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

December 16, 1994

Air Date: December 16, 1994


Native American Winter Tales / Joseph Bruchac

Storyteller Joseph Bruchac shares stories from the Iroquois and Abenaki traditions with yarns about a constellation of winter stars, and the singing of chickadees. According to Bruchac, these traditional tales provide both entertainment on long dark winter nights as well as information about ecology and the need for respect among all living things. (09:30)

Evergreen Triumphs Over Ever Greed / Diane Edgecomb

Diane Edgecomb, accompanied by musician Margo Chamberlain, tells a British story about two brothers. One is content with hard work and nurturing the plants and animals around him, the other only wants to exploit what surrounds him. The nurturing brother is rewarded for his attitude, while the greedy brother gets put in his place. Edgecomb also tells a Cherokee myth about how the evergreen trees got to be that way. (11:10)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1994 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or transmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: Ley Garnett, Doug MacPherson, Erin Hennessy
STORYTELLERS: Joe Bruchac , Diane Edgecomb

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living On Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

For some, the arrival of the winter solstice signals the beginning of the season of storytelling. This week, we take some time out from the rush of world events and spend some time just listening to stories.

BRUCHAC: The story goes that long ago, Grandmother Moon looked down on the Earth and was not happy with what she saw. She said, "Life on Earth must end." Now the good mind, who was always a defender of the people, he said to his grandmother, "Grandmother, is there no way we can prevent this from happening? She said to him, "I will tell you what. We will play the bowl game and the one who wins will decide whether or not life will continue."

CURWOOD: Winter stories and tall tales from the Native American and European cultures, this week on Living On Earth, coming up right after the news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living On Earth news, I'm Lisa Mullins. Federal officials used false claims of national security to shield themselves from bad publicity and lawsuits while conducting human radiation experiments in the 1940s and 50s. That's the finding of a Presidential Advisory Panel, which reports that high-level officials of the Atomic Energy Commission, now the Department of Energy, were involved in the cover-up. The Presidential panel also found evidence that soil and water contamination around nuclear facilities was kept secret, along with the potential dangers to employees, so as not to damage the public prestige of the Atomic Energy Commission.

An aggressive and costly plan intended to help reverse the salmon slide toward extinction has been approved by an agency representing 4 northwestern states. The Northwest Power Planning Council wants the Federal Government to modify the operation of dams in the Columbia River Basin to benefit the fish, even though it comes at a cost to local industries. Ley Garnett of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

GARNETT: The Council's new plan would drastically change the way Federal agencies operate hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River system. The idea is to restore the rivers to more like pre-dam conditions. The most controversial measure calls for draw-downs of river reservoirs during salmon migration seasons. The dry-downs increase the flow of the rivers, and environmentalists say they will make the rivers run faster and colder, more like what the salmon are used to. Northwest industries vehemently oppose draw-downs because they make river navigation impossible and increase the cost of electricity. While the Power Planning Council's proposal is only advisory, the National Marine Fisheries Service has endorsed it and it is under a Federal judge's order to revise its salmon recovery plan by the end of January. For Living On Earth, I'm Ley Garnett in Portland, Oregon.

MULLINS: After 70 years of planning, China has begun construction on the world's biggest hydropower project. The Chinese government says the 600-foot-high, 3 gorges dam will fuel an economic boom in central and eastern China. But the dam will also submerge the homes of over a million people and flood one of China's most natural landmarks, the 3 Gorges Region of the Yangtze River. Many environmentalists and some international funding agencies fear the multi-billion-dollar project will be an ecological and financial disaster.

Thirty-five years ago, the US Department of Agriculture bought the bulk of the cranberry harvest in Massachusetts and then doused the berries with poison and threw them away. Now, Bay State officials are suing the department for the environmental mess that followed. From WBUR in Boston, Doug MacPherson explains.

MacPHERSON: Just before Thanksgiving in 1959, the USDA issued a warning that pesticide residues had been found on cranberries. Although the government quickly retracted the report, the cranberry market crashed. To keep growers from bankruptcy, the government bought the entire crop at $10 a barrel and dumped it in various landfills. But according to John Beling of the Massachusetts Attorney General's Office, Federal officials were concerned that some growers might try to steal back their cranberries in order to sell them a second time.

BELING: In order to prevent this, according to some testimony that we've heard, the USDA ordered that the cranberries be sprayed with kerosene.

