Friday, 15 April 2022

Inspiration, the environment and storytelling

 

An inspiration, a challenge, a provocation: 

storytelling and environmental connection

a word in explanation: recently I was asked to give a 10 minute presentation on how my work uses storytelling to explore environmental issues and personal creativity...I thought I'd post the piece here as well!


A story well-told is a conversation, a personal conversation, between the storyteller and a listener. If I have been telling stories to, say, a school assembly of several hundred children, at the end individuals want to talk about the story “you told me”. An effective story draws the listener in, engages them, enchants them even if only for the minutes it takes to tell the tale. The experience is personal. It is received by the individual listening as a gift from the ‘teller. (Good challenge for storytellers there: to remember our storytelling is a gift we are giving to our listeners, not an obligation on their part to listen!)

crows laugh while raven watches
As Creeping Toad*, I am a storyteller, an artist and a creator of celebrations, using creativity to encourage participants to explore the world around them and to find ways of expressing those discoveries. I use art to promote a sense of personal and communal emotional connection to the natural world, helping people build their own skills, develop their own languages of expression and reflection. Stories are central to that exploration. The conversations that unfold here, are part of my personal inspiration. Watching people explore the interface where self meets world is a delight, I can feel new stories unfolding while at other times I try to follow the advice I give workshop participants and simply sit. Simply sit and let the world fill me with whatever is passing, from the continent-roaming breath of a wind to the miniature detail of a beetle’s life. My creativity is informed by the world I move in, and I am inspired by the experience to create stories, or poems or to dance the rhythms of a lifecycle. To be creative isn’t necessarily to produce something: it can be just as rewarding and just as significant for the individual to let a moment fill them with wonder and the movement of grass in a breeze or the laughing shout of a passing crow.


there are always stories

In environmental contexts, we know the science, we know the facts and figures and the scary deductions, but it is the stories that call responses from a wider public. It’s the accounts of the struggling mother raising her cubs, that turtle: last of its kind, the brave people standing between the rhino and the gun that bring action. With a cynical turn of mind, I might talk about conservation economics, the commercial value of “fluffy animal” sales pitches and how easily people will be charmed by the apparent smile of a dolphin, but the more determined side of me is glad for any engagement.

 

Cynicism aside, stories are important. We are a storytelling species – we turn everything into narratives (go away and think about casual conversations and how often a story is being told) and when trying to inspire people to engage with the world around them more deeply, it is the stories that draw people out, lead people in, into the landscapes that they walk through and the forests of the imagination that open golden leaves in their hearts.

 

waking the Night Mare

 I'm not all that interested in stories with strong moral contexts. You might argue that most traditional stories contain moral lessons, but they don’t. Some are simply adventures, excursions, romances. Nightmares. Yes, one might find a moral if you really want one (eg “don’t steal cattle or a ferocious young woman might come and chop your head off” isn’t necessarily helpful in the 21st century) but equally, listeners are likely to take their own moral from, or find their own interpretation of, whatever story you tell. Just finding a story that is nice/nasty/scary/silly is a good indication of how strongly people respond to stories individual ways.

 


 




Extract from We are the Trees.  

We are the trees

Who dread the wind.

 

We are the trees,

Where the spores settle,

Where the fungus spreads,

Where the fingers wither,

Where the bark splits,

Where branches break.

We are the trees holding onto hope

In seeds and seedlings,

In long breaths held and 

Hearts clenched against the dread.

 

We are the trees who

Grow the keys of hope.


(Note: this poem was about ash trees – hence the “keys” reference – ash tree seeds are called keys)




 

For me, it is that individual response that matters almost more than anything else. A story should offer enchantment: an opportunity for listeners to step into the world they think they know through a different door, to take time to think, to wonder, to feel in different ways. And at the end to look at the world they walk through and recognise that there are stories everywhere, that the pigeon flying past, the bumblebee in the flowers, the rats in the subway, are all living their own adventures. Inviting “listeners” to become “storytellers”, in Creeping Toad workshops we try to take nothing for granted: there are adventures everywhere: for ourselves as well as the animals we’re looking at. Increasingly these days, people recognise that the plant worlds live through adventures as well. In a recent lockdown project, we gathered phrases from people about the woods they were visiting, looking at the landscape as both humans and as trees, especially as ash dieback (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus), spreads through those woods and we are steadily losing our ash trees. The scattered phrases were drawn together to give us two poems: “We are the people” and “We are the trees”. Around the poems grew celebration: two tall tree puppets who danced through those woods to the music of a lone saxophone, while the poems were chanted as conversations between trees and visitors. A moment of love and inspiration shared.

