Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Why the Sky is Far Away - A Re-imagined Folktale

A Nigerian folktale. 
This a re-imagined, retold version. 

It was once that people did not farm the land or till the soil
It was once that people did not steal gold from bees or eggs from hens
It was once that people did not catch creatures from the sea in nets, did not take the fruits of the salty depths, did not cut the throats of pigs and sheep and cattle.

It was once that people were fed by the sky.

In a time before, the sky was much closer to the earth than it is now. It was so close, in fact, that people could reach up and break off pieces with their hands. Flaming orange sunsets, wild winter stormclouds, pale blues of morning and deep blues of evening, all were in reach and all could be held and all could be eaten.

Sky tasted wonderful!

It came in all flavours from sun-ripened apple to bone-roasted venison, from spiced cinnamon and ginger cake to creamy, buttery mashed potato.

No need for packaging, baking, chopping, preparing or calorie counting.
No need to till the soil or butcher the animals.
No need to starve or stress.

Imagine that world, just for a moment. A world where you never needed to cook, or shop, or grow, or water, whine or worry about the meal prepared. It was just there, a reach and a crack and you held in your hands a cool refreshing glass of sky or a warm handful of steaming cloud.

So people were free to watch and think, muse and wonder. What worlds must they have seen in the curling of the vine, the green of the grass, the ripening of the golden corn, the gambolling gait of the little lambs.

And from the reverie of crafty hands came beautiful buildings.
And from the rapture of warm hearts came dances of friendship and family.
And from the dreaming of poets and tellers came song and story.

Life was easy. Food was plentiful. Work was minimal.

But an easy life can make us careless.
We began to forget the songs and stories.
We began to forget the quiet dreaming.
We began to want more.

Gleaming cities arose. Great machines were built. Waterways, highways, byways, track ways, airways carved a new path of progress. The world was there for the taking and piece by piece it was conquered.

But as the wheel of the seasons moved on and through and on and through, people began to feel the space of time and distance between where they stood and where they had first come from. They wanted to dream again, but they had forgotten how.

And so, to fill that empty place, we began to fill ourselves in the only way we knew.

People began to gorge themselves. People began to gorge themselves on sky until they were bursting with a sense of fullness and when they found it was not enough they took more and more. But the empty hunger was larger than the capacity to consume - people found they took more sky than they could eat. They threw the left over hunks and chunks of sky into great piles, but still the emptiness gnawed so still they took sky and still they threw away.

The waste became so widespread that the leaders of the world met to discuss what was to be done.

Bins were brought in - great metal bins full of surplus, severed slices of sky, black and decaying. The bins were shipped away, far away to other lands where the rot was piled high and children with bare feet and ragged clothes would climb upon the stacks of sky and imagine that they were standing on an emerald cliff overlooking a sapphire sea as the foulness filled their fields.

One day it became too much. Father Sky looked down upon the world and saw what man had done with the gift of sky. He burned and boiled. In the form of a man, Sky Spirit entered the houses of law of all the great nations of the world.

"If your people continue to waste my sky, I will take it far away from your fat fingers," he spat. "If one more scrap of sky, one more crumb of cloud or bit of blue is wasted or thrown away, I will leave you."

He may have stood before them in a man's form, but his eyes flashed like lightening over midnight's desert and the whole world became dark and silent as he spoke.

And we remembered.
And we didn't feel empty any more.

For once in the history of man and earth, we all listened and acted as one. We heard our Father's cries as one and from that moment not a scrap, crumb or bit of the life-sustaining sky was thrown away. The piles of decay began to rot and turn to earth and, for a time, the bare-footed children felt the warm, brown soil between their toes.

* * *

It was the Great Celebration of the Season and Unah pounded a path through the streets. Her friends would describe her as larger-than-life, but Unah was more than that - she was enormous. Around her neck hung great slabs of cobalt and coral and her ear lobes dripped with waterfalls of gold and globules of silver and bronze. Hummocks and hills stared with envy at the curves and undulations of her great backside which moved with a rhythm all of its own, and the heavy swell of the ocean could do nothing to rival the heaving swell of her bosom. She had three husbands and countless lovers, none of whom could keep up with her insatiable sexual zest. Unah had her fifteen children playing and laughing and pulling at the the vibrant swirl of her volumnious dress. She laughed a laugh that echoed around the land and as she joined the great gathering of people dancing, drinking, singing, eating, their bodies vibrated with the feel of her mirth and movement.

