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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Power of Stories

Air Date: Week of

A grey wolf stalks (photo: bigstockphoto.com)

Living on Earth’s winter holiday tradition featuring legends and seasonal stories continues. Storyteller Lee Ellen Marvin joins Steve Curwood to share stories about children and wolves, as well as some tips on becoming a good storyteller.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Boston, this is Living on Earth. Here in New England, we’re deep in the deepest midwinter.For many of us this is a time for reflection, introspection and gatherings with friends and family.It’s a time to look back on the year, and the years and refresh our shared memories and traditions. A tradition we’ve had for many years here at Living on Earth is to feature stories and legends in our midwinter program, and not our usual mix of environmental news, views and reviews. This year we’re looking back into our archives, to find some of our favorite stories and storytellers – and we found Lee Ellen Marvin.

She teaches at Ithaca College, where she’s a strong advocate of the value of the arts to our mental and physical health; and of the power of stories to illuminate the deeper realities of our existence. She had some advice for us on how to become a good story-teller yourself, to amuse and maybe enlighten your own friends and family. And Lee Ellen Marvin chose to entertain us with stories of children and wolves – not the cautionary tale of Red Riding Hood and her grandmother – but other wolf stories both familiar and unknown; both true, and legendary.

CURWOOD: The stories we've heard so far reflect the deep history of traditional cultures. But most stories begin with personal experience and wend their way into legend. In a moment we'll hear a modern story from Lee Ellen Marvin, a teacher and a graduate student of folklore at the University of Pennsylvania. Lee Ellen's tale is one of human experience, about a child's encounter with a wolf. She joins us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. (:28) (@ 49:23) Lee Ellen, I've noticed many cultures have stories about special relationships between children and wolves.

MARVIN: Yes, there are several. One of the most famous is the Roman legend of the creation of the city of Rome by Romulus and Remus, noble children who had been tossed into a river by their evil uncle. And they were rescued by a female wolf who suckled them. Also a bird came and put food in their mouth. Then later they were found by a shepherd and taken in, and they went on to become the famous founders of the city of Rome. There's also the legend of wolf girl, from the ranching days of Texas, about the 1850s. A rancher had gone off to get help while his wife was in labor and she died, giving birth to a girl. And when people came back to the ranch, they discovered that the girl was missing. Years later, they saw a wild girl running with a pack of wolves, and so they had to assume that this was that little child who had been lost to her parents. (131 - 50:30)

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if you could tell us a bit about the story we'll hear today.

MARVIN: This story is a true story about a woman's experience when she was a little girl in the woods of Pennsylvania in 1923. Her name was Tessie Lutz.

CURWOOD: All right. Now let's hear that true story from 70 years ago. Tessie and the Wolf.

MARVIN: It goes like this. In 1923, when Tessie Lutz was just 7 years old, she went out with her father to chop wood. The Pennsylvania forest was covered with snow, and her father's ax sung a steady rhythm: a-cha, cha, cha. Which lulled Tessie. She sat on the wagon bench and played with her doll and thought about Christmas just a few days away.
Then the chopping stopped, and the woods were eerily quiet. Tessie looked up to see her father resting his ax and looking across the clearing. He was watching a beautiful dog, an unusual dog taller and broader in the shoulders.
"What's that beautiful dog, Daddy?"
"Well that's a wolf, honey. They've been gone for almost 50 years, but there it stands."
Tessie's father quietly reached under the bench of the wagon and he pulled out a rifle. As he took aim, Tessie went over and tugged on his jacket. "Daddy -- why are you going to shoot the beautiful dog?"
"It's not a dog, honey. It's a wolf."

