Storytellers' A to Z Blog Challenge: Apple Tree Folktale

A recent challenge has storytellers posting on topics from A to Z, literally. I decided to join the fray, so here is my first post on the letter A. And what better source of stories for the heart and mind than apples? Here at our homestead apples are a regular part of our diet. From eating them raw to applesauce, apple cider, apple butter, fried apples, apple pie, apple cake, dried apples and just about any other way they can be prepared, apples are just plain delicious. The fruit plays a role in many stories, songs and poems, too. Here's a small selection of some of my favorites. And for more about what we do with apples here at home, check out my other blog's postings about our favorite fruit.

The Apple Tree: An Aesop Fable

A peasant had growing in his garden an apple tree which bore no fruit at all. It served only as a place for crickets, grasshoppers and sparrows to get out of the heat. The little creatures often sat chirping in the tree's branches.

Disappointed that the tree produced no fruit, the man decided to cut it down.

"Please don't destroy our tree," the grasshoppers said. "Where will we sit and chirp if there is no tree here?"

"Please don't cut this tree," begged the birds. "We sit in its branches and sing to you every day. Would you not miss our songs?"

"Please leave the tree alone," said the crickets. "We rest on its bark and make our music to lighten your work. Where will we go if you cut the tree?"

"No," said the man. "The tree gives me nothing. Why should I keep it in my garden? At least its wood will warm me in my fires this winter."

The man picked up his axe and gave a mighty swing. He quickly discovered that other creatures were living in the hollow center of the tree: honeybees! The large swarm buzzed angrily as it protected its large store of honey.

"Aha!" said the man. "This tree is worth keeping after all. Who knew that it contained such treasure?" He picked up his axe and left the tree standing, and its inhabitants continued to sing, chirp and buzz.

Cider Apples

When God had made the oak trees,
And the beeches and the pines,
And the flowers and the grasses,
And the tendrils of the vines;
He saw that there was wanting
A something in His plan,
And He made the little apples,
The little cider apples,
The sharp, sour cider apples,
To prove his love for man.

Unknown (from the website Food Reference).

Here's to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou mayst bud,
and whence thou mayst blow!
And whence thou mayst bear apples enow!
Hats full! caps full!
Bushel—bushel—sacks full,
And my pockets full too! Huzza!
--James Herrick

And then, of course, there are Love Apples:

Tomatoes, you might know, were once thought to have aphrodisiacal properties and were called "the devil's fruit" by the Catholic Church.. Meaning you might be looking at your mate a little differently after eating them. Early herbalists believed that tomatoes were poisonous and many people avoided eating them; you can read more about the tomato's checkered paston this great site, The Tomato Guru. This might have been because the tomato is a member of the family if nightshades, and some of its relatives in this family can be toxic. An early herbalist named John Gerardwrote a book in which he cautioned against eating tomatoes and his words carried weight in the 1600's in England and the early US colonies. 

According to the website Tomato Casual, "It is said that if you place a large red tomato on your windowsill, it will scare away evil spirits. You could also choose to place it over the hearth — this is supposed to bring prosperity to the house. Another way to gain money is to place a tomato peeling over your door, which will bring money within four days." I think I might have to try that tomato peeling over the door. (I found another source that noted the tomato on the windowsill belief as coming from Italy : "Tomatoes are also the subject of superstitions. “Some Italians,” reports one treatise, “put a large red tomato on the mantel to bring prosperity to the house. When placed on the window-sill, or in any opening, it wards off evil spirits, and protects the occupants of the house” (DeLys 1989, 249).")

For more fascinating reading about tomatoes, check out these sites:

The origin of the Mortgage Lifter tomato variety: did you know it came from Logan, West Virginia? 

Then there's Aunt Ruby's Green Tomato, which apparently started out in Germany--where tomatoes were called "wolf peaches," and there is a folktale, according to many sources, in which witches turned people into wolves by feeding them tomatoes. I've yet to track down that elusive story, though.

