Weaving the Land into Stories, and History

Storyteller Kevin Kling has just returned from the South Australian Outback. The region isn't just far away from home, Kling says: The familiar is very unfamiliar; the stars in the sky are different, and even the lakes are dry much of the time, quite different from Minnesota. The visit gave him perspective on the land and how the land and stories weave together to create a history.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Finally this hour, an offering from storyteller, Kevin Kling. He was in Australia not too long ago, far outside the big cities. While he was there, he met some interesting characters and heard some interesting tales.

KEVIN KLING reporting:

I'm in the outback of south Australia, staring at a small, arid mountain range. There are huge lakes on the map, but when I look out, there is no water in sight. I'm told they fill up once every decade or so.

I'm from Minnesota, land of prairies and lakes. At times it feels like the hemispheres in my head are as flipped as this world. At night, even the stars are different than I'm used to, like somebody shook up a bag of stars and threw them across the sky.

A couple of centuries ago, Europeans arrived here and set up camp, south of Adelaide, because, according to reports, nobody lived her. A Ghana(ph) man, or indigenous fellow, told the group to hold on. This isn't a good place to camp. Over there is much better.

So the settlers moved into what is now Adelaide. Five years later, the Ghana man asked the settlers, so how long are you guys thinking about staying?

That's still to be determined.

With the Europeans, hooved animals arrived; sheep, and cattle, and goats, and horses. And this land was inhabited by soft-footed creatures, and the hooves devastated the terrain.

I'm staying now, with some of the Atnamatya(ph) people. Atnamatya means people of the rocks, and their culture goes back 40,000 years. I'm walking with Klim Kotard(ph) and he's explaining how virtually ever plant has a use as a food or a medicine. And suddenly what seemed like a barren desert is rich in life.

Klim points the landscape and says, this is our bible, our encyclopedia and our supermarket. The land holds a story and we are part of that story. An emu, a huge flightless bird, suddenly runs past. Klim smiles and says, fast food.

Then he points to a small rock formation. It's shaped like a resting eagle. Now long ago, the story goes, the earth was flat and its features were formed by giant beings - shaped like animals but with human behavior. In this time, all birds were white, and the eagle called a meeting with his nephews, the magpie and the crow.

The magpie and the crow were tired of this eagle telling them what to do. So they tried to poison the eagle. The eagle became sick but he did not die. And to teach them a lesson, he built a fire in a cave, and he invited the magpie and the crow into the cave, and then he sealed the exit.

The magpie found his way out of the top and was only slightly singed, but the crow was singed completely, hence their new colors. And to this day, the nephews respect the eagle.

Now depending upon how this story's told, in it are many lessons. There are layers and layers to this tale I will never understand. Klim points again. He says, through this valley, the rainbow serpent traveled, and ate something that made him sick. He said that area has been avoided for thousands of years, because where the rainbow serpent vomited, you will become sick.

Now it turns out, they've discovered uranium on the land, in exactly the areas the serpent became sick. And uranium mines have sprung up in the area, replacing sacred sites. Klim is worried that soon they will take Eagle Mountain. He says if that mountain goes, we will lose that story, and with it the knowledge it contains. Like the loss of a plant or an animal, gone is its medicine, its nutrition, its gift, and stories are life.

I mean, I know things are changing, and we live in a different time now, but these folks sustained this environment for over 40,000 years.

I think about my home in Minnesota. And our stories ask some of the big questions, like, where do we come from? Where do we go after death? What is sacred? What is funny? Our stories tell us who we are, and how we fit as a society, but I would love to become acquainted with those stories from our land: from the Dakota, the Ojibway, the Crow. I love my home, but I often feel like I'm more of a renter than part of the earth, and we all know how we treat things we rent.

A buddy of mine says, yeah, a rented car will drive over anything. I think Mother Earth is suffering a trauma these days, where she has a fever - not just hot flashes - and when she sneezes, we pay big. I also know about stories from a healing perspective. After suffering a loss or a trauma, once you can tell a story about it, you're on the road to claiming it. You're part of it. You can control its path, if not it's outcome, and this is essential in the act of healing.

It's true, too, once you have a personal relationship with something, it is harder to take its life for granted. I mean, ask any farm kid who has named a pig.

When I teach, I found kids are natural storytellers. They love it. And they have innate ability to create incredible stories. I keep thinking, technology is going to ruin them, but it doesn't. They keep spinning these amazing yarns. And with these invisible threads, they begin to weave their cloak of immortality.

The Dakota people say, we need to listen to children because they are closer in time to the creator and remember more. This gives me hope for the future. It gives me hope for the earth. Maybe, in time, we'll give her back her story.

BLOCK: Storyteller Kevin Kling lives in Minnesota.

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