The Power of Storytelling:
Earth Tales and Activities
Show the Way for Living in Balance
by Michael J. Caduto
©2014 All Rights Reserved
From Siberia to the tip of South America, and from Africa to Polynesia, stories have grown from the very Earth upon which they were first told. Through these tales, the natural world speaks to the people who walk upon it and who use it to stay alive. But stories have wings, too, which loft them upon the winds of our imaginations.
Traditional tales contain the wisdom that countless generations have harvested by living close to the land, growing their own food and making the things they needed with their own hands. In order to live, they had to take care of the soil, the water, the plants and the animals. As the stories show, people eventually learned that the harm they caused the world around them would one day come knocking on their own door. The care they showed would be returned in kind with food, clean air and water, and materials with which to fashion tools and other necessities. In this way, stories are a kind of medicine, a way of healing the wounds of life.
In many stories it is clear that traditional cultures believe that all of nature is alive: those things that move, and those that do not. There is a breath of life in a tree, a hawk and the long wind that blows across open places and gently bends blades of grass. A spirit lives in the shadow that grows between the hills as the sun sets, in the rocks of the hills themselves, in the moon that rises into a starry sky, in the sweet smell of a flower and in the joy of a newborn fawn. Over and over in the old tales we read of the common faith in a benevolent, unseen Creator of the wonders that surround us. Like the natural world, stories are sacred and are treated with respect and reverence.
We All Have Native Roots
No matter what culture, or cultures, our ancestors come from, traditional stories can help us trace our roots back to their source. We all have ancestral ties to Native peoples who lived close to Earth. Their wisdom lies deep in our memories. One common thread that runs through the stories is the belief that we are a part of nature, and that the community of people and the natural world depends upon a mutual, respectful relationship. Although we cannot help but change our environment as we live in it and use its resources to keep us alive, we can do everything possible to have a positive impact and nurture the natural world.
Besides entertaining and helping to teach moral lessons, stories help to explain the natural world; they carry on our spiritual beliefs, our artistic traditions and the particular ways we use language. The wisdom of Earth stories is both a link to our past, and a lifeline to the beautiful, healthy Earth we want to leave as a legacy for future generations.
Earth Tales and Activities
In this section I present “The Wisdom of Nature,” an original retelling of a traditional Swahili story from Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar in eastern Africa. The story is adapted from my book Earth Tales from Around the World and it appears on my storytelling CD, The Wisdom of Nature and Other Earth Tales. The accompanying activities are designed for children of ages 5 to 12. As with all stories in Earth Tales, the activities suggested in the back of the book can be created and adapted to suit the home environment of the intended audience. These particular activities are oriented to the plants and animals of North America and are adapted from the book Keepers of the Animals: Native American Stories and Wildlife Activities for Children.
This introduction and story, “The Wisdom of Nature,” are used with permission from Earth Tales from Around the World, ©1997 by Michael J. Caduto (Golden Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing). The story also appears with permission from the storytelling CD: The Wisdom of Nature and Other Earth Tales, ©2014 by Michael J. Caduto (Luna Blu®). The activities, ©1991 by Michael J. Caduto, are adapted with permission from Keepers of the Animals: Native American Stories and Wildlife Activities for Children, by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac (Fulcrum Publishing). The illustration by Adelaide Murphy Tyrol is used with permission. Activities may be used only as needed for normal classroom use. Written permission is required from the author to copy this story and introduction in any form from: Michael Caduto, P.O. Box 1052, Norwich, VT 05055, USA. Phone: (802) 649-1815. Copies of these books and information on related books, music and programs can be obtained at the P.E.A.C.E.® website: www.p-e-a-c-e.net
The Wisdom of Nature
©2014 by Michael J. Caduto
All Rights Reserved
In the thick brush at the edge of the hill country lived a magnificent snake. Its eyes blazed and the scales that covered its skin were as hard and strong as any shield. Venom flowed from its long, curved fangs. In the moment of its hunger, this huge, powerful snake devoured any wild animal it desired.