A lesson plan with a story about how food gets to our tables.

What would spaghetti be without tomatoes? Check out Storytelling, Cooking and Kids for the words to On Top of Spaghetti and all kinds of other great activities to do with kids in the kitchen.

Have you ever heard of beating your tomato plants with a broom? Hmmm....

Happy telling! 

Sir Cleges and the Christmas Cherries: A Retelling of a Story from the Legends of Arthur

Sir Cleges was knight like no other. Brave and fearless in battle, he had a kind heart and always helped anyone in need, lending money without expecting repayment, or forgiving rents if his tenants faced hard times.But over time he lost his fortune through his unstinting generosity, and had little left but the roof over his head. This Christmas season, there would be no celebrations, gifts, rich foods and visitors. There was no food at all, and only enough wood to keep the smallest of fires. Still, Sir Cleges knew there were people in worse shape than he was--people with no food at all, no home and no fire to warm them. 

Sir Cleges walked out one day on his land, thinking about how, even in his current situation, there were still so many who would spend the holidays with even less. He sat down under his favorite cherry tree, wondering if there was some way he could provide something for those poor people. A sound brought him out of his reverie.

"Why, it sounds like wind blowing through summer leaves, and yet here it is deep mid-winter!" Sir Cleges looked up and was stunned to see the tree was in full bloom and covered with ripe, juicy cherries.

"How can this be?" he exclaimed. "Cherries in winter? This must surely be a miracle!" He picked as many as his hands could hold and hurried home to his wife.

Reaching his home, he called out, "Look! Look what I have found! Can you believe it, cherries in winter?"

"It is a miracle!" she cried. She put one of the cherries into her mouth and smiled. "You must pick some of these magic cherries, Sir Cleges, and take them to Uther Pendragon. He is at Cardiff Castle now, I hear, and that is not so far away. He will be amazed to see these cherries, here at Christmas time!"

Sir Cleges agreed that this was a good plan, He picked a basket full of cherries, said good-bye to his wife and set off on his journey.

"Oh my, but will the King receive me, dressed as I am? Once I wore the raiment of a proud knight; now I am dressed like a beggar." Sir Cleges looked down at his ragged clothing in dismay. Then he straightened up and strode briskly on his way. "I may not be well dressed, but I am still a knight. I must act like one."

'Halt!" called the sentry at the castle gate. "Who are you and what is your business here?"

"Good day," said Sir Cleges. "I am Sir Cleges, a knight of His Majesty's realm. I have come to bring the King some Christmas cherries."

"You must pay me to enter here," the sly guard said. "What will you pay?"

"I have no money,"said Sir Cleges. "You can see my my clothing that hard times have overtaken me. All I have are these cherries, which I mean to give to the King."

"You will give me one third of your reward for bringing the King these cherries, or I will send you on your way."

Sadly, Sir Cleges agreed. He entered the castle and walked to the keep, but another guard stopped him.

"Halt! Who do you think you are, trying to enter here in your filthy rags?"

"I am Sir Cleges. I have come to bring these cherries to the King."

"You'll not enter here for free, my friend. What payment can you offer?"

Once again Cleges agreed to give the guard one third of whatever reward he was granted by the King. He walked up the stairs to the great hall, when yet another guard stopped him. Again payment was demanded.

"I suppose you want payment too!" Sir Cleges exclaimed.

"Take your cherries to the King. But you must give to me one third of whatever the King gives you as a reward for bringing him such lovely fruit."

Sir Cleges had no choice but to agree once again to these terms. He walked into the hall and bowed low, presenting his basket of cherries to the King.

"Cherries in winter! What a miracle!" The King shouted. He passed the basket of cherries around to his dinner guests, and all exclaimed in delight at such an amazing treat.

"Please, Sir Cleges, join us at the table." Sir Cleges sat down and ate of the rich and plentiful meal before him.