MacPHERSON: One of the kerosene-laden landfills was in North Carver, Massachusetts. In 1986, tests of the area's groundwater turned up traces of benzene, a carcinogen often present in petroleum products, including kerosene. Massachusetts recently issued formal notification that it will sue the USDA unless the government picks up the estimated $10 million clean-up cost. For Living On Earth, I'm Doug MacPherson in Boston.

MULLINS: Wildfires decimated millions of acres of western forests last summer. Now the Federal Government is proposing changes in the way it manages woodlands in the West, in an effort to keep such fires from happening again. From KPLU in Tacoma, Washington, Erin Hennessy reports.

HENNESSY: The recently released US Forest Service proposal lays out more than 300 projects to deal with the health of forests in 11 western states. Plans include harvesting, controlled burning, and salvaging some of the timber hit by last summer's wildfires. But Agency officials admit the report is vague, with no workable definition of forest health, the program's main goal. Environmental groups are particularly alarmed about one recommendation that would allow logging in more than 105,000 acres of roadless areas. However, timber industry groups and their supporters say the proposal is headed in the right direction, and hope that eventually it will boost timber harvests. For Living On Earth, I'm Erin Hennessy in Tacoma.

MULLINS: In a discovery that some researchers are comparing to finding a live dinosaur, Australian scientists say they found a type of tree thought to have been extinct for 50 million years. The pine trees, previously believed to have disappeared with the dinosaurs, were found recently in a national park outside of Sydney. So far, only 39 of the living fossils have been found, making it one of the world's rarest plants. Botanists say the trees are direct descendants of a type of conifer that was widespread in the Cretaceous era.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

Back to top

(Theme music up and under)

Native American Winter Tales

CURWOOD: This is Living On Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The darkest time of the year has inspired myth, folklore, foreboding and celebration for probably as long as humans have been aware of seasonal changes. It's also inspired stories. In fact, in many traditions, winter is the season of storytelling. This week on Living On Earth, we're going to leave behind our usual explorations of the dizzying events and controversies of the world, and spend some time just listening to stories.

BRUCHAC: Long ago, the Iroquois people say there were 7 boys who wanted to do just as their fathers did. To have a special medicine lodge society. In such a lodge, they would play a drum and they would dance and sing and they would have a great feast afterward, and so they went to their parents and told them what they wanted to do. But their mothers and their fathers, they laughed at those boys: "You are too young to do this sort of thing! Go and play some other game that children play."

Those boys became very angry. They began to walk out of the village, and as they walked out, an old man was there near the edge of the village holding a drum. He said to them, "Here. You can have this drum." They took that drum, and they continued on until they reached a place on the other side of a hill and there began to dance and sing, louder and louder, so loud that the sound of their dancing and singing reached back to the village. And their mothers and fathers hearing it, said, "Who is having the meeting of a medicine lodge society? Who could that be?"

They followed the sound of the drum. They came to the hilltop and they looked down and they saw those 7 boys dancing in a circle, playing the drum and singing. But they were so angry that as they danced and sang, the power of their singing and dancing was such that their feet were no longer touching the ground. Higher and higher they danced, higher and higher. Their parents called out to them, but they continued to dance. Although it is said that one of the smallest ones looked back and fell down as a shooting star.

The others danced right up into the sky. They dance there to this day, those 7 dancing boys that are now called the Pleiades by European people. But those are those boys from long ago, whose parents did not respect them.

CURWOOD: Joe Bruchac, thanks for joining us on Living On Earth.

BRUCHAC: Mm hm. Thank you.

CURWOOD: You're a storyteller. You're a writer. You live in Greenfield Center, New York. That's in the foothills of the Adirondacks. And you're a member of the Abenaki Nation. But you also have roots in other traditions, too, right?

BRUCHAC: Yes, Slovak and English, that's also part of my ancestry.

CURWOOD: Well those all have some pretty strong oral traditions. And perhaps, not coincidentally, some long winters.

BRUCHAC: Well, winter is the time for telling stories in many traditions, especially for the Native people of this continent. Because the days were very short and the nights were very long, it was a good time to tell stories. And you would need a good story to get you through those long nights. It's also true that the stories were not supposed to be told in the summer. For example, a good story is so powerful that everything wants to listen to it, including the snakes who are awake in the summer time. So if you don't want snakes in your house, you don't tell these traditional stories when the days are long.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Okay. What gave you this bug? Why do you tell stories?