 

We live in a world worth celebrating. Stories are one way of inviting people to engage creatively with that world, to investigate, to create, to share, to celebrate. To play. I am a storyteller: the awareness of living in a world full of stories is a great source of inspiration for me as an individual, for the individuals I work with and for the communities (human and other-then-human) we are all part of.


extract from We are the People, 

the companion poem to We are the Trees, above

 

We are the people 

Who climbed the trees,

Who ate the picnics,

Who watched the birds,

Who fed the squirrels,

Who ran the paths,

Who were still in the shade,

Who sang,

Who built faerie doors

At faerie dens,

For faery tribes in 

Faery glens.

 

We are the people 

Who walked,

Who wondered,

Who laughed,

Who talked,

Who held hands,

Who strolled,

Who held their hearts and loves and hopes

Under Ash trees.


The poems "We are the Trees" and "We are the people" were composed from comments by members of the public about why the woods of Buxton had proved important to them during the lockdown months of 2021. Edited by Gordon MacLellan for the Stone and Water projects “A Year In Our Town” and "Ash Woods"


Images in this post:

  • me in action at Plas Power Woods: c/o Laurence Crossman-Emms and the Woodland Trust
  • Raven, Lichen, Nightmare and Grinlow Woods: by G MacLellan
  • Tree puppet face and tree puppet in rehearsal: c/o Aidan Rhode 

 


Tuesday, 15 March 2022

Waiting for the frogsong

 

 
 
FROGSONG
Gordon MacLellan 

It is March and

This morning held a cold smell of spring

Of frogsong and wonder.


Reflections of blue skies and

Willow trees are

Broken by the weeds that break

The pond’s mirror.

There is movement,

A small turning, splashing

Disturbance,

But there is no-one to see.

The wind across the water

Traces deceptive arrows

And by the far bank,

A bigger movement

Sends a ripple, a wave spreading outwards

But still there is no cause to see,

No culprit to celebrate.

 

The pool settles again,

And me, I rest

Here on the grass, watching.

It is March and

I am still hoping for frogs.

 

Saturday, 5 March 2022

A heart of haws and thorns, the Treasuring Trees exhibition

 

Treasuring Trees

Celebrating Derbyshire’s Trees
Buxton Museum and Art Gallery
Saturday 19th February – Wednesday 8th June 2022

 

A heart of haws and thorns

With pool-deep, peat-dark eyes.

He walks in from the woods,

He is the wood, walking.

Crataegus, G MacLellan*

 


Glowing, a tree of changing leaves invites the visitor in from across the hallway. Inside the work of three artists welcomes you into a wonder of trees. From ancient, twisted hawthorns to clustered birches and the spreading forms of old oaks, the trees of the Peak District are celebrated with photography, poetry, painting and puppets

 

Sarah Parkin, Valerie Dalling and myself all responded to trees in our own ways, creating an exhibition that moves from wide landscapes to fine detail, from tight observation to the unpredictability of folklore. There are also community contributions with some 30 pieces spread through the exhibition by residents of the area. Work from “my” teams includes material from members of the Lightwood Natural History Group, from Borderland Voices and from participants on Stronger Roots workshops organised by the Buxton Civic Association. These community contributions kept coming with more leaves on that tree than we could display so the “extras” have been assembled into a slideshow offering a chance for visitors to pause, rest on a chair and sink into the changing colours of more than 50 other images.




 

postcards

I tend to respond to most challenges as a storyteller and poet – and puppeteer - so my contributions here include poems about Alder and Willow trees, and the ancient Hawthorns of Wardlow Hay Cop (all three of us worked around these trees). The hawthorns reappear in a pair of postcards from my work available in the museum shop (and soon to be available on-line). The shop also features other postcards and greetings cards of some of Sarah’s work while exhibition pieces are also for sale.