One day, the snake sat sunning itself in a small clearing. Being close to the ground, the snake sensed a roar in the distance. Its tongue picked up a strong scent. Upwind, some young hunters were burning the brush to drive the game animals into the open. Crackling flames rushed toward the snake
As it searched for refuge, the snake slithered out of the low brush and into the open along the border of a farmer’s fields.
“Please help me hide,” asked the snake. “The hunters are coming. They will kill me.”
When he saw the snake, the farmer was afraid.
“Do not fear me,” the snake called out to the farmer. “I will not harm you.”
The kindhearted farmer took pity on the snake, as he did on all animals that were in need of help.
“Quickly,” said the farmer as he opened the mouth of a large, empty grain bag, “crawl into this sack. The hunters will never think to look for you here.”
As soon as the tip of the snake’s tail disappeared into the mouth of the bag, some hunters approached. They were following the faint trail left by the snake’s belly as it slid along the ground.
“Have you seen a large snake come this way?” they asked the farmer.
“No,” he replied. “I have been working here all morning and have seen no sign of a snake. You must be reading an old trail.”
“Thank you,” said the hunters, and they walked on. When they were a safe distance away, the farmer opened the grain bag and whispered, “Come out, the danger has passed.”
The snake crept out of the sack, threw its coils around the farmer and held him fast.
“Let me go!” screamed the farmer. “I have just saved your life!”
“That is true,” replied the snake. “But I have not eaten for many days. You will make a good meal.”
“Then you will not let me go?” asked the farmer.
“No, I am starving.”
“Before you eat me,” said the farmer, “you could at least repay me for saving your life.”
“That is only fair,” said the snake. “I agree. Now what do you desire?”
“Let us have others decide whether you should eat me.”
“If that is your wish, so be it,” agreed the snake.
The snake followed the farmer to the edge of the field where a coconut palm tree had been planted. The tree listened carefully as each of them told his side of the story.
“Well,” replied the coconut palm, “I know the nature of human beings. They eat my nuts and drink the sweet milk inside. Some even use my leaves to thatch their roofs. Why should I save a human being? I say the snake should have its meal.”
“Let us ask the bee,” said the farmer.
“As you wish,” replied the snake.
“You must be joking!” replied the bee. “Human beings smoke us out of our homes and steal our honey. They never give us thanks. I have no compassion for the farmer.”
“Perhaps the mango tree down by the road will understand my plight,” thought the farmer. “Snake, let us go ask the mango to give us its judgment.”
“Lead on,” replied the snake.
Once it had listened to their stories, the mango tree spoke. “Year after year I stand here as generations of human beings pass by. They cool themselves in the shade of my branches and eat my fruit when they are hungry. Some break off my branches for firewood or to use as the shafts of spears for hunting the wild animals. Not once has a human being thanked me. Farmer, I see no reason why the snake should not eat you.”
“How could this be?” exclaimed the farmer. “Why should my life be such a trifle in the eyes of nature?”
At that moment, the farmer spotted a gazelle grazing along the riverbank. To the gazelle the farmer now pleaded his case.
In response to his story, the gazelle told a tale of its own. “I am often the difference between life and death for the human beings. Without my meat, they would starve and perish. Because I am so generous, people take me for granted. Your life, farmer, belongs to the snake.”
A baboon was listening from where it sat on the branch of a nearby tree.
“Every creature does what it must in order to survive,” said the baboon. That is the way of nature.”
“But what of the snake?” asked the farmer.
“One cannot blame the snake for its hunger,” replied the baboon. “Like you, the snake is part of the balance that exists in the world.”
A snake is meant to eat its prey,
it catches as it can.
Its food will try to get away,
escape’s the way of man.
“What, then, do you have to say about whether or not I should eat the farmer?” asked the snake.
“First, you must show me exactly how it happened,” said the baboon. “That sack does not look big enough to hold a snake as magnificent as yourself.”
