Sharing the stories from intergenerational storytelling in community gardens

Telling our stories through clay faced trees with Jane Mather

Telling our stories through clay faced trees with Jane Mather

I learned two things on Friday at the Scottish Storytelling Centre sessions.

Intergenerational storytelling is a very precisely defined practice with its own handbook, rules and funding streams – and aimed at very useful and tangible outcomes for the community.

But at the same time telling each other stories is a very intimate, personal process like an exchange of truly special gifts. Gifts to be cherished and enriched through re-sharing.

These two lessons came from the two halves of the day.

The morning

We booked and traveled to Scottish Intergenerational National Network’s event in the morning , coordinated by the lovely Pat Scrutton (it took some Googling to find their website but here it is and here is the umbrella organisation). The theme was tantalizingly relevant to the Tayport Growing Space project PLANT‘s embarked on recently – we were going to hear about intergenerational storytelling in the community garden context.

As their English brethren say so succinctly on their website we have learned that the group “aims to support the development and promotion of intergenerational practice as a catalyst for social change“. (The Scottish edition has a slightly less rousing slogan, reflecting similar sentiments though: “Generations Working Together provides information, delivers support and encourages involvement to benefit all of Scotland’s generations, by working, learning, volunteering and living together.”).

It seems that the idea of intergenerational practice is a brainchild of Beth Johnson Foundation and a reaction to a growing disconnect among people living next to each other, especially the lack of everyday interactions between the growing pool of the eldest members of society and the youngest. It sounds eminently sensible …something to dip a toe into at length I think at a later date (perhaps the Annual Meeting on the 4th of March?)

But for now let me tell you about the two speakers who shared their stories with us.

Leith Community Crops in Pots: Carboneers Project

Julie Brown, the project’s education officer, told us about this grassroots project which has grown from one mother’s attempt to take control of her food choices and provide her children with an outdoor and food growing experience in a suburb of Edinburgh which is densely populated and devoid of growing spaces. She started by putting a potted vegetable garden at the back of her tenement building and then her children’s nursery. Inspiration spread from there to others and now encompasses a local neglected common ground at Leith Links – now developing into a community growing space, The Croft. The latter has a future ambition to become a city farm – definitely something to keep an eye out for!

Since last year the project exploded with injection of CCF funding from Scottish Government and 3 part-time staff members, including Julie. The goals are ambitious, as typical of CCF projects, and encompass trying to change people’s behaviour around food to more sustainable, low carbon choices. She’s been coordinating the Carboneers component of the project aimed at “energising people, utilising community skills, and creating solutions to climate change”. Carboneers stands for (Low) Carbon Pioneers:)

Thoughts
It was truly inspiring and encouraging to hear about a similar grassroots project blossoming into something so fabulously ambitious, in a much more challenging urban setting. I hope we can bring something equally exciting together with ours, although it will be a challenge without a dedicated education officer.

In the meantime, I am sure they will not mind that we can ‘borrow’ some of the Carboneers workshop themes and strategies for engagement with younger kids via primary schools and childcare centres. My favourite idea was the ‘roly-pig’ composter – round plastic containers with an openable mouth which can be fed with weeds and worms and then rolled about to promote decomposition. There is even a little hatch for peeking inside to see the composting in progress.

Julie has been working to deliver the Climate Change Curriculum for the local primaries and her ideas include: mini microscopes, carbon monster book, lifemoisaics-prompted discussions, local producer/forest visits, poster making, P6s teaching P1s, library of eco-kits for the parents…

Something else to steal for the adults – a film club focused on food/community gardens/climate change. Our Harbour Cafe already has the space for the screen and projector… And we can always follow their lead on taking much inspiration on eating local from The Fife Diet folk – they have done so much groundwork here and it’ll be an honour to continue their legacy after they are hung up their hats this spring.

It was a bit sobering to consider the potential for vandalism in open community gardens, as the Croft and ours are aimed to be. Greenhouse choices are particularly important here – some opt for plastic bottle constructions which seem to be quite resistant to damage but may encourage ‘undesirables’ to linger inside, others go without to minimise such attractions. Some say engaging the culprits may be the key.

Another useful tip – carefully plan to induce action rather than panic when raising awareness of climate change!

Growth in the Garden for Communities

Allison Galbraith entered the stage next with her confident storyteller’s presence. She’s been a practitioner for a while – of storytelling and intergenerational practice. She did explain the careful design involved in intergenerational storytelling projects and how they deliberately bring the oldest and the youngest people together to interact and result in production of a concrete metastory though participation of some kind of creative professional in the encounter. Others added that, especially with secondary school children, outcomes fitting into the curriculum or achievement scheme (e.g. JAZZ or John Muir Trust) are important and so is much more careful planning ahead to fit into the school year.