 



Watching the proceedings are two large puppets that grew out of Stone and Water workshops in 2020. Drawing together thoughts, images and words from visitors to the woods of Buxton, these tall characters embody people’s feelings about those woods, especially through the tight 2020 lockdown. Now, hooked motionless onto a wall, they have danced their way through Grinlow Woods. Film of that can be seen in the video below ….if you want to skip the interview bits, puppets start at minute 3:45




And then there are the boggarts. Small, troublesome, almost certainly up to mischief, the Birch Tree Boggarts and their Spellbook have been trapped in a glass case (at least for now) while at the other end of the Gallery the beautiful Bilberry Bumblebee Travelling Display will introduce visitors to this rare peak district gem of an insect. (The Display (c/o Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s Pollinating the Peak project) is in the museum until the end of March when it will move on to Bakewell Tourist Information Centre). Between Boggarts and Bilberries are cases with some of Sarah and Valerie’s sketchbooks and extra images)

 


If you are in Buxton, please drop by. Step into our woodland gallery and immerse yourself in a celebration of trees

 

Events: 

Meet the Artists: 26th March 2022, 1 – 4pm, at the Museum

 

Sales: through the Museum shop: postcards, greetings cards and some exhibition pieces






* Quote from my poem Crataegus inspired by the Wardlow Hay Cop hawthorns

Friday, 25 February 2022

Seeds of wonder - the Botany Bay project

 

Planting seeds of wonder

Botany Bay Project 2022

we don't need to think in straight lines

When we plant a garden, we are planting stories. And when we know those stories, when we understand them, they can help our garden grow and enrich our lives in more ways than simply giving us food to eat.

 

We were telling stories. From the Three Sisters of North America to the Blue Corn Maiden and the sharpness of Grandmother’s Tongue from the deserts of Arizona. There were the round curving wonders of mango reappearing in “paisley pattern” fabrics. There were the eyes of a Polynesian eel looking out of a coconut

 

“BOTANY BAY is a Participation and Learning project, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.  The project makes use of the migration histories of plants and crops, and their Indigenous cultural heritage in relation to ecology and reciprocity, as a way to stimulate young people to explore new ways of living.  The Covid-19 pandemic and the climate crisis have made a re-assessment and recalibration of human relationships to the non-human an urgent necessity, and young people have to be at the heart of this process, forging a future for humanity and the planet.” Introduction from the Botany Bay page

 

Find out more: Botany Bay

There are other workshops invovled with visits from Museum teams, trips to the Garden Museum: check in at the Botany Bay link aboe for a fuller picture of the whole flwoering of this project!

 


As Creeping Toad, I have come into Botany Bay as a storyteller and creator of celebrations. My first sessions with the gardening schools was a mixture of telling stories, listening to ideas, provoking discussions and being a supportive voice around wild imaginings. We told stories. We scribbled, thought, scribbled again, pouring collective garden ideas on sheets….could we grow strawberries? Bananas? Dragonfruit? Do kiwi fruit grow on trees? At this stage in the planting of our school gardens, the gardeners were shaping ideas: what? How? Where? When? The control of their garden is being repeatedly returned to these young gardeners. The project is pushing those gardening groups to do the research (will bananas ripen in a UK summer?). The challenge is as much about understanding and appreciating changing worlds as actually getting a rich crop. So we talked about what might grow (with rewarding detours into climate change and young people’s awareness of hotter summers and possible consequences (back to bananas, but how do we find out if we can grow vanilla?). Those first traditional stories came back: can we plant in Three Sisters patterns (not always successful in damp UK climes)? Raising more questions than answers just now but that is good.

Rabbit Parties? 

We were thinking of our gardens as more than simply “places where we plant things”. We talked about the experience a garden could offer (big stones for sitting on, as happy as a cat on all fours, mesmerising were all suggestions), what we could do with these plants we were growing, what else we should include (trampolines, a hot-tub, but also secret bee hives,  bug-hotels and ponds). Conversations grew into ways of sharing, celebrating and appreciating our gardens: recognising that the plants we are growing and the animals associated with them are living acts of generosity for us and that we should find ways of thanking the world around us. Possible celebrations escalated:

            My parents do Caribbean street food – can someone come and teach us how to cook our special foods?

            Crumble days (almost universally approved of – apple crumble, plum, blueberry who know what else we could crumble with!

            Can we produce our own recipe book

            Strawberry picnics

Milk shake day and an ice cream festival with flavours grown in the garden

A rice festival

A corn feast

          Pie day: with all the pie fillings grown in our garden

          Can we grow dyes and make tie-dyed T-shirts to wear or sell?

          Can we have a market stall?

