Category: storytelling

Magpie and Ancestral Voices

Mr. Magpie photo by Keith Williams to be used on Seven Kinds of Rain book cover

In my upcoming novel, the title of which I will soon announce, Magpie and ancestral voices are inseparable. Magpie is a figure of myth and a real bird, but also the nickname for one of my central characters. In the story, Margaret Rose doesn’t choose that nickname for herself, but it is apt. She’s both dark and light, smart, vivacious and a bit of a thief. Like the bird, she’s smart, sensitive, loyal and eager to make use of what others leave behind.

I harbored some reservations about including magpies in my Nebraska stories. I wondered if they truly inhabited the Republican River valley, as I couldn’t remember seeing one when I was a child. I try to mind regional details, as well as historical ones, in my writing. As if to answer my concerns, when I drove along the Republican River last year for my research trip, a magpie flew low along the roadside where I traveled, showing me his white belly and glossy blue-black plumage. It seemed more than a random wildlife sighting, perhaps even a blessing on how I’m weaving the birds, the characters and the myths of Magpie into my novels.

Magpies, mystery, meaning and myths run through my writing, alongside what history would retell and science would prove. Margaret, my novel’s Magpie, loves both stories and science, as do her friends. In upcoming posts, I’ll discuss about other folktales, rhymes and mythical threads I’m weaving into the early 1900s characters, along with scientific theories and historical events.

The epigraph I’ve chosen for the book is a verse from Psalm 78. I claim no Biblical authority with these words, nor do I announce any religious theme or agenda for my little book. Rather, the quote expresses my belief that we should hold on to all the stories we receive from ancestors, and bring them to light for generations.

I will open my mouth in a parable, things we have known from of old, things our ancestors have told us.         Psalm 78

When we braid the old stories with our own, our lives become an extension of those who stood in this place before us. Even if the storytellers are not related to us by blood, their stories are one with this place, and their voices can deepen and amplify our own accounts.

No longer wandering alone in the midst of our facts, may we find ourselves illuminated by the multitude of ancestors, their presence, whimsy and wisdom. May our children and grandchildren, well-educated in science, consider also the light of history and myth.

(I’d like to give special thanks to Keith Williams, the photographer who captured this brilliant photo of Mr. Magpie, which I use as the featured image for this post. He kindly gave permission for me to use the image on the book cover of my upcoming novel…what a great guy, and an amazing photographer!)

Magpie and Myth

The word “myth” in conversation is often used to label something untrue, but in many dictionaries, that definition is secondary. Merriam-Webster’s primary definition of myth is “a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.” The word “ostensibly” raises doubts of factual truth, but doesn’t rule out aspects of truth in cultural myths, or their important purpose of explanation. Those who study Greek and Roman myths, for example, understand that while the more magical antics of gods and goddesses are likely not factual, they speak a sort of truth about our human foibles, while mentioned battles, conquests and heroes may originate in recorded events and real people.

Science poses questions, ventures hypotheses and seeks proofs to determine what is fact. I love science, and believe that anything true has nothing to fear from science. Yet, science has yet to develop measurements or proofs for every aspect of human experience. Therein remains the margin, the mystery and the role of myth, even in an age of science. Because of the space between fact and meaning, there lingers our human need for a good story, to enlighten and explain.

So the magpie remains, not only as genus and species, but also a meaningful figure. Sometimes heralds of disaster or bad weather, in other cases, magpies are considered good omens. Mixed human feelings about the noisy birds are evident in nursery rhymes, first noted in European print in 1780, in John Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities:

charhallmagpieptgOne for sorrow,
Two for mirth,
Three for a wedding,
And four for death.
This beautiful illustration, titled “One for Sorrow Two for Joy” was painted by Char Hall. (Prints are for sale here on Etsy.)

Combing world history and literature for magpie stories, I focused on Magpie as a figure in Native American, specifically Pawnee, tribal lore. Readers of my first novel, The Darkwater Liar’s Account, may recall what seemed like a throwaway line on page 257. While mowing her lawn, Bridget wonders who will take up that chore after she dies. She considers, “Maybe it will just go wild, back to tall prairie grass. Better yet, back to the Pawnee, who hunted here.” (I have since writing that line met a person who did exactly that—he returned his Nebraska land to the Pawnee tribe. More on that, later.)

In my next post, I’ll explore how the Pawnee and their mythic Magpie became central to my upcoming novels.

Greeting a Magpie

My first childhood experience of greeting a magpie was in Estes Park, Colorado, in a parking lot. When I held a cracker or cookie or some other object overhead, a magpie would swoop down and take it. This interaction with people impressed me, as did the rushing, iridescent black feathers and sizzling white belly feathers on that swooping bird. Reading about magpies since, I find they have a reputation as highly intelligent thieves of shiny objects, especially in captivity.

Magpies are members of the corvid, or crow family, as are rooks, jays and nutcrackers. There are different magpie varieties, with the most widespread American bird being the type I met in Estes Park, the black-billed magpie, Pica hudsonia. Another variety with a yellow bill, Pica nuttalli, inhabits only woodland regions of central and southern California. The non-corvid Australian magpie, Cracticus tibicen, is a piebald bird. There’s also an entire genus of blue-green magpies in the Orient, Urocissa, and the azure-winged Cyanopica. A distant Corvidae relative, the black magpie Platysmurus leucoptyrus, is in fact a treepie and not a magpie. Take note, and thank you Wikipedia for sorting that out for us. We wouldn’t want to confuse our magpies and treepies!