The farmer then opened the bag and the snake crawled in.
“Are you able to close bag with the snake inside?” asked the baboon.
“Yes,” replied the farmer as he drew the cord tight and tied it securely.
“Now, farmer, we will see what you have learned,” said the baboon. “Once again, the fate of the snake is in your hands. Now what are you going to do about it, hmmm?”
Prey, Tell Me
“Every creature does what it must in order to survive,” said the baboon in this story. “That is the way of nature.” Indeed, each plant and animal has specific adaptations, physical (genetic) traits and behaviors that better enable it to survive and reproduce in its particular environment. Among animals, many survival adaptations relate to eating or being eaten.
Activity: Solve some riddles that describe the survival adaptations of some prey animals by guessing the animal’s identity.
Goals: Understand what a survival adaptation is and learn some defenses of certain prey animals.
Level: Ages 5 to 12
Materials: Riddles and kids.
Procedure: Discuss the meaning of interrelationships and give examples of different kinds of animal relationships. Be sure to include examples of animals that have both positive and negative effects on each other. Ask the children to think of their own examples.
Define and discuss the concept of survival adaptation with the children. Have them call out some examples of offensive adaptation of predators and defensive adaptations of prey animals.
Now tell them they are going to hear some riddles which describe some adaptations of animals that are often hunted as prey. With older children, have them come up and take turns reading the riddles. You will need to do the reading for young children. The riddles vary from easy to challenging.
PREY, TELLME (RIDDLES)
- My home is a burrow in the ground. I only come out at night when it is cool and damp and when I am not likely to be seen. Lots of animals, especially early birds, love to eat me, but I can scoot down my burrow quickly if someone tries to grab me, and I am very sensitive to vibrations in the ground. Don’t fish around too long for the answers?
I am a (worm).
- I am a great swimmer from the minute I am born, I float almost as well as a cork. If something comes after me I use my webbed feet and tiny wings to skate quickly away over the water. The predators who spot me and try to attack from below see down when they look up. You may see me eating plants or fish.
I am a (duckling).
- My long ears, keen hearing and sensitive nose help me to detect danger from far off. I can make a fast getaway if spotted. Still, I come out from sunset to sunrise with darkness as my cover. I have a habit of twitching my nose. My tail is short and my feet are lucky.
I am a (rabbit).
- I sing my song when summertime is aging and autumn is on the way. I don’t sing with my voice though. Some people know I wing it. My long antennae help me to sense when danger is around. Still, my kind often become lunch for birds, shrews and even tiny snakes. I might live under a rock or spend my time in a clump of grass.
I am a (cricket).
- You know me well around your garden. My skin is bumpy and bad to taste. I eat ants and flies with a long, sticky tongue. When you pick me up I release the contents of my bladder to startle you into putting me down.
I am a (toad)?
- My skin of scales is a good hint. I am small and quick with a colorful tail. When a predator comes and grabs at the tip, I snap it off like the flick of a whip.
I am a (skink).
Adapt and Survive
Adapting is not simply a matter of following a pre-determined program of adaptations like a robot. Many times, like the human being in this story, the animal that survives is one that can learn from its environment and make choices based on individual situations. For animals, threats can come from both the natural world and from the actions of human beings.
Activity: Play a game of choices to see if you are as adaptable as the coyote—to see if you can adapt to survive in a changing world.
Goals: Understand that change—both natural and human-made—is a normal part of an animal’s existence, and that adapting to change is necessary to survive.
Level: Ages 9 to 12
Materials: Copy or copies of “Coyote’s Choice: Adapt and Survive,” other materials as needed depending upon the format you use for this activity, such as a game for each child to play individually (one copy for each child), or a course that children will walk through while making the decisions (index cards, each with one of the numbered situations set up as separate stations and any props you may want to add to create a more life-like course for the children to experience).