"Tell me, Sir Cleges, what reward do you wish to have in payment for bringing me such a treat?" asked the King.

"If it please Your Majesty, I should like permission to give twelve strokes with my stick to the people I choose."

The King stared at Sir Cleges. "That is a strange request indeed. Are you sure you would not prefer gold or meat or jewels instead?

"Thank you, Sire, I want only what I have asked."

"Very well, then," said the King. So it shall be."

Sir Cleges walked out of the hall and was soon stopped by the third guard. "Give me my third of your reward!" the man demanded. Sir Cleges struck the man on the back with four mighty blows that sent the guard howling out of the hall.

When he reached the entrance to the keep, the second guard demanded his payment. Sir Cleges obliged him, swinging his stick with all his strength and leaving the man crying on his knees. At the gate, the first guard stopped Sir Cleges and said, "All right, now pay me what is due me!" Once more Sir Cleges wielded his stick and struck the man the last four blows. As he passed through the gate, one of the King's men rushed up to him.

"Sir Cleges, Uther Pendragon has asked that you return to his hall," the man said. Sir Cleges was surprised but obeyed, returning to the presence of the King.

"I have recalled who you are, Sir Cleges. How come you to be dressed in the rags of a poor man?"

Sir Cleges bowed his head. "I have been too generous, Your Majesty, and then hard times struck and I have nothing left but him home and my family. And I thank God to have that much when so many have far less."

"But why did you not ask for gold or food as a reward? Surely that would have served you better?"

Sir Cleges explained about his encounters with the greedy guards. On hearing the tale, Uther Pendragon laughed and laughed.

"You are a clever man, Sir Cleges. Your story has earned another reward. You shall have new lands, and control of this Castle as well. But you must promise me to be a wiser steward of your money, and to be more cautious in your giving in the future."

And so it was, and so Sir Cleges did, and all was well with him once again.

There is a beautifully illustrated version of this story in achildren's picture book by Jane Louise Curry.

You can read more about this story and its place in Arthurian legendry at these sites:

University of Rochester Middle English Texts Series

Translation by Jessie L. Weston

San Francisco State University Medieval Forum

Database of Middle English Romance

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

Kentucky Bound

I am off to Kentucky in the morning to teach two workshops at the Kentucky Storytelling Association's annual conference. This year it's being held at Greenbo State Park, only a few hours away.

I am offering the workshops Seeking the Sprits: Finding, Researching, and Telling Ghost Stories, as well as Three Stories Anyone Can Tell. Storytellers love to share what they know, and I am hoping that those who attend my workshops will come away energized and with new tales in their repertoire.

See you soon, Kentucky!

Stage Fright: More Frightening than Any Halloween Ghoul

Do you suffer from the jitters before you have to speak in public?

Who doesn't? Over 60% of Americans report suffering from stage fright symptoms, ranging from debilitating nausea to sweaty palms, shaking knees and dry mouth. Over my years as a storyteller I have learned techniques from others to keep myself calm and actually anticipating each performance. 

The most important point to remember is that your audience wants you to succeed; they're on your side, ready to be entertained and enlightened. Focus on them and their enjoyment of the event and not on yourself. Remember, it's not about you; it's about the audience and the story. You are the conduit through which the story will pass, and your job is to honor the story and take care of the audience. 

Another interesting perspective is that fear and excitement are almost the same emotion--both get adrenaline pumping and have similar symptoms. Your self-talk can be key to controlling stage fright. Positive thoughts like, "I am so excited about being here!" or "I can't wait to tell my story!" will help shift your focus from how nervous you are to an expectation of success.

You may still find you have sweaty hands and other annoying symptoms of stage fright even if you have mentally prepared yourself for a great performance. Here are a few suggestions to help calm down those symptoms:

Dry Mouth:Sip room-temperature water. Avoid caffeine-containing liquids (tea, coffee, cola) and alcohol--these dehydrate. Avoid milk products--these may make your mouth feel "gummy." Bite the tip of your tongue. Lightly coat your teeth with Vaseline to keep your lips from sticking to them.

