Keeping the Demons at Bay: The Art of Storytelling

 

Childhood, it has been said, is always partly a lie of poetry. When I was maybe eight years old, in the fall of the year, I would have to go out in the garden after school with damp burlap sacks and cover the long rows of cucumber and tomato plants, so they wouldn’t freeze. It was a hated, cold-handed job that had to be done every evening. I daydreamed along in a halfhearted, distracted way, flopping the sacks onto the plants, sorry for myself and angry because I was alone at my boring work. No doubt my younger brother and sister were in the house and warm. Eating cookies. But then a great strutting bird appeared out from the dry remnants of our corn, black tail feathers flaring and a monstrous yellow-orange air sac pulsating from its white breast, its throat croaking with popping sounds like rust in a joint. The bird looked to be stalking me with grave slow intensity, coming after me from a place I could not understand as real, and yet quite recognizable, the sort of terrifying creature that would sometimes spawn in the incoherent world of my night-dreams.

In my story, now, I say it looked like death, come to say hello. Then, it was simply an apparition. The moment demanded all my boyish courage, but I stood my ground, holding one of those wet sacks out before me like a shield, stepping slowly backwards, listening as the terrible creature croaked, its bright preposterous throat pulsating—and then the great bird flapped its wings in an angry way, raising a little commonplace dust. It was the dust, I think, that did it, convincing me that this could not be a dream. My fear collapsed, and I felt foolish as I understood this was a creature I had heard my father talk about, a courting sage-grouse, we called them prairie chickens. This was only a bird and not much interested in me at all. But for an instant it had been both phantom and real, the thing I deserved, come to punish me for my anger. For that childhood moment I believed the world to be absolutely inhabited by an otherness that was utterly demonic and natural, not of my own making. But soon as that bird was enclosed in a story that defined it as a commonplace prairie chicken, I was no longer frightened. It is a skill we learn early, the art of inventing stories to explain away the fearful sacred strangeness of the world. Storytelling and make-believe, like war and agriculture, are among the arts of self-defense, and all of them are ways of enclosing otherness and claiming ownership.

Such emblematic memories continue to surface, as I grow older and find ways to accept them into the fiction of myself. One of the earliest, from a time before I ever went to school, is of studying the worn oiled softwood flooring in the Warner Valley store where my mother took me when she picked up the mail three times a week. I have no idea how many years that floor had been tromped and dirtied and swept, but by the time I recall it was worn into a topography of swales and buttes, traffic patterns and hard knots, much like the land, if you will, under the wear of a glacier. For a child, as his mother gossiped with the postmistress, it was a place, high ground and valleys, prospects and sanctuaries, and I in my boredom could invent stories about it— finding a coherency I loved, a place that was mine. They tore up that floor somewhere around the time I started school, and I had the sense to grieve.

—William Kittredge. The Next Rodeo: New and Selected Essays

As I read the lines in the above in which Kittredge tells us of the power of within “the art of inventing stories to explain away the fearful sacred strangeness of the world,” I was reminded of my own childhood and an experience that would forever set my own path toward understanding this strangeness. And, yet, for me it was not as in Kittredge to “explain away” the strangeness but to understand its power and hold, its fascination and emotional registry in our souls.

We’d taking one of our usual week long vacations to some remote campsite high in the mountains above Silverton, Colorado. I remember the old 50’s dirt roads, their deep and dangerous foothold on the sides of sheer mountain drops as our old Chevy clunker churned its way up and down the hills. I was always sitting closest to the drop off, my eyes gazing with awe and fear at the abyss and the magnificent forests far below as we worked our way up to the campsite. To this day that sense of fear and awe continues to haunt me. 

Once we arrived at the campsite by a mountain lake we’d set up our tents, build a fire and enjoy the night stars and a good feast of biscuits and gravy with sausage on paper plates. We’d listen as our dad would tell ghost stories that would leave us wondering if the boogey man were watching us just outside the light of the fire in the depths of the forest darkness encompassing us. I’d roll around on my cot with the blanket pulled up over my head that night listening to every sound: the crack of some distant tree, the squawk of some bird, the roar of a distant coyote. All the sounds of a forest to which I had no names or reference points to attach to my world. Only a certain feeling of fear at what my lie hidden in the depths of such a world.

I remember the next day walking ahead of my family on an outing on some trail we’d discovered. I’d run ahead of them full of energy and wondering just where the train would lead us. To this day I remember coming on a slight knoll, a clearing in the forest just above a river. I saw something on the ground ahead and went to it and bent down. It was a clump of bones and fleshy pulp, what looked like the remains of a squirrel. It sent shivers up my back, and suddenly I felt apprehensive. I couldn’t put a name to this fear, it was just a dark sensation and foreboding. I felt something was about to happen and I could not understand what it was. I pushed forward.

As I came up to the edge of the hill above the river I was startled at the site of a great bird with black wings suddenly rise deep below me out of the sunless world below. I thought much like Kittredge that this was death come to get me. I couldn’t move, couldn’t cry out, I felt frozen to the earth at the site of this great creature rising up before me into the air. Then I saw it… the creature had something in its claws, a great trout was dangling wet and struggling to escape from its clutches. It fell from the bird’s grasp for a moment, and the great eagle ( as I’d learn later) swooped up and dove down again as the fish fell toward the river and just as quickly it clamped onto the escaping fish with its talons. In that moment the bird rose toward me and grew ever bigger and bigger, its eyes piercing me with murderous intent and as it climbed out of that canyon just in front of me it let out a screech the likes of which I’ve never heard again. It seemed as if it were speaking directly to me of its triumph, of its power and majesty, and just as quickly it soared over me and was gone.

A few moments later my parents and sister arrived where I was standing, reprimanding me for going ahead of them too far, too fast. Telling me how dangerous the forest could be with cougars and bears and wolves. I was speechless. I wanted to tell them what I’d just experienced, but I could not. It was one of those moments of awakening in me that would set my mind adrift and challenge me to put to words, to find words to describe this experience. Maybe that was it. I had no words to describe such things. Up to that point in my life I had had no need for words for such things. But now I was at a loss, my mind grasping to understand as a child what it was that had just happened. And I couldn’t.

From that time forward I began a search for words to explain this and many other incidents in my life. I began to read books of fiction, poetry, and anything else I could to help me in my quest. That process still goes on. Language is not only a tool, it is a messenger and traveling companion, it helps one to enter into the communal vat of traditions, culture, etc., and it teaches us to grasp with tongue and eye the truths of those strangenesses that happen to us. Poetry above all touches the extremity of language, gives us the metamorphic splendor of the flames of drifting sounds and meaning. Unlike philosophy that reduces the world to conceptual bric-a-brac, places the world under the careful categories of a well regulated mental hygiene, poetry expands us into that void surrounding us inventing the maps and bringing us back strange sounds and whelps from the hinterlands of non-meaning. Only humans give meaning to things, things themselves register nothing of our human sense and values, things are the very power of otherness to disturb our homely lives. Things open us to the central truth of our lives, that we are all bound within a system of defenses – as Kittredge mentions. We for the most part as humans use words to defend us against too much reality. We cover the world in human meanings that the world does not share. We assume the world is like us so that we can better control it and shape it to our will. But the world is foreign to human conceits, it is the power of otherness to teach us that it is not human.