Tuesday, March 27, 2012

JERRY WOLFE: Stories Keep Us Connected

Jerry Wolfe

Listening last night to Cherokee story-teller Jerry Wolfe,  I was taken back to my childhood love of animal stories and my love of language itself.  Maybe that's one reason I have always responded so profoundly to Native American stories and songs, especially those by N. Scott Momaday, himself of Cherokee descent.   Below is one of my Language Matters columns written while I was Poet Laureate.  I think Mr. Wolfe would like this book, In the Bear's House.  Bear was roaming around Mr. Wolfe's stories last night, along with Mouse, Rabbit, and Eagle.   Like their human counterparts, they were on hand to welcome WCU's new Chancellor and his wife, David and Susan Belcher.

Chancellor David Belcher and his wife Susan

Child’s Play 
By Kathryn Stripling Byer 

Soon school will be over for the year. Students will leave their classrooms and bound out 
into a summer day, feeling free, at least for a little while. But free to do what? These days 
our children’s lives are so filled with activities that they’ve hardly time to sit and feel the 
expanse of summer around them, that magical time I remember opening up like a day 
dream. And daydreaming is what has been on my mind lately. We think of it as wasting 
time, but for most of us, especially the young, it is nothing less than making time. Making 
time for our own mind play. And play has everything to do with language. 

Native American writer N. Scott Momaday, whose mother was Cherokee, has imagined a 
dialogue between Bear and Yahweh, entitled In the Bear’s House. In it, Bear asks 
Yahweh, “Language. How did it happen? How did language begin?” Yahweh answers, 
“Oh, the children made it one day. Poor Man, he had been trying so hard to talk, for such 
a long time. Then the children went out and played together. At the end of the day they 
had possession of language.” 

Yahweh tells Bear that the children came home, saying to their parents, “This is what you 
have been trying to say.” 

To which Bear replies, “Language is child’s play.” 

Yahweh affirms, “There you have it.” 

Summer used to be the time for child’s play, when simply being alone with one’s 
thoughts was perfectly acceptable. No homework, no basketball practice, no school 
meetings. I could read as long as I wanted in the afternoons, then go roaming to my 
favorite field and watch the light moving across the land that lay like an open book before 

Those days are long gone. We have become more and more urbanized, our lives busier 
and busier. But perhaps we should try now and then to get back into the spirit of those 
days. As a columnist in The New York Times recently noted, “With battalions of 
therapists, tutors and coaches we have now commandeered most aspects of our children's 
existence. What has become of their fantasy lives?” 

Summer reading programs offer one way to encourage children to begin exploring the 
world of their imaginations as well as the world around them. Silence helps. No 
television, no computer games, no ipods plugged into young ears. 

A writer once speculated that the great attraction of creative writing courses is that they 
allow students the quiet time that the world inside and outside the classroom does not. 
Students yearn to become acquainted with their inner lives through poetry and stories, 
having had so little opportunity to do so otherwise. 

The Australian aborigines speak of the Dreamtime, a sacred time before clock time 
began, a time when all was being created. We need our own Dreamtime. It is where we 
dream our best dreams, feel the power of our own inner poetry calling to us. For me, it is 
always summertime. Sand spurs. Bare feet. Time on my hands, not heavy but ripe and 
promising as a book read by an open window. And outside a world to be daydreamed into 
existence, day after day.

N Scott Momaday's parents:  His father was Kiowa, his mother Cherokee.
N Scott Momaday, poet, novelist, and memoirist, Pulitzer Prize Winner, and one of my all-time favorite authors.


  1. How lovely Kathryn. This is just how I remember summers as a child and now that I'm semi-retired, it's all flowing back, slowly but surely.

    I've moved from Chicago to the North Georgia Mountains and in June, my five grandsons, ages 17 to 6 will come to stay for their summer vacation. I am soo worried about them being bored. I know that as I child, I wouldn't have been, but you are right about today being different. Hopefully, they will find that little slice of heaven sitting in a field with the wind wisping through their hair and daydream all kinds of time.

    Thank you

  2. Yes, Kathryn, I had that same lazy, quiet childhood. Never bored because I loved to read. My sister and I took part in the summer reading program and always came home with gold stars for all the books we read each summer. I am deeply grateful I was born a girl in my family and didn't have to work outside in summer like my brothers. Mother was kind and gave us freedom to dream, to read and to write. I don't think I would like being a child today with my whole summer structured for me.
    I liked wondering in the woods, looking for birds' nests, finding unusual rocks or seed pods or sitting in a chinaberry tree and day dreaming. Oh, to go back to those carefree days.

  3. I agree, Kay. Children are under too much pressure today to grow up. They need time to be children, time to play, time to dream, and just be kids. I'm so glad I grew up in the country and had time to explore nature. I think there's just too much pressure on our children today.

  4. Kathryn, thanks for stopping by my blog. ou're right, there are lots of things to 'go' and do when the grnadkids come down. I'm just hoping they will find that peace of wandering in the sunshine that we all remember so well. Coming from Chicago, I'm sure it will take them the better part of the summer to wind down.

  5. What a great post! So many of the issues you brought up resonated with me: the Cherokee animal stories, this complicated (and not so) idea of language growing organically, the value of an outdoor childhood, etc. As a former outdoor educator, I watched kids from the Upper East Side to inner-city Atlanta fall utterly in love with the forest. Now that I'm a mother to a 2 year-old, time spent outside is more precious than ever... and I want that for her, because I firmly believe it'll shape the good person I hope she's becoming.

    I grew up in the S.C. Blue Ridge, and have been fascinated by the Cherokee since I was a child. I built my first historical novel around them, and utilized so many of their wonderful stories. So it's great to hear about another Native author, Momaday, whom I didn't know. (I couldn't have written my novel without James Mooney's History, Myths....) I'll have to check out his work!

    Thanks so much for sharing.

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