BRUCHAC: I was raised by my grandparents. And although my grandfather, who is Abenaki Indian, did not tell traditional stories, he ran a little general store and a gas station and people would come there and sit around the potbellied stove and trade tall tales. Usually from the Adirondack traditions. And I think if you grow up around elders and you listen, in a way you can't help but become a storyteller.

CURWOOD: Can you tell us another one? Maybe something from the Adirondacks?

BRUCHAC: Well, one story that we tell, which is called a tall tale, although I believe it really happened, is how Bill Greenfield and his father went hunting one winter, right around the winter solstice. They went out and it was so cold, they looked up in the trees and they saw the birds were frozen to the branches with little frozen songs coming out of their mouths. They walked on a little further and they saw a rabbit, and that rabbit was just sitting there still as could be, staring off in to the distance. They walked up to it and they saw that rabbit was frozen solid. And just over its head there was a fox hanging in mid-air, just about to land on that rabbit. So Bill, he kind of reached out and turned that fox a little bit to the right so it wouldn't land on the rabbit and the rabbit would have a chance to get away when they finally thawed out.

Then they tried to build a fire. But it was so cold every time they lit a match, that match would freeze solid. But Bill, being the frugal kind, broke the tips off of each of those matches and saved those little frozen flames. And for years after that, any time he wanted to make a fire, all he had to do was thaw out one of those frozen flames.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Oh, that's a great one. Anything else you'd like to tell us from your Native American tradition?

BRUCHAC: This is a story that again comes from the Iroquois people. The great midwinter ceremony takes place traditionally at the solstice time of the year, although nowadays it takes place in January. They've moved it so it doesn't compete with Christmas. And at that solstice time, when the 7 dancing stars are in the exact center of the sky, they play a game called the bowl game in which you put a number of stones, painted black on one side and white on the other, into the bowl, shake it, and depending on how they come up facing black or white, you either score a point or you fail.

The story goes that long ago, Grandmother Moon looked down on the Earth and was not happy with what she saw. She said, "Life on Earth must end." Now the good mind, who was always a defender of the people, he said to his grandmother, "Grandmother, is there no way we can prevent this from happening? She said to him, "I will tell you what. We will play the bowl game and the one who wins will decide whether or not life will continue."

So the good mind went to the chickadees. He said to them, "My friends, I want you to help me." And he told them what he needed. And they said, "Of course. You can borrow our heads, which are black on one side and white on the other, put them in the bowl, and we will do what we can." So when the good mind took the bowl and he shook it, the chickadees flew up, their heads flew up looking just like little black and white stones, singing in mid-air. They flew around and then they landed and gave him a perfect score.

So it was that he won, and life on Earth continues. And so it is to this day that in the middle of the winter, you could hear the chickadees singing and celebrating the continuance of life.

CURWOOD: I guess I'll never look at the chickadee the same way again. You know, Joe, one thing that always intrigues me about Native American stories is - and those from other traditional cultures - is the way that you see the natural world in sort of human terms. Anthropomorphic, I think, is the long word. That the elements, that animals and plants have human qualities. And that's very different from the way that we generally see things in the modern world.

BRUCHAC: Well, the thing about traditional stories is that they remind us everything is alive and deserving of respect. And those stories have on the one hand the purpose of entertainment, but the reason they entertain is so that the lessons they teach will come across that much stronger. So if animals and plants are seen as being the equal and just as important as human beings, we're teaching a lesson that we need for survival. That was how my ancestors see it, and that is how I still see it to this day.

CURWOOD: Joe, we're just about out of time, but I saw you brought your beautiful drum. Could you do something with that for us?

BRUCHAC: What I want to share with you is actually a tradition from the Abenaki people, a tradition that is still carried out to this day. At this time of year, the December solstice, it was the time when people went from house to house greeting each other. And what they would say when they greeted each other this time, what they would say was, "An halom mawi, casia palwea walang." Which means, "Forgive me for any wrong I may have done you in the past year." And that was then followed by a friendship song and a friendship dance bringing back into the circle of life forgiveness and respect restored. So I want to share with you that traditional friendship song. And its translation is very simple. It basically says, "I like this, and I like that." And that idea of caring for the people and the living things around you is at the center of the friendship song.

