Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Pourquoi Stories of Nature

What does it mean when a New Jersey cherry tree blossoms in late November? Or, when an antlered deer wanders into a densely populated suburban neighborhood?

The newspapers will tell us that we can look to global warming and overgrazed natural habitats for explanations. But if we look beyond the surface (not to belittle that surface), we can mine our imaginations to explain these phenomena. We can develop pourquoi stories.

Pourquoi is the French word for “why.” Pourquoi stories are told all over the world to explain why an animal behaves the way it does, or why a spider weaves its web so beautifully, or why a rainbow appears after a storm. These stories go beyond rational scientific explanations. They span the absurd to the sacred. They are part of the human experience.

In September, I told the Lakota Indian legend Tonweya and the Eagles at Morris County’s Juvenile Detention Center and Youth Shelter. The teenagers at these facilities are facing problems I can only poorly imagine. For our September workshops, I wanted to explore with them a story that could act as a metaphor for their situation and possibly give them tools that could help them make sense of what was happening to them.

The protagonist in the story, a young Lakota Sioux named Tonweya, wanders away from his hunting party and becomes stranded on a rocky ledge without an anchored rope. There is nothing for him to grab onto to either climb up to the top of the cliff, or climb down to the ground below.

Also on this ledge are two fledgling eaglets. They are abandoned by their mother. Tonweya and the birds keep each other safe using their natural instincts and talents to rescue each other from certain death. The story concludes with an explanation for why only the fearless and brave wear eagle feathers tipped with red. It is a majestic and soulful story.

The residents at the youth facilities listened attentively and analyzed Tonweya’s qualities that helped him survive dire circumstances. I left hoping the kids would think about the qualities they have that will help them survive. I hoped I had given each of them a metaphoric eagle feather to wear.

Stories can serve as tools to explain why things are the way they are.

But perhaps it is more important that stories can serve as tools to imagine the way things can be.


Ellen Musikant is a performer, teaching artist, workshop facilitator and story coach. As such she has been a storyteller in residence in schools throughout New Jersey including preschools, elementary, and middle schools. When working with the very young, Ellen plays within the story landscape and narrative, giving the children new worlds and new words. For older students, she inspires self-expression by enlivening folktales with creative dramatics. As a story coach, Ellen helps children custom and adults find their storytelling voices. Each residency and workshop she offers is designed to meet the needs of the client. In addition to her work with Storytelling Arts, Inc., Ellen enjoys performing in festivals, museums, libraries and a host of other venues. She is Storyteller-in-Residence at the Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers University, New Brunswick.