Everyone ate and drank and danced until they could eat and drink and dance no more.
Unah was the last to leave the party, the last to dance through the door, the last to go to bed.

In the satisfied silence of the quiet moment between late night and early morning, Unah sat at her table and thought, 'Just one more bite, a little snack before bed' and she reached up and broke off a bit of sky.

It was juicy and fresh and tasted lovely.


Unah broke off too much. She was so full from the party that even her great gullet could gobble down no more. She tried to cram some more into her mouth, but it was no use - she woke up her husbands and children to help her finish off the final pieces and they tried their best but soon they were full and groaning. She went to her lovers, but all were full and all went back to bed.

It wasn't their problem - it was Unah's.

In a matter of moments, the great joyful woman found herself alone in the dark holding a piece of sky she couldn't eat.

'It's only a tiny bit,' thought Unah. She casually dropped the spare sky into a bin and went to bed.

When the sun rose the next morning, a great silence fell over the world. People stood like scattered stones on the streets, in the roads, the highways, byways, waterways and holloways, all staring up

at the sky.

It was very, very far away- no hungry hands could reach it now - hanging way above the world of man like a great dome of dreams.

From that day man and woman knew hunger and work.
From that day Father sky was far away.

But, from that day on woman and man came to have a deeper relationship with their Earth mother.

As the people of the world sweated and toiled and farmed, for their sweat and sacrifice the land offered up its gifts of food and water.

And a new kind of dreaming began.

People sang to the crops and cattle. They danced and decorated the trees and shrubs, the hedgerows and herbs. They praised the earth they lived upon. They listened to the old stories and sang the old songs to make sure they remembered to not take too much from the seas or the soil; they knew why the sky was so far away; they remembered Father Sky and in his memory they worshipped Mother Earth.

The bare-footed children learned to farm and to coax green shoots from brown earth and for a while the Earth and her children breathed in and out together.

But much is forgotten.

COPYRIGHT Abigail Palache - December 2013

A Folktale Frontier* - New Year's Eve 2013

I first heard this story in it's original form told by my friend and colleague Roi Gal-Or**. I heard it deeply, but I didn't tell it myself. 

Knowing this story actively changed my behaviour. There are many stories that weave together to form the tapestry of an individual, but this one was more direct - challenging my actions in the clear light of day, not in the dreaming world of the fairytale or the fire lit trance of a Norse myth - this tale slapped me firmly and sharply in the face. 

But I still didn't tell it. Even though every time I didn't finish a meal  a little voice whispered into my ear "That's why the sky is far away" I didn't tell this tale myself. Even though I saw great piles of rubbish in the streets, I didn't tell this tale UNTIL I heard a student on the 3 month storytelling course tell it. In his telling he conjured up the great metal bins. Suddenly, the story catapulted itself into my life in a real way - it was not in a land I had never been to, a long, long time ago - it was now.   

So why change the setting, the detail? Why 're-imagine' it and move it away from Nigeria and into a different state?  The answer is hard to explain. 

We can tell stories from other countries to preserve the culture itself (especially if it is a dying native culture) and that is a good thing - a sort of anthropological myth-keeper. But we can also tell stories from other countries and cultures to preserve the story itself beyond a specific cultural incarnation of that tale. It is my belief (and one day I will do enough academic research to write in more depth about this!) that stories grow from the land itself, but that there is something deeper that conceived the story in the first place - there is some universal, fertile web of whisperings that mean remarkably similar stories grow in starkly separate landscapes. This deeper layer is sustained (in part) by oral culture, by the passing of stories along great chains of settlements and as the story is passed from the heat of the desert to the chill wind of the mountains, the images change and new layers of the story being are exposed, whilst others (in the new incarnation) are lost and the story being splits itself. 