(Beats drum) We gai waneaaaa, we gai waneaaa, we gai waneaaaa, we gai waneaaa...

CURWOOD: Joe Bruchac, thank you very much.

BRUCHAC: Wole wanea, thank you.

Back to top

CURWOOD: Joe Bruchac is a storyteller from New York State. He's also the co-author, with Michael Caduto, of the new book, Keepers of Life: Discovering Plants Through Native American Stories and Earth Activities for Children.

(Music up and under)

Evergreen Triumphs Over Ever Greed

CURWOOD: With us now in the studio is a horse goddess. Hello.

EDGECOMB: (Laughs) Neeeeeigh!

CURWOOD: Actually, this is Diane Edgecomb and she's a horse goddess and all kinds of things as she tells her stories. Thanks for joining us.

EDGECOMB: Hello. It's a pleasure to be here, Steve.

CURWOOD: Well, you use stories to explore the human connection to the natural world, and our estrangement from nature. That's why we've invited you here to the show. Tell us about the story you're going to tell now.

EDGECOMB: This first story I would like to share is actually collected by Ruth Tong, and she collected it from a man in Pittminster in England. And it's a Wassail story. And within the story there is a tree spirit called the Apple Tree Man, which we don't encounter very often now. But the Apple Tree Man was always responsible for the fertility of the entire orchard, so you can see that the Apple Tree Man was very important.

CURWOOD: Oh, yes.

EDGECOMB: And in the old days, instead of just Wassailing each other and getting drunk, people would actually do something to ensure the fertility of the orchard. They would have Wassail traditions. And include the natural world.

CURWOOD: Okay, well I'm ready if you are.

EDGECOMB: (Laughs) Yes, I am.

(Harp music plays; women sing: "Wassail, Wassail, all over the town. Our toast, it is white and our ale it is brown. Our bowl, it is made of the white maple tree. With a Wassailing bowl we'll drink to thee. Drink to thee! Drink to thee! With a Wassailing bowl we'll drink to thee.)

EDGECOMB: This is a tale of a hard-working chap, eldest in a big family, see? And so, when his dad die, there weren't nothin' left for he. Youngest gets it all! And youngest do give bits and pieces to all his kith, but - youngest don't like eldest. All he do give eldest is his dad's old donkey, and an ox that was so skinny it was pretty much gone to anatomy. And his grandfer's old tumble-down cottage with its two dree ancient old apple trees. Only problem is, cottage doesn't have any roof. Only problem is, apple trees don't bear no fruit. But eldest don't grumble. No, sets to work. And he cuts the grass along the lane and feeds it to donkey and donkey starts to fatten. And he rubs old ox with the herbs and says the words for healing. And ox do pick himself up and walk smart. And then the eldest do turn those two beasties out into the orchard. And then those old apple trees flourish a-marvel.

Well one day, into the orchard came the youngest, and he says, " 'T'will be Christmas Eve come tomorrow when all the beasts do talk at midnight. Now I've heard tell and you've heard tell that there's a treasure buried hereabouts. And I'm set. I'm going to ask your donkey where the treasure is buried, and he mustn't refuse to tell me the truth, not on Christmas Eve. Now eldest, you wake me up just afore midnight. I'll take a whole sixpence off your rent."

Come Christmas Eve, the eldest don't forget the animals. He gives old ox and donkey a bit extra. And he fixes a bit of holly in the stables. And then he takes his last mug of cider, and he warms it and mulls it by the fire. And when it's warm and inviting, he outs to the orchard to Wassail the old apple tree. (A flute plays.) (Sings:) "Old apple tree, we'll Wassail thee, and hoping thou wilt bear. The Lord shall know what we shall need to be merry another year. So grow well and so bear well and so merry let us be. That everybody lift up a cup - (Laughs) - here's health to the old apple tree!" And he takes and throws the last of the cider on the old apple tree. "Good health to you, old apple tree!" And the Apple Tree Man within the tree, he looks out and speaks to the chap. "You take a look under this gurt dickety root of ours."

So the eldest looks under that gurt dickety root. And the hard earth moves aside like it's sand. And he finds a small box, and within it, golden coins.

"You take it, and hide it, and bide quiet about it. 'Tis yours and no one else's."