I became a voracious seeker of magpie lore while researching my upcoming novel. Throughout North America, England, Germany, China, Korea and ancient Rome, the magpie appears in traditional stories and proverbs. On A Letter from the Netherlands, an expat British writer muses on how the superstition-laden magpie carries a bad reputation and is most often a bad omen in her tradition and family experience.

Reading about mythical magpies led me to reflect on the power and durability of myth, and how myths hold value for us today. In my next post, I’ll address this and greet Magpie as a mythic figure.

(Thanks to Christophe Libert for use of his magpie photo!)

 

 

Worth the Wait

hungry dog waiting

hungry dog waiting

Gilda the WunderSchnauzer is sitting at my side as I type, not in adoration, but trembling with anticipation. In her mind, the clock holds no meaning and it’s always time for food in her dish. Her hunger makes it worth the wait. She’s vigilant, hoping I’ll look at her and say, “It’s time.” Time for another meal.

Wurth harvest 2013

Wurth harvest 2013

All summer, we in rural Iowa have been waiting for harvest. The soybeans and corn tell us what time it is, so to speak, as sprouts crack through brown soil, leaf, spread and canopy the ground. We watch breadth, height and fanning of leaves that wave like water under the summer winds, until the colors peak and begin to fade. The seeds drain the life from the stalks and leaves, while all ripen and dry. It’s both good and sad to see the colors change back to beiges and browns. When that last combine pulls out of the field, headed for the machine shed, it means another cycle is complete and it’s time for the earth, and farmers, to get a little rest. Just a little, here at one ending, and before another beginning.

waiting to touch you

waiting to touch you

Life keeps us waiting, longing, ever anticipating. Right now my daughter, along with our whole family, is growing impatient for the birth of her third child and even all these years later, I remember what that feels like, that sense of fullness, holding that squirming, beautiful life who’s just on the verge of visibility. Arms ache for what will fill them. Minds and bodies overflow with affection, aching to stroke little fingers and kiss a downy head, to breathe in those “new baby smells,” even the not-so-fresh ones!  To hear that voice for the first time. To memorize an eye color and a smile. It’s hard to wait for anything, but it may be hardest of all to wait for beginnings. A new season. A new child. A new chapter in a family’s novel of love.

So we write on, generations like pages turning, to fulfill and extend our story. This is how we are blessed, breath by breath, but we must be patient for what matters most. We must wait, sometimes painfully, to touch what we cherish and believe.

 

Imagining All Summer in a Day

rainy day by jenny rolo

rainy day by jenny rollo

“‘Ready?’
‘Ready.’
‘Now?’
‘Soon.’
‘Do the scientists really know? Will it happen today, will it?’
‘Look, look; see for yourself!’
The children pressed to each other like so many roses, so many weeds, intermixed, peering out for a look at the hidden sun.”

— Ray Bradbury, “All Summer in a Day”

After last year’s threatened drought, it’s rained heavily this spring, seemingly everywhere in the U.S. Thunderstorms, floods and tornadoes rattle, wash and shatter us with their scope and power. Weather changes can be dramatic and deadly. Sometimes they bring on physiological reactions to humidity, temperature atmospheric pressure changes. More rain? Drip. Ouch. Sigh. Bleh.

Seeing our potential ten-day forecast for another eight days of consecutive rain, I almost let my head thump down on my keyboard in despair. I caught myself in time, though. It sure would be nice to look forward to more than two days in a row with sunshine…I was going to whine and complain, when I remembered something better. Better than whining and complaining, you ask? Why, yes.

A story.

1975 ray bradbury photo by alan light

1975 ray bradbury photo by alan light

Decades ago, I first read Ray Bradbury’s short story, “All Summer in a Day.” What I could remember of it haunted me, so I reread it today, to find it even better than I’d remembered. Bradbury tells of a human-inhabited, colorless, perpetually stormy and jungle-like Venus, where sunlight breaks through to warm children’s skin for only two hours, every seven years…that is, if human frailty doesn’t corrupt even that irreplaceable pleasure. Can you imagine experiencing all summer in a day?

Rereading “All Summer in a Day” made me think about childhood and weather, how rare and lovely and terrible they can be, sometimes all in one classroom or one moment. I’ve written and read many short stories since I first read this one. Few have made such an impression or felt so pure, complete, balanced and starkly perfect in their storytelling. I aspire to write this well.

venus in transit, june 5, 2012, nasa photo

venus in transit, june 5, 2012 by nasa

From Ray Bradbury’s online biography, here’s what he had to say on his 80th birthday: “The great fun in my life has been getting up every morning and rushing to the typewriter because some new idea has hit me.” Something tells me this is a man who found heat and light, words and meaning in almost any sort of weather.

On June 5, 2012, just a little over a year ago, Ray Bradbury died during the Transit of Venus. During that event, from our limited, but well-lit vantage point in space, cold Venus appears to cross the flaring, disc-like surface of our sun. Nice ending, sir, to a well-told life. Thanks, too, for the story. I’ll ponder it and it will warm me during the next several hours, days, or years, of rain.