Problem is that contemporary culture in the UK, particularly in my area of the South East, has wiped out its own myths, legends and folktales but maintains a peculiar superiority-come-sadness-come-guilt over tribes such as the Edo (who lost much in the 1700s because of the British amongst others) which makes part of us kindly 'preserve' stories in the vinegar of the time and place it was written down and recorded in. As I said, there's nothing wrong with myth-keeping for any culture whether it is your 'own' or one that your soul feels connected to BUT...

The risk of preserving a story in this way is that, like a butterfly pinned down on a biologist's board, we will know that the story once existed, where it existed and how many spots it had but it will be dead. The listeners will listen in interest to a story from Nigeria, where most of them will not have been to, but what will the jungle warmth of the Oba's land mean to them? Will they absorb the message of the story as one being relevant to them or will the far-away, other-culture part of them hear it as a museum piece - an interesting artefact to help them understand the 'other' better? 

To keep the story alive, the story needs to keep adapting to it's environment. When the storyteller spoke of the great metal bins, the story-butterfly leapt to life in my being and began fluttering at my lips and tickling my fingers, desperate to be told in this new form. 

I don't want to tell this story because of any particularly active interest in Nigerian folktales - I do not feel a personal connection to them (although I enjoy listening to them) - I want to tell this story because this isn't a 'Nigerian story' - it is a Nigerian, Ethiopian, Japanese, American, Scottish, English story. It grew in Nigeria and through the changing migratory pattern of mythology we are seeing in this information explosion, the story found its way to me and through me it found its way into this new form. Once upon a time, these stories would have found their way from Africa to Japan, to England, to Americas on the lips of travellers or along great chains of migration. Or maybe the story would have been heard by the 'furred ear'* or the feathered or in the howling of the wind back when people's ears where tuned to these deeper frequencies. In his blog, Martin Shaw comments that current migration patterns are changing in the animal world in response to the global climate changes and simultaneously, it seems, stories are also changing their migration. Maybe there is no longer time for the slow adaptation of story - the crisis the stories speak to (in this case waste) means the story being is compelled to leap out at us from the surviving source in a form that may seem far away. 

Folktale frontiers, places of exchange where stories journey across cultures and landscapes are no longer the inns or campfires of the long roads. The folktale frontier is online; it's brought by high-speed rail and long-haul flights. The folktale frontier is at the tip of the teller's tongue as it's revived from great dusty books full of geographical and cultural references.*

Through this understanding I'm starting to realise how much of the teller's work is to learn to listen to the land. So 2014 is going to be all about listening! 

** For those of you who haven't taken a look, please check out my workplace  *This blog entry was inspired (particularly at places marked with a *) by Martin Shaw's blog entry stories/animals/frontiers. Please check his work out below. 

"What are the new stories that these migrations and desperations will engender to the animals? Who has the receptivity, the furred ear, to absorb and include those emerging myths in the wider frame of stories that humans carry like precious cargo? Without that coming together, then things will fragment with every greater speed.

What these chaotic times are inducing is rapid move back to frontier consciousness; the indigo bunting will pay no regard to passport control. But land it must. And negotiate new policies, bartering, and opportunity; familiarise itself to new stories. All these migratory animals are having a vast education in emerging mythologies; their own constants, their Olympians, are but drizzle over the vastness of the grey oceans they fly over. Tundra is becoming forest, all is new. Jungle is becoming prairie. 

It could be that stories are being forced to move from their old geographical habitations because they have something important to say about this wider crisis. As the crane settles in a new and unfamiliar German forest as snow falls, so a Seneca shaman story is told in the tentative surroundings of a Plymouth pub. I believe the two emerging migrations are connected. They are speaking over the frontier divides – crow to myth to waterfall to folktale. Both need tuned ears.

What they have to say will not arrive as statistical data, but images that tug on the heart of the listener, that are sufficiently weighty and straight-up-startling to share new light on many coming storms. And a light that is suffused with the eternal, that ‘time before time’, rather than just the strained, stressed-out strip light of the now."

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