Last week, I was taking a walk in the woods out in the Wisconsin countryside (on the grounds of the Cedar Valley Center, not far from the Theresa Marsh and the northern Kettle Moraine area). I was taking a break from the sessions of the novel-writing book camp I was teaching at (terrific experience, by the way). And encountered a badger.
In many years of walking in the woods, in Wisconsin and elsewhere, it was the very first I’ve ever seen! (Although once or twice I’ve spotted what I suspected was a badger den, a distinctive eyebrow-shaped hole in the side of a hill.)
At first this badger scuttled a bit away from me, but then it curiously decided to climb a small tree, stopping about the height of my head. So we paused and looked at each other for a while. I did not know a badger would climb a tree like that!
It and I were pretty close to each other, so after a bit, I took a few steps backward, and the badger promptly backed down the tree and disappeared into the brush.
The startling moment was especially significant to me, as I (coincidentally?) was teaching an approach to writing that week focusing on story techniques, and Badger is the advocate for stories (in Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez) . . . so it seemed to be a meaningful encounter. At least to me. Not sure what the critter thought about meeting a wandering writer in the woods.
The lines from Crow and Weasel I recalled:
“Remember on this one thing, said Badger. The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each others’ memories. This is how people care for themselves.”
I shared those lines and the tale of my close encounter of the furry totemic kind with the participants in my teaching session the next morning. And I added another astounding quote, also from Lopez (from a keynote talk), one that I’ve used in two of my books on writing. He shared a word the Inuit native peoples of the eastern Arctic use to describe a storyteller, isumataq. It translated as, he said:
“the person who creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself.”
The person who creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself! What a great word for storyteller. Indeed, I ended my 2011 book on story techniques for writers, How To Write Your Best Story, with that quote and a few other thoughts. My approach to teaching good writing is to focus on the stories, not the plot. For me, Lopez has been a guiding light, as have other gifted storytellers, from native elders to literary luminaries like Gaiman, Le Guin, and others who write about the important of story.
So I came away feeling my encounter with a tree-climbing Badger at the novel-writing camp seemed to deliver a bit of a cosmic message. Let’s remember how stories help the people. And let’s care for them, and put them in each others’ memories.
Thanks, Barry. And thanks, Badger.
How To Write Your Best Story, by Philip Martin, offers tips for aspiring authors on practical, effective storytelling skills, as used by great authors to write their most beloved, enduring stories.