Procedure: Discuss the adaptability of coyotes, how they have expanded their range in recent years and the many changes which are constantly occurring around them to threaten their existence. These changes can be natural, such as floods, fire created by lightning, drought or a food shortage. Change can also be caused by people, for example, clear cutting a forest, damming a river or setting out traps or poisoned bait to kill animals. Coyotes are experts at adapting to change, moving to a new habitat when they need to or sensing danger when it is near and avoiding it, even if it means turning away from food that looks suspicious when they are hungry. They do not always make the right choice, however, and cannot always adapt successfully. Sometimes they survive, sometimes they do not.
Have each child read the following story, making choices along the way as they think a coyote might make. Even if a child makes the wrong survival choice at a certain point in the story, he or she is to continue on to the next station, and so on, until reaching the end of the story. When all of the children are through, have them share their choices, adaptations and experiences. How many of them honestly made all of the right choices and were able to make the necessary changes to survive each time? Which choices made it most difficult to make the right survival decisions? Which choices were the easiest?
Note: This activity can also be set up as a fun series of stations in which the initial situation is described and illustrated and children must choose one course or another by turning over a card or lifting up a flap to reveal the consequences of their decision. Then they can move on to the next station to test their wits there.
- You are a tiny coyote pup and your mother has gone off to hunt for food. While you wait in the burrow a strange piece of thin wire on the end of a stick is pushed toward you from the door of your den. You see it coming and are afraid of it so you:
a. cower back against the wall of the burrow to escape.
b. attack the wire by biting it.
• If you chose (a) you survived.
• If you chose (b) you were snared and taken away by a hunter.
- You are now old enough to do some hunting on your own. There, up ahead, you see a dead animal that looks like it is more than big enough for a whole meal. When you get closer you see some strange tracks in the soil and smell an animal you have never smelled before. You are very hungry, but afraid to go closer to the dead animal. After watching a while and looking for signs of danger you decide to:
a. eat the meat of the animal.
b. turn away and search for another meal.
• If you chose (a) the meat was a poisoned trap set by a farmer and you are a goner.
• If you chose (b) you survived.
- It has not rained for a long time, the plants are dying and animals are becoming scarce. You are very weak, yet you feel an urge to travel to look for food. You begin to walk away from your burrow but you find it hard to walk. You decide to
a. push ahead and look for water and food elsewhere even though it means risking using up your last energy.
b. return to the burrow and wait for the rain and food to return.
• If you chose (a) you survived.
• If you chose (b) starvation set in and you became too weak to leave your burrow. You did not survive.
- You come to a place where people are living because you know there is usually some food nearby. There is a place up ahead where the smell of food is strong, yet danger is very near and threatening. As night slowly advances with the setting sun, you decide to
a. sneak in and eat as much of the food as you can under the cover of darkness.
b. turn around and seek food elsewhere.
• If you chose (a) you were able to eat safely while protected by the darkness. You survived.
• If you chose (b) your last strength was used when searching for food in another spot. You did not survive.
- With your strength restored you travel a short distance seeking shelter—a place to sleep and digest your meal. There is a strange burrow above ground up ahead. It is large and the morning sun shines off the strange smooth skin into your eyes. You climb up into it and try walking through the place that looks like the entrance, but you bump into something you cannot see. Finally you find an opening in the skin on the side and walk in, only to find many strange smells meet your nostrils. You sniff a few times and suddenly feel very tired. You decide to:
a. lie down and sleep here.
b. move on to look for a safer place.
• If you chose (a) you slept in an old abandoned car and made it your temporary shelter. You survived.
• If you chose (b) you found a large hollow tree to rest in and slept safely all day. You survived.
- When you wake up the sun is setting and you are hungry again, but not starving like before. You leave your burrow and walk until you come to the edge of the woods. You see a field with some furry animals in it eating the plants, but you are not sure it is safe to enter the field or whether those animals are food or not. As you move closer you notice a freshly-killed rabbit in front of you. There are those strange tracks around it, like the ones you saw near that dead animal with the strange smell some time ago. But this meat smells good as you approach it and your hunger deepens. Then, as you move even closer, you notice something sticking out of the ground near the rabbit. It looks like it has large teeth and is made of the strange skin of that burrow with the smooth shiny skin. You look all around one more time to make sure that none of the dangerous animals who walk on two feet are around, then you
a. pounce on the rabbit.
b. run off into the underbrush, sensing danger.
