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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
Inspirations from the Forest Learning Guide

Telling Stories

Poetry is another method of expressing yourself artistically. Just like visual art, there are many different styles of poetry to explore. Earlier we discussed Gary Snyder's nature-inspired poetry. Wally McRae writes poems that tell stories of cowboy life and ranching. Hank Nelson's poems and songs focus on the hard work of loggers. The activities in this section present poetry that tells a story in a more relaxed and informal style. Try creating a story poem of your own that draws on your own experiences.

Click here to see Wally McRae featured in the Inspirations from the Forest exhibition.

Activity: Poetry in Motion

Read or listen to Wally McRae's poem "Reincarnation." Notice how Wally McRae uses words like "cowpoke" and "hoss" in his poem to let the reader know that this is a "cowboy poem." What special words or expressions could you use to let the reader know you are writing a poem about your own community? Write a few lines of your own poem incorporating slang and common expressions used among your friends.

Reincarnation
by Wally McRae
Reprinted with permission from his book Cowboy Curmudgeon and Other Poems (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1992).

"What does reincarnation mean?"
A cowpoke ast his friend.
His pal replied, "It happens when
Yer life has reached its end.
They comb yer hair, and warsh yer neck,
And clean yer fingernails,
And lay you in a padded box
Away from life's travails."

"The box and you goes in a hole,
That's been dug in the ground.
Reincarnation starts in when
Yore planted 'neath a mound.
Them clods melt down, just like yer box,
And you who is inside.
And then yore just beginnin' on
Yer tranformation ride."

"In a while, the grass'll grow
Upon yer rendered mound.
Till some day on yer moldered grave
A lonely flower is found.
And say a hoss should wander by,
And graze upon this flower,
That once wuz you, but now's become
Yer vegetative bower."

"The posy that the hoss done ate
Up, with his other feed,
Makes bones, and fat, and muscle
Essential to the steed.
But some is left that he can't use,
And so it passes through,
And finally lays upon the ground.
This thing, that once wuz you."

"Then say, by chance, I wanders by,
And sees this on the ground.
And I ponders, and I wonders at,
This object that I found.
I thinks of reincarnation,
Of life, and death, and such.
I come away concludin': 'Slim,
You ain't changed, all that much."'

Activity: Landscapes in Song

Some landscapes are not natural at all, but exist only in the imagination. During the 1920s and 1930s the United States was suffering through the Great Depression. Some people who had lost everything traveled around the country riding in railroad cars and sleeping in makeshift camps. They were called "hobos" or "tramps." "Big Rock Candy Mountain" is a famous American folk song, probably written by a hobo.

Read the lyrics or listen to the recording by Harry McClintock, a singer and composer from the early 20th century and try the next two activities.

Big Rock Candy Mountain
by Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock

One evening as the sun went down and the jungle fire was burning
Down the track came a hobo hiking and he said boys I'm not turning
I'm headin for a land that's far away beside the crystal fountains
So come with me we'll go and see the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains there's a land that's fair and bright
Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars are all empty and the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees
Where the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains all the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth and the hens lay soft boiled eggs
The farmer's trees are full of fruit and the barns are full of hay
Oh, I'm bound to go where there ain't no snow
Where the rain don't fall and the wind don't blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains you never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol come a-trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats and the railroad bulls are blind
There's a lake of stew and of whiskey too
You can paddle all around 'em in a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains the jails are made of tin
And you can walk right out again as soon as you are in
There ain't no short handled shovels, no axes saws or picks
I'm a goin to stay where you sleep all day
Where they hung the jerk that invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

I'll see you all this coming fall in the Big Rock Candy Mountains

Activity: Art Adventure

Based on the descriptions in the song, draw a picture of what you imagine a "Big Rock Candy Mountain" would look like. Don't forget to illustrate "the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings"!

Activity: Writing Project
Brochure to an Imagined Landscape

"Big Rock Candy Mountain" is about a utopian landscape—an imagined, perfect world. Think of other magical places in literature, such as Oz, Wonderland, Neverland, and Hogwarts. Write a travel brochure describing your own utopian landscape. You can add interest to your brochure by adding illustrations of your destination. Be imaginative, and don't worry if it sounds crazy; after all, it's supposed to be a dream world!

Activity: Art Adventure
Current Events Position Poster

Both Teresa Trulock's quilts and Nathan Jackson's totem poles are tangible works of art that also tell stories.

Click here to see Teresa Trulock and Nathan Jackson featured in the Inspirations from the Forest exhibition.

How can you use different media to get a story across and to express yourself more creatively? Try this activity to tell a story of your own.

  1. Think about issues related to the environment, such as clean air and water, burning of fossil fuels, solar energy, logging, and animal conservation.
  2. Select an issue that interests you, but don't tell anyone what it is.
  3. Decide which side of the issue you want to present (in support of or against).
  4. Use images to convey your issue AND your chosen point of view on the issue. You can use a collage of pictures cut out of old magazines, or you can draw your own picture. Keep in mind a few pointers:
    • Choose an eye-catching image, and make it clear what your issue concerns.
    • Don't use too many images, or you may confuse the viewer.
    • No words or numbers allowed!
  5. When your poster is complete, hold it up, and let your friends, parents, or classmates guess your position on the issue. If they figure it out, then you have conveyed your message with art! If not, think about what you might change. Ask the group for feedback on how you could clarify your message.

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