Speaker John Young describes how his family and mentors, and all our ancestors, used storytelling as an essential household activity to engage people. Storytelling teaches youngsters how to soak up details in their surroundings that were essential to survival, but it has appeal to all ages. And the format of the talk is, of course, a quilt of stories.
Jon describes how a mentor Ingwe told him such vivid, riveting stories that, as a listener, Jon saw imagery that Ingwe had not actually described. When he asked Ingwe about it, Ingwe said he held this imagery as part of the experience in his own mind as he told the story. This re-experiencing of the story by the teller is what makes storytelling powerful and holds the audience.
But to tell a good story, you have to have these memories in the first place. Jon underscores that your memory must be of the entire experience: not just sights, but smells, emotions, and other senses. The storyteller must immerse him or herself in the recollection of the experience. So to tell a good story, you must be aware and absorb the original experience. He related how a respectable nature coach was so absorbed in a tactile experience that he completely missed an equally sensuous and beautiful bird song. Even the pros can miss important details, so you'll probably need to re-awaken these awareness skills.
Our awareness may be atrophied, but we are still born with it. Jon suggested letting your furry and feathered neighbors help you develop it. Recall what you see on your way to the car in the same way you try to recall the name of someone at a party: if you forget the coloration of a small bird's tail, try to bring it back. If you cannot, try to watch for it again as you might listen for someone else to mention the acquaintance's name again.
You can help your children develop this awareness by "pulling on" their senses and stories. When they tell you what they saw, ask for more. Ask for details. If they tell you about a bird that flew away, ask them how they felt about it or what they heard. Listen as though you'll be stalking the bird for dinner tomorrow.
Jon contrasted the way people relate to traditional storytelling with the way people relate to English literature. Literature studies analyze layers of abstraction, while traditional storytelling is concrete and relevant to survival. His daughter is most engaged by stories about the monster who eats little kids. He described how storytellers can pull in a crowd of rowdy kids by getting really quiet during the most suspenseful parts of a story. Everyone leans in to hear.
At the end of the talk, a listener asked about connecting with teens through storytelling. Jon says it can be hard to connect if you live in a different culture from your teen, as many parents now do. Meet them in their world before asking them to join you in yours, he advises. Or look to their mentors for help.
I first met Jon while visiting his Wilderness Awareness program. Because his group was on POST property, he invited POST employees to check out the program. My wife, who was with POST at the time, brought me along. We spent day getting back to our roots, looking for voles in the grass and searching for a mountain lion kill.