Tight Throat:
Do some vocal warm-up exercises. Hum. I like to do "mouth music" as a way of warming up my voice and preparing my throat. It's fun!

Sweaty Hands:Dust your hands lightly with powder or corn starch before your presentation. Carry a hanky or tissue.

Cold Hands:
Take a quick walk, or do some isometric exercises to warm up.

Shaky Hands:Gesture. When your hands are in motion, the shaking is less noticeable. But keep those gestures under control. Nervously flailing hands can detract from your presentation.

Eat lightly before your presentation. Avoid milk and dairy products.

Fast Pulse:
Deep breathing will help slow it down and also calms many of the other symptoms listed here.

Shaky Knees:
Move around a little. Take a few steps toward your audience, pause, then move a few steps to one side pause, then to the other.

Red Splotches on Face and Neck:
Wear red or pink colors. Wear high-necked clothes, turtleneck shirts.

Trembling Lips:
Smile! And keep talking.

Copyright Susanna Holstein 2013. No redistribution or republication without permission from Susanna Holstein.

Why Do I Tell Stories?

It's a question that comes up over and over again. Why do we do this? It's not easy--often we go into settings that have no concept of what a storyteller, or storytelling, is. Frequently we must explain that storytelling is not reading stories to little children. Sometimes we must listen to people tell us that theycould tell some tales, tooOccasionally we must turn down an event because the organizers thinks we are sweet little old ladies who tell stories just to have something to do.

So why do we tell stories, and why do we keep facing the scenarios above?
Every teller probably has a different answer. For me, it's very clear: I tell stories to reconnect people with who they are and where they came from. Sure they live in suburbia today, but somewhere back in their heritage there are ancestors with their feet in the dirt, living on a farm or making their way across the mountains. That is what I want to recall, the links to heritage and history and family.

If I can make one person wonder about where they came from and go home to begin that search, I've been successful.

If I encourage one child to ask a parent, "when did you get in trouble when you were my age?" I've been successful.

If I manage to recall to one person the little house they grew up in, that's success.

If one person goes home determined to learn more about their family, I did something good.

If one person suddenly sees a grandparent in front of them, it is worth every minute of effort I put into it.

That's what storytelling is--connecting, connectivity, remembrance and remembering.

That's why I tell stories.

The Hello Man

A tale based on a conversation with Ray, a resident at an assisted living facility I visited last fall. I posted this last year on my other blog, Granny Sue's News and Reviews. It's a good story for this time of year, when the shadows lengthen and firelight flickers. Gather round; let's hear a tale.

"Have you ever heard of the "Hello Man? You haven't? Then let me tell you a story.

"I grew up on Big Laurel, in Mingo county. When I was a boy we lived right beside the creek. The road ran sometimes in the creek, sometimes on the bank, you know how those old roads were. People said sometimes at night you could hear someone coming along the road hollering, "Hello!" but the person, or thing, never was seen so people thought it was a spirit, a ghost, you know. It was spooky enough along the creek the way the branches hung overhead. The moonlight could just barely filter through, making little white patches in the pitch dark. On moonless nights, you could hardly see your hand in front of your face. You can imagine how scary it would be to be walking on that road and suddenly hear someone calling out, and knowing no live person was really there.

"My uncle was visiting us one night. He was a circuit-riding preacher and was passing through our holler on his way to his next church. We were all out on the porch, just talking and visiting. The night was pitch dark and warm, a humid summer night when the locusts were still calling. In the distance we could hear a hoot owl's call, and a whippoorwill's song far up in the hills. I believe it was August, can't be sure. Over the noise of the insects we heard him.

"Hello? Hello! He-llllll-ooooooo..." The voice drifted up the holler, echoing, repeating, fainter and fainter.

My uncle sat straight up. "Who is that?" he asked.

