These days, kids are spending less time exploring the outdoors and more time in front of screens.
A 2019 report by the independent non-profit Common Sense Media found that on average, 8-to-12 year-olds in the United States spend approximately five hours on entertainment screen media every day. But numerous studies show that time outside is great for kids, helping them reduce stress and stay healthy.
In a special report exploring folkways traditions, as part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Project, reporter Saro Lynch-Thomason explores how one North Carolina naturalist is using storytelling and song to get kids excited about the natural world.
Using Folklore to Learn About Nature
On a humid afternoon near Leicester, North Carolina about twenty people tromp through a field behind naturalist Doug Elliott. They are participating in a plant walk, exploring trees, flowers and herbs. Doug leads the group to a large tree, turns around and challenges them all to a riddle.
“Hidey hidey hi, hidey hidey hey
There’s a big black stain in my driveway
High as a house, low as a mouse
Got more rooms than anyone’s house.
Hey diddle high, hey diddle, diddle.
Look inside there’s a possum in the middle.
What is it?”
One person in the crowd calls out the answer, “Black walnut!” Gesturing to the tree behind him, Doug explains that black walnut trees grow high as a house, while their nuts fall low as a mouse. But, he says, what about the “possum in the middle?”
Doug takes out a black walnut shell cut in half that looks just like a possum’s face, with a narrow head and small, black eyes. Everyone “oohs” and “ahs” at this small, delicate discovery.
For more than 40 years, Doug has been telling stories and singing songs about nature, using riddles, songs and lore to engage audiences. As a child, he loved catching bumblebees in jars and exploring the woods and swamps around his home.
But it was not until after graduating college that Doug realized his passion for educating others about nature. It started when Doug began to grow his own food.
“I was an art major. I was totally unemployable," he says. "And I thought, if I’m going to be an artist I better start growing a garden. I started growing the garden, all these weeds came up!”
But Doug says a friend had given him a book called “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” by wild food enthusiast Euell Gibbons, and after reading it Doug realized the weeds growing in his garden were not useless. Some were even more nutritious than the plants he was trying to grow.
“It kind of opened the world to me," he says. "I got so excited about that, I started giving talks about nature, or useful wild plants.”
Since then, Doug has made a career out of storytelling living in North Carolina. He says he settled in Appalachia because people here have a deep connection to the land and they are willing to share what they know.
Now in his 70s, Doug uses storytelling to help kids learn about nature at a time when most are spending less and less time in it.
One of the kids inspired by Doug’s work is five-year-old Forest Herschman.
Forest and his father Kevin live in a house on a rural mountainside in Barnardsville, North Carolina. During the evening, one can hear tree frogs and crickets right outside their door.
Forest spends a lot of time in the woods, watching tadpoles and deer. He can even name his favorite local trees.
“I like pine trees," Forest says. "And I like maple trees so we can tap them and get the sap!”
A few years ago, Forest found some second-hand tapes of Doug’s stories and songs and was mesmerized, Kevin says..
“There was probably a three or four or five even month period where he would listen to these Doug Elliott tapes like every day," Kevin says. "He learned how to work the tape player. He would sit down on my bed and listen to Doug Elliott for 25 or 30 minutes, easy.”
One of Forest’s favorite stories by Doug is about a non-venomous snake, called a black rat snake. It lives near farms and eats rodents. The story is about a time that Doug gently squeezed a black rat snake to help it regurgitate a plastic egg.
Kevin says not too long ago he and Forest spotted a black snake near their house. But Forest was not scared, he was excited because he had heard songs and stories about snakes. Upon hearing about this encounter, Doug just smiles.
“That warms my heart," Doug says. "You ask me why I’m doing this, that might be one of the reasons.”
It is just one example of the many ways that Doug’s stories help kids take delight in the natural world around them.
This story is part of the Inside Appalachia Folkways Reporting Project, a collaboration between West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Inside Appalachia and the Folklife Program of the West Virginia Humanities Council. The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts, and culture.