 


“What can we do with the richness of our gardens” continued to spiral into celebrations

            The Great Chiswick/Chorlton/Waltham/Medlock Bake Off (we’d be the judges)

            A video game day – powered by pedals or solar panels

            A music day: could we write tunes about our plants and maybe make instruments….and of course could we write songs to celebrate gardens

 

At other times, ideas turned down more sinister  (or just plain strange)routes. Could we grow a boiled egg tree?  If we planted a pupil, could we grow a Dead Kids Tree with shrunken heads instead of apples…we all decided “maybe not”. Liking the grisly but powerful image, suddenly we were wondering about designing graphic novels about life and nightmares in a garden

 

By the end of 4 days of workshops in our 5 different schools, my head was spinning

 

As the Botany Bay gardens start growing, my role will be to drop in and help develop ideas about celebration and appreciation. The working questions are “how do we share our gardens” and “how do we thank our plants” and “how do we tell our stories”. Listening to stories from the deserts of central America or tales of melons from southern Africa is exciting but we need to find the connection that roots chilis or melons in our gardens in urban England and in our communities.

 

We are setting out to grow gardens but also to grow our own new stories of richness and wonder and feasts that feed body, heart and soul all at the same time.


 

With many thanks to our gardening schools: for their enthusiasm and hospitality - and their bravery in setting out to plant wild, growing gardens rich with stories

Cavendish Primary School, Chiswick

Chiswick High School

Hurst Drive Primary School, Waltham Cross

Medlock Primary School, Manchester

Oswald Rd Primary School, Manchester

 

Botany Bay is a project produced by Border Crossings' ORIGINS Festival

 

Photos: all image c/o G MacLellan: 

not all schools are represented here - more photos will be added!

 


           

Sunday, 20 February 2022

Barefoot at Kew


Orchids, 2022 (see end of post)

Barefoot on the grass of Kew


My relationship with Kew Gardens, or the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, is almost as old as I am. I have a toddler’s memories of tuppeny turnstiles (or maybe it was a penny?) at the entrance and the excitement of the rattle and clunk of the entry and a world that opened into endless possibilities with an adult trying to restrain both body and imagination of a small person sure that this time the Stone Lions by The Pond would wake up... 





Landmarks chart that relationship through years….


waiting for the carp to rise in the Palm House Pool. “Feeding the ducks” took on a whole new perspective at Kew: there were these huge, half-hidden creatures that made the water swirl, that gulped and splashed and were never quite visible. A swirl of the murky waters…could have been anything!

 


being amazed by the fish in the waterlily house, guppies warming in the warm shallows while “escaped” terrapins hung in the water or lounged on the edges. Tropical wonders while a huge
Victoria amazonia uncurled in the middle of the pool

having a safe teenage crush on the statue of Hercules in the Palm House Pool: what was there not to love? All muscle and curves and no possible embarrassing conversations and mistaken looks


meeting my first Ginkgo tree as it fluttered delicate golden leaves into an autumn breeze

 reading Keith Claire’s The Tree Wakers, a story of strange, botanic delight set in Kew. Absolutely captivating and inspiring….

 




watching a golden pheasant strutting, glowing, across the lawns in front of the Pagoda

 

the refuge that the then new Princess of Wales conservatory offered a young man missing the warmth and vibrancy of African flora


New zealand koru unfurling

  I still return to the P of W after all these years, pausing on benches tucked into odd leafy corners to be still and appreciate warmth and humidity and a world experienced in shades of green. I finished my first reading of Keri Hulme’s The Bone People there. The fern rooms with their uncurling tree fern kore echoed the imagery and setting and richness of the book




 


then, 20 years ago, 
there were cheerful summer sessions delivering workshops for the Friends of Kew, making processions of giant fish people or printing leaf patterns or decorating tiny treasure chests to fill with treasures combed from walks through the gardens


and more recently, being captivated by a set of woven-willow characters cavorting across a lawn. “How wonderful! They’re just the sort of things I would expect my friend Woody to make…..O. They were made by Woody!” See more of Woody Fox's work here



In a life of self-employed uncertainty, the Gardens have offered a constant, as a ripple of enchantment and wonder through years of never being sure what might happen next, what work might, or might not, come


And another repeat: walking the paths of the Princess of Wales Conservatory barefoot….walking all of the gardens barefoot, relishing in the textures of grass, the warmth of tarmac, rough stone, pine needles. 


A rich connection.



The wind rattles our twigs into voices,

Into words no-one else knows,

Songs of willow and water and wanting

Filling the night with a dry, rustling anticipation.

from Treelings: my poem inspired 

by Woody's dancing willow-folk




Images in this post:

all photos are by Gordon MacLellan, except

Treelings c/o Woody Fox 

and the cover of Tree Wakers by Claire Andrews 

(follow link in text for publication details)



Orchids at Kew: the annual orchid festival in full swing in the Princess of Wales Conservatory just now: a spectacular plunge into 

the richness of a Costa Rican rainforest.

Find out more