"That's the Hello Man," I told him. "A haint, is what we think it is."

"A haint?"

"Yeah, no one ever sees him, we just hear him hollering Hello. It's right creepy if you're comin' up the road alone at night. People have been hearing him for years, so they say."

My uncle sat back. "No one knows who it might be the spirit of?"

"Nope. We just skedaddle when we hear him. I sure don't want to meet up with no haint in the night!"

"Well, we'll put an end to this." My uncle stood up, picked up his Bible from the porch table and strode off the porch into the night, disappearing under the overhanging trees.

"Hello? Hello? Helloooooo..." The Hello Man's voice sounded closer than ever and we strained our eyes trying to see where our uncle had gone. It seemed like the trees had swallowed him up.

"It was real quiet then for a long time. We were scared. Had the Hello Man got our uncle? We imagined all sorts of terrible things, our uncle hanging from a tree, or lying in the road with his head cut off, or maybe carried off and we'd never see him again. My little brother began to snuffle.

"Shhh! I hear someone coming!" We darted for the door, scrambling inside the house and peeking out through the windows into the blackness beyond. We could see nothing.

Someone stepped up on the porch. My little brother let out a wail, then screamed as the the door burst open.

My uncle stood in the doorway, illuminated by the kerosene lamp on the table. He set down his Bible and dusted his hands together.

"Well," he said, "there will be no more of that."

We never did learn what our uncle had done. But no one ever heard the Hello Man again.

Copyright Susanna Holstein 2012. All rights reserved. No republication or redistribution without permission.

"My Family Doesn't Talk"

Her hair was white, her hands thin and blue-veined. She sat quietly in the audience, listening as I told stories, my friend Heidi Muller played her dulcimer we both sang. I didn't notice the lady particularly; she was just one of about 75 people attending the Road Scholar workshops. Heidi was teaching dulcimer class and I joined her in the evening to provide entertainment for the group.

We wove our stories and songs together; a song of longing for home was followed by a discussion of home and place and why it has such a pull on people, particularly West Virginians. Then we moved on to Heidi's song about seeing things--traveling back to a place and finding it much changed but still seeing it as it was. I followed with some short memories my husband had shared with me about growing up in a coal camp, funny and poignant, and then told his story of the Headless Woman of Briar Creek.

We alternated back and forth throughout the program with one story leading to a song and then to another story, and this time Heidi offered her song of a girl growing up. That led into my story of my parents and how they met during World War II and how my mother, at age 18, left her home in England to come to America and her new husband. The program continued with stories and songs weaving together a tapestry of memories, history, humor and family.

At its end the white-haired woman approached me with tears on her cheeks.

"Thank you. Thank you so much for that. My family never told stories. My father was in World War I but he never spoke of it, never told us about his experience. My mother never told us stories, either, and yet I know that as a girl out on the western plains she must have had stories. My family just doesn't talk. Thank you, thank you so much."

My family doesn't talk. What poignant words. How many families are like hers, rushing through life without looking back and remembering? Stories, our stories, tell us about ourselves: where we came from and why, about our heritage and the ethics and values that drove our forebears. Stories ground us and give us a firm foundation on which to move forward. Not telling them means the stories will be lost to future generations. My heart ached for this lady. She realized what she had missed, and what was lost forever now that her parents are gone.

I suggested that when she goes home, she immediately call her children and say, "I want to tell you about my childhood, about how I grew up. Did you know your grandfather was in World War I? Did you know Grandma lived in a sod house? There are stories I want you to hear so you will know where you come from." She promised to make that call.

It is my hope that all of my audiences return home with a fresh understanding of the importance of telling their family stories and passing down the history, the memories and the strength of their ancestors. I often have people tell me after a performance that my stories reminded them of something that happened to them, or a story someone in their family told them, and I urge them to be sure to pass that story down. That is my goal; in this one program, I know that at least one person got the message, and that perhaps one family is now hearing the stories of their heritage.