- If you chose (a) you felt a sharp, cold pain climb up your leg from one of your feet. Your foot is in a steel trap and there is no way out.
You did not survive.
- If you chose (b) you survived.
- If you have successfully survived by making all of the right choices so far, you will now raise a new coyote family. On the way back to your burrow you meet a coyote and decide to take her or him as a mate. Soon, the next generation of coyotes is born and you have pups of your own to feed.
Living In Balance: The Circle of Giving and Receiving
In “The Wisdom of Nature” the bee and the mango tree complain that the human beings take what they need but never give thanks. The gazelle says that its meat keeps the human beings alive, but that the human beings take it for granted. Many Native peoples see reciprocity—the Circle of Giving and Receiving—as essential to living in balance with nature.
Activity:(A) Make a list of all the gifts we receive from plants and animals. Practice
using only what is needed and giving thanks when receiving each of these gifts. (B) Create a special gift to return the generosity of the plants and animals.
Goals: Understand how numerous and varied are the gifts we receive from plants and animals. Realize that living in balance involves using only what is needed, not being wasteful and giving thanks to complete the circle of giving and receiving.
Level: Ages 5 to 12
Materials: (A) chalkboard and chalk or felt-tipped markers and newsprint, masking tape. (B) same materials as in (A) plus: pencils, paper, crayons, construction paper, scissors, glue, tape, very large sheet of paper such as brown postal wrapping paper, pictures or photographs of plants and animals as models for the children’s drawings, other materials as needed to complete children’s own, original projects.
Procedure A: Opening the Circle—Receiving. Use the children’s ideas and your own thoughts to make a list of the gifts we receive from plants and animals. Brainstorm a list of plants and animals that help to bring the gifts to us. Have the children go through an entire day by saying “thank you” to a plant or animal, or plants and animals in general, each time one of these gifts is used, eaten, worn, etc. An example is “Thank you honeybee” for honey and beeswax (a common ingredient in lip balm).
Encourage the children to be especially careful to use these gifts wisely—to take only what they need and not be wasteful.
Procedure B: Completing the Circle—Giving Back. Now tell the children how this story of “The Wisdom of Nature” reminds us that the plants and animals give us many wonderful gifts, and that living in balance means, in part, to return the gifts we receive by giving something of ourselves back. Ask the children to call out ways they may do this and write them down for all to see. Save them for use later.
Have each of the children write, in his or her own words, a poem or other form of saying “thank you” to the plants and animals. Children may draw a picture to depict a feeling of gratitude. Very young children may need pictures or photographs of the plants and animals to help them visualize the images for their drawings.
Create, on a large sheet of paper, an outline of a coconut palm, mango or other chosen tree, such as an apple tree. Have each child write or place her or his form of
“thank you” inside this outline. Pictures may be cut out and glued or taped on. The tree could even be entirely filled with pictures or illustrations to form a collage.
Follow through by having the children add other ways of giving thanks to the plants and animals as they think of them.
Michael J. Caduto is the creator and co-author (with Joseph Bruchac) of the best-selling Keepers of the Earth® series of books and resources. He recently released two new storytelling CD’s of stories from around the world: The Rainbow Garden—Tales of Wisdom (ages 5-10) and The Wisdom of Nature and other Earth Tales (ages 11 and up). Michael travels widely as an award-winning author, master storyteller, ecologist, educator, poet and musician. His work draws from the global well of Earth wisdom and he has worked closely with many Native peoples. His most recent books, Catch the Wind, Harness the Sun: 22 Super-Charged Science Projects for Kids and Riparia’s River received the Teacher’s Choice Award and Green Earth Honor Book Award.