Grey wolf in winter (photo: bigstockphoto.com)

"But it isn't hurting us."
The father looked at Tessie, and then at the wolf, and finally at his gun. "Well, I guess you're right. Nothing's been harmed."
He went to put the gun back in the wagon, and finally the wolf took fright, after watching them boldly for quite a while, and he scampered off into the bushes, quickly lost on the darkness of the forest. Then soon it was Christmas Eve. Relatives came pouring into the house, all hustle and bustle, but Tessie was impatient to open her presents. To make the time go faster, she slipped outside to play.
The forest was gloomy in the very last of the evening light. Big clouds hung overhead, and the wind blew hard. But she went into the woods to find her favorite little clearing. And when she got there, the storm let loose. The snow and the wind stole away the twilight. Tessie turned for home but it was dark as night. The wind stung her eyes. And as she struggled against the storm, she couldn't find her way back. Nothing looked familiar. She screamed for her parents, but the wind tossed her words back into her mouth. And she was lost. (4:20)
Finally she fell in a worn-out heap under a pine tree. She was too cold to move, and too tired to care. But something warm and soft and rather heavy fell against her. Tessie opened her eyes long enough to see that beautiful dog, the one her father called wolf, curling around her like a living blanket. Tessie stopped shivering. She wasn't afraid any more, not with the company of the wolf to keep her through the night. Still tired, she snuggled down into its gray fur. And then she leaned her head against the wolf's side. All through the night she was kept warm. And she was rocked. Rocked by the heartbeat of the wolf.
When morning broke, cold and blue, Tessie heard voices calling. "Tessie! Tessie!" The wolf leapt up, shaking snow off its back.
"Here I am! Father! Mother!"
The wolf scampered off, soon invisible in the bushes. Her mother and father rushed into the clearing. "Tessie?"
"Here I am."
"Oh, child, you're still alive! What a miracle!"
"It was the beautiful dog, the one you called a wolf, daddy!"
The parents looked at each other, bewildered, and they looked back at Tessie.
"The wolf was with me. The wolf kept me warm."
"Oh, she must have had strange dreams in the night."
"It wasn't a dream. The wolf ran away when you shouted but look there!" Tessie pointed to a track. A wolf trail, leading in the snow away from the tree where she had spent the night. Her father and mother stared.
"That was the wolf I nearly shot last week, and Tessie saved its life. Well I guess it came back to save your life, Tessie."
Now Tessie lived to be an old woman. And she told her story to her children and grandchildren, for she never forgot that Christmas Eve when she was kept warm, against that bitter storm, and rocked to sleep by the heartbeat of a wolf. (6:43)

CURWOOD: Our guest is Lee Ellen Marvin, a student and teacher of folklore. Stories are wonderful things to hear in the wintertime; I have to confess it's a long time since I walked into a family gathering where people were sitting around listening to a story. It seems like perhaps many of us have forgotten how to do this. What do you suppose we can do to bring storytelling back into our lives, back into our homes, especially at this season?

MARVIN: Well, there's a wonderful book on storytelling how-to, called Creative Storytelling With and For Children, by Jack McGuire. But even more basic, the thing to do might be to go to the librarian in the children's section of your local public library and ask about collections of Christmas stories, or collections of folk tales. And the basic steps to telling a story is, find a story you really love, not just sort of think it's all right, but you've got to love the story in order to work with it. Write an outline of the parts of the story, as few words as possible on one piece of paper. Put the book aside. And spend some time thinking about the events in the story to build up the images. The sights, the sounds, the smells, the textures, the tastes even. And the personal feelings of the characters in the story. Until the story feels as if you had once dreamed it or maybe experienced it years and years ago. And from there, you put it into your own words. And very quickly you'll find that you don't have to struggle to memorize a story. Memory is never a problem once you've got those images in place. And each time you tell the story the words will come out different. And that's appropriate. And that's the basic tool of storytelling.

CURWOOD: All right. I think I'll try it.


CURWOOD: Our guest has been Lee Ellen Marvin. She's a storyteller based in Philadelphia and a PhD candidate, by the way, in the Department of Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania. Thank you so much for joining us.
MARVIN: Thank you for having me.



Lee-Ellen Marvin now works in the Suicide Prevention Crisis Service in Ithaca, New York


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