locally for years. Many guides and museum workers are involved in storytelling outside as well as many ordinary people passing on stories of their local area. We are not aware of other professional storytellers in Norway who have developed this work, though it may well be they exist. We have been inspired by Claire Hewitt from the Scottish Storytelling Centre.
This is a tradition that has been so common, people telling stories in and about their local area, that its hard to pinpoint how its been practiced and learnt. Professional storytellers in the past have often performed outdoors but its some centuries since this happened in Norway. We know little of how the traditional Skald or Bard passed on his (or occasionally her) practice. But from similar practices in other cultures we see that the apprentice was often not formally trained but had to pick it up through patient listening.
In more recent centuries the folk storyteller has of course also told countless stories outdoors in more or less formal settings. Again as far as we know the main form of teaching has been listening and trial and error.
There are various ways in which this practice differs from the more common indoor storytelling.
The voice needs more power.
The natural surroundings may be beautiful but they are also competing for the listeners attention. The way in which the storyteller harnesses the surrounding is a skill which we practice daily. And not least the weather. We tell each year in rain and wind and ice and sun.
The situation we find ourselves in today is really very different from even half a century back. That is the reason for developing this storytelling form.
The in depth knowledge which listeners have today can hardly be compared. Holding up a twig of birch or juniper, its incredibly rare that an Oslo child will recognize it. They will call the birch oak and the juniper pine. The children from outside Oslo are only slightly more knowledgeable. So learning the very fundamentals of the nature which surrounds us lies far more at the heart of this storytelling than it did for our ancestors. However, the joy of this practice is that it shows so clearly how motivated our listeners can be. In this setting, where they have become activated by the drama, the stories, the landscape and the interaction, they long to learn. When we suggest they take off their shoes, they are often shocked, and yet once they do it, its often hard to get the shoes back on again.
Yet behind all this, the basic act of telling stories in nature is something our ancestors must have done for most of the same reasons we are doing it. To pass on knowledge of nature, to pass on respect for one another and for other species, to pass on a feeling of identity and of belonging.
Plan for preservation
Georgiana Keable has published a book called The Natural Storyteller which contains many of the stories we have used. The book, published by the British publisher Hawthorn Press, contains many of the ideas for story walks and for using storytelling as a tool for sustainability. It is selling well and has received 1st prize for Best Green Book and is one of 5 gold medalists in the Moonbean Spirit Awards with 1150 entrants. Georgiana is also increasingly being asked to speak about this work at conferences and festivals. As with the traditional method of training storytellers, listen to a good tale and be inspired, we hope this practice will spread!
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