Friday, June 4, 2010

Homestead's Artist-in-Residence: A Day of Stories

The very first day that Nelson, my husband, and I arrived at Homestead for my two week stay as a storytelling artist in residence, I walked through the woods, along the river, past the tree line and up to the plow shaped heritage center. In the auditorium out of the sun, I watched the movie, which serves as an introduction to the exhibits. I listened to the grey haired lady speaking about her ancestors. She said it was a miracle that that the homesteaders survived. They had to battle the weather, the land and loneliness. They only survived, she said, through working together, as families and as a community.

By Sally Crandall
Artist-in-Residence 2010

Every morning, I practiced a little for the up coming storytelling festival. I was nervous. Would the audiences like my stories from Ohio? Thinking about the stories I would be telling, I passed the banners of the people who homesteaded and those who descended from those early homesteaders: Whoopie Goldberg, Lawrence Welk, plus a bunch of others. I usually made a stop in the staff library where I read about prairie plants as medicine and prairie plants as food. I read about the importance of fire too and about the prairie itself, and then I took a walk around the park, often stopping to watch the video in the heritage center. I loved to hear the stories of all the families. Watching Ken Deardorff, the last homesteader, so full of adventure and happiness with his young family, brought tears to my eyes every time.

The first day of the storytelling festival was hot. Kids came in buses and we told stories under the tent and inside the education building. At the end of the day, I walked the perimeter of the prairie land, up to the heritage center, and watched the movie again. Arriving back at our house, Jesse, who keeps the prairie a prairie, said there were severe thunderstorms coming. He said to call if we needed help. We kept the radio on, and the sky grew dark. The wind whipped the trees, the thunder rumbled like death itself was on the doorstep, and the radio station talked about finding safe places inside

Jesse, when he spoke to us earlier, said he wasn’t sure we could hear the siren, but we did. Nelson couldn’t find his shoes. I couldn’t find the flashlight even though I had just put it down. We pulled open the heavy door of the shelter and stood on the big floor mat, which says "Welcome" in 10 languages. I turned the battery operated light on. We thought about locking all four locks on the door, but, instead, propped it open with a big white bucket and watched the rain fall sideways and the hail follow. The closet at the back of the room held blankets, and ready to eat food and bottles of water, all under the watchful eye of Daniel Freeman in poster form, the first homesteader. This land had been his home. How many times had he witnessed the dark whirling sky and the never-ending rumble of thunder? The rain slowed. Nelson and I scurried back to our house only to find that Meredith, the park ranger, and Mark, the park manager, had tried to reach us, as well as Nelson’s sister and nephew, who both live in Lincoln. All those folks hoping we were safe.

Finally, the radio station broadcast music again. I went to bed. I was sure I wouldn’t sleep. I was sure I couldn’t sleep, but, despite myself, when I heard the spring peepers start again and when I heard a truck roll by on the road outside, followed by a car, I did.

The next morning, there were all the yellow buses in the sunshine. I thought it was a miracle. The tents were standing. The birds were singing. I walked past the banners of the homesteaders and their descendants and out into the tent packed with kids. There we were, all of us: teachers, parents, kids, retired folks, and park rangers. I heard the voices of the distance-learning children coming out of the computer. We were ready, eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart, for a day of stories, which, even in a time so removed from what the homesteaders knew, still have the power to bind us together. It’s not the stories that were the miracle, however. Stories are old and slow growing like the prairie. The miracle is that amid the hurry of our lives and the pressure in today’s schools, that so many remembered, set aside time and came to listen.

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