Allison exposed us to a primer in storytelling experience, convincing us that storytelling is at the heart of the human condition – as the human brain has evolved to make meaning through narratives. She even got us telling each other our own garden stories and then retelling them to the wider audience (telling and retelling, or sharing and re-sharing was a common theme with the afternoon session). We were indeed all storytellers:) She also regaled us with her own storytelling performance, so much more accomplished and engaging than my own: there was a “long long time ago”, and a cottage with an elderly couple, a fairy child, bucket of slops and a garden. All the makings of the perfect composting origins tale;) (suggested resource for similar ideas was Peace Tales by Margaret Read MacDonald).

She also mentioned the project in the making which she was putting together with the Glasgow’s Woodlands Community Gardens – yet another urban gap filler bringing food, garden and community together in the open, with strong emphasis on biodiversity (Once upon today movie tells you all about that aspect). They have had some successful storytelling events and now are looking to expand into something much more seriously inter generational with the local elderly respite day care centre and school kids being brought together in the garden. Apparently a complete logistical nightmare, with no toilets on site!

Thoughts
Perhaps the strict intergenerational practice is not something we will jump into with our project just now – it sounds like quite a lot to take on, on top of setting up a garden. But engaging actively with broad range of ages, and thinking of how to engage older or less able people in Tayport is important. And carefully thinking about some concrete outcomes we might want to achieve and in fact preserve from the intergenerational encounters. Me and my partner in crime on the day already had some ideas. One is bringing out the stories of the community garden site together through oral history, input from the local history buff and his photo collection, and some digital map storytelling tools. And I liked her much more tangible idea of ‘raised memory beds’ planted with significant plants associated with childhood memories from older residents together letting them tell their personal histories. From my own perspective I would like to add some intercultural encounters to the mix as well – there is a history of Polish soldiers stationed in the Tentsmuir forest during WWII to start with – and a contrast with some newer Polish arrivals. What about the Chinese and Indian takeaways in town?

Afternoon

Now – this was a pure accident. It turned out that the Storytelling Centre was running a workshop following the theme from the morning’s Intergenerational garden encounters. It promised to be a much more hands on session – a chance to experience in the flesh and as a participant the essence of storytelling with garden themes.

Across Nature’s Threshold with Jane Mather

Jane engaged us in several storytelling and activity scenarios which she had successfully used with older and young participants to foster their connections with natural world.

My favourite was trees with faces, when we used potters’ clay and found items to make faces on trees. Brilliant fun, creative, tactile and miles away from ready-made craft set type activities. Clay featured indoors as well – we got to play with it while stories were told (she also used it as a prop while telling a creation story of a rabbit and an owl aimed at settling kids down, molding the two creatures as she spoke), and the classic – RHS wildflower seed bombs. Egg boxes also featured – that great, cheap, multipurpose reusable. Used them as treasure kists for collection of found natural treasures outside (great activity to get people to focus on little details around them), to be decorated when we got back inside. The practice of sound mapping seemed equally meditative – closing your eyes and sitting quietly for 5 minutes and mapping the sounds around you (you can use the collected natural treasures to try to reproduce them later). Predictably, we have sown little edible egg box gardens for our windowsills. There was also a great idea of creating mini terrarium story gardens on the cheap with found objects, little garden soil + gravel, and moss/ferns/lichen from the garden/wood adding some plastic action figures or animals for dramatic effect.

What really stumped me though is the sharing/re-sharing activity at the end of the session. We were to share a garden memory with a partner and they were to re-tell it to us as a story. Sounds simple enough, just a little fun. We shared our memories, and she retold mine with some fine detail embellishments. But I remained silent. I could not stop thinking of Jane’s words: “A story is a gift”. I think I was worried about damaging or mangling somebody’s memory through my retelling. Too tired to give it attention it deserved. I decided to save its re-telling for later.

Thoughts

The session and the NSC definition gave me something to mull over:

Storytelling happens
when the story is told
person to person live,
without print or technology

There is something unique in face to face encounters to share stories. It is a much more intimate and, to me, somewhat disturbing experience. The feeling of unease may be a result of my history of hiding behind digital conversations for so long. At the same time I know that some of my older friends find it more difficult to engage with others through the digital medium and favour in-person interactions. Maybe intergenerational encounters could blur these comfort zones into a productive overlap? I certainly believe that the digital medium is a powerful tool for documenting metastories resulting from this – equal to and perhaps more far reaching than material objects such as books or pieces of artwork. Engaging the generations together in such creative documentation would be a powerful experience.

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