Storyteller Diane Edgecomb thinks a lot about trees. At her annual Summer Solstice storytelling event at the Arnold Arboretum—the 18th one— last weekend, Edgecomb and harper Margot Chamberlain took listeners on a journey through the groves of the arboretum, telling myths, legends, and fairytales that inspire connection to trees. But where do these stories come from?
“The stories and legends themselves I found in various books in my copious library of nature myths and stories collected over twenty years,” Edgecomb said. “I have also collected stories from collections in various libraries over the years and every time I found a nature myth or legend that spoke to me -I notated the source, Xeroxed and added it to my collection. So the stories come from a large variety of sources- odd collections like “Forgotten Folktales of the English Counties” and “Old Tales for a New Day” to stories that had multiple sources from which I could craft my own version of the story.” Edgecomb is careful to preserve the original integrity of the stories, while still making them “live and breathe” for a more contemporary audience.
She said she’s not a fan of picking up stories from the internet, as she said she can never be sure of the source as most are not usually credited. “Sometimes the stories are changed badly, and the integrity of the story is gone,” she said. Instead, she prefers more folkloric sources that feature a collection of stories with information about where the story came from. “I definitely bring my sensibility to it, but trying to work more like a sculptor, uncovering the basic form as opposed to taking it so far,” she said. “I always want to make sure that the content that this they was designed to delivered is delivered.”
Though Edgecomb tells stories at other venues to much larger audiences, some of her most popular events are the Summer and Winter solstice events, which are limited to around 30 people maximum, she said. However, at this past weekend’s event, she said they were sold out “well in advance,” so they allowed between 42 and 44 people to come along for the journey. Her events are highly praised and often sold out ahead of time.
Edgecomb said that one of the most unusual things about these events is that they are about traditional storytelling. She tries to approach stories as if they are a person. She is encountering. “A story is a messenger, it’s a traveler, and I want it to arrive with integrity to be able to touch so many of us who feel out of touch with nature,” she said.
That notion is another huge theme with the Arboretum event—Edgecomb said she feels that the modern, busy world we live in makes us feel disconnected from nature, and in telling these stories, she helps her listeners focus on the meaning that can be found in nature and help them reconnect.
The group is taken out at twilight for this storytelling experience, as “dawn and twilight are the transition times within the transition time of the solstice,” Edgecomb said. “Personally I am moved by this time of year in general. It is so deeply beautiful. You can feel it in the air, it’s magical this whole time of year and this performance is our way of bringing our audience to treasured places to reflect on the meaning nature and trees have had to various cultures.”
Edgecomb said she really enjoys watching people’s moods and attention spans transform over the course of the evening. “At the beginning of the evening, people are transitioning, coming from workday or life and they’re still occasionally looking at their watch,” she said. But then “they begin to quiet, and by the end, nobody wants to leave.”
Over the years, Edgecomb has studied religion and mythologists “to see how stories functioned,” she said. She believes that every story is a journey, and though the program remains the same each year, she tweaks it a little to make it a better experience. This year, some of the locations were moved around within the arboretum due to the new no-mowing policy in some areas.
Edgecomb has been chosen for the National Storytelling Network’s Circle of Excellence Oracle award, which is presented to artists who are nationally recognized storytellers. She will travel to Fremont, California next month to accept the award and to give a workshop about how to craft an eco-narrative. “It will be a wonderful gathering of the tribe [of storytellers],” she said.
Edgecomb said the stories she tells come from such a different period of time, but she still wants people to “believe in possibility.” Her advice to listeners—“slow down when uncovering stories. You’ve got to get out of your modern headset. You don’t look at a story as an ‘it,’ you look at it as an ‘other’—otherwise you’ve taken away its power.”