So eldest does just that. And when he's finished, it's almost midnight. And he goes to wake up his dear younger brother. Well his younger brother wakes up and he's all in a hurry, push. He rushes out in his nightshirt with his hair all every which way. And sure enough, when he gets to the stables, the donkey is a-talkin' to the ox: "You know this gurt greedy fool? A-listenin' to us so unmannerly? He do what we should tell him where the treasure is."

"And that's where he's never gonna get it," say the ox. "For somebody have a-tooked it already."

And the two animals, in concert, lifted their tails.

(Harp music plays. Women sing: "Oh here's to the ox and to his right horn. Pray God send my master a good crop of corn. And a good crop of corn that may we all see. With a Wassailing bowl we'll drink to thee. Drink to thee! Drink to thee! With a Wassailing bowl we'll drink to thee.")

CURWOOD: Well, that was terrific! Thank you. Diane Edgecomb is our guest here. She's a storyteller. I love stories, of course being in radio. In the news business, even, we call it a story; it gets edited. I think it's an essential part of us as human beings to tell these stories. But you tell stories about nature. Why in particular stories about nature?

EDGECOMB: Well, I think storytelling is such a connecting medium, and it really was a way for me to bring children and other people into a different relationship to nature through story. I could teach children, you know, the names of different birds and animals and processes. And stories are really the smallest unit of meaning, too, so I could in a way try and get them to see new meanings in the natural world.

CURWOOD: But much of your repertoire actually is for adults.

EDGECOMB: Yes. I think that that's because I'm also trying to make links for myself. Once I grew up and stopped climbing trees and building forts and I felt this loss of connection. And I had a few experiences, I think, that made me realize that I could find a medium, which turned out to be storytelling, that I could use to reconnect myself, and that needed to be in an adult form through seasonal folktales.

CURWOOD: Seasonal folk tales. Now, Joe Bruchac has just told us that the winter time invites storytelling. You're saying that adults need stories to unfreeze us in some fashion?

EDGECOMB: Yes. And the Wassail bowl can unfreeze you, too. (Laughs). But yes, a sense of community is really established through that, because it's not just the storytelling creating the story. It's the entire group of people having these images live in their mind's eye.

CURWOOD: Diane Edgecomb, we have time for just one more story. Do you have one that you could tell us?

EDGECOMB: I would really love to tell this Cherokee myth. It's a beautiful one for this time of year, and when I'm driving down the highway and I see the poor trees with no leaves and I see a few evergreens, I think of this story and I hope other people will as well.

When the plants and the trees were first created, they were given a task: to stay awake for 7 days and 7 nights. Now the first day and night, all of the plants and trees stayed wide awake and the second night as well. But by the third night, and the dawning of the fourth day, many of the small plants and some of the trees were falling fast, fast asleep. Who would be able to stay awake for 7 days and 7 nights?

But on the seventh night, and on the dawning of the eighth day, there stood the cedar, the pine, the spruce, the fir, the hemlock, the holly, and the laurel. "You have endured," a voice said, "and you shall be given a gift. All of the other plants and trees will lose their leaves and sleep the winter long, but you shall never lose your leaves. You will provide a shelter to the birds during the harshest winds, and you will remind the people that even during the darkest times something remains. You shall be evergreen."

CURWOOD: Thank you very much. Diane Edgecomb is a storyteller. Thanks for coming by with your accompanist, Margo Chamberlain. Thank you so much for joining us.

EDGECOMB: Thank you very much for bringing us here.

Back to top

(Harp music up and under)

CURWOOD: This week's program was produced by Peter Thomson and Kim Motylewski. Our production team also includes Jan Nunley, Julia Madeson, Jessika Bella Mura, George Homsy, Deborah Stavro, Heather Corson, David Dunlap, Jonathan Medwed, and Molly Glidden. Our WBUR engineers are Keith Shields and Frank DeAngelis. The storytelling segments were recorded by Jane Pipik. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living On Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, and is produced in the studios of WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. If you'd like a tape or a transcript of this show, send $10 to Living On Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. That's Living On Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02238. Any questions or comments, call toll-free 1-800-218-9988. That's 1-800-218-9988.

ANNOUNCER: Major funding for Living On Earth comes from all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - whether supporting worthwhile causes or producing healthy foods, Stonyfield's goal is to make you feel good inside; also from the Joyce Foundation; the George Gund Foundation; and the Jessie B. Cox Foundation for New England reporting.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


This Week's Books


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth