Hi Daniel! Can you tell us a bit about what you’re up to these days?
These days I'm based in Sydney. I run a bush school at Centennial Park. We help kids and their parents connect with nature. I also run arts based programs in schools that help kids learn to express themselves. I'm interested in ways to communicate the kinds of things the heart knows. Particularly story and symbol. I spend a lot of my time researching mythopoetics and psycho-analytics. The rest of my time is spent coming home to myself, learning to rest, learning to play the didgeridoo, learning the language of my nervous system, learning the language of my dreams and writing it all down in words and images.
I'm so inspired by the work you're doing at the bush school with young children, can you tell me more about the program, and how story telling has become such a vital tool in your outdoor classroom?
In the middle of Centennial Park is a freshwater spring. It's surrounded by a forest of paperbark trees. Long ago the spring was a place mothers would come to give birth. These days the park is home to many birds, reptiles, fish, turtles, eels, possums and a large colony of flying foxes. Bush school resides in an area of the park set aside for native bush regeneration. Kids who come to bush school know this place intimately. When they come, once or twice a week with a parent or guardian, they spend their time immersed in nature play, learning bushcraft, playing games and listening to stories. The stories I tell are designed to deepen connection with people and place. The characters come from the plants and animals, the themes from the children's experiences, the morals come from the challenges we face together and the form comes from a tradition of storytelling as old as culture itself.
Can you describe your story telling process?
My process usually begins with a challenging situation. A kid is having trouble finding someone to play with. He goes from clique to clique in search of a friend but no one wants to include him. I'm watching this. I see loneliness tighten its grip. His mother is nearby but she doesn't know what to do. She tries to broker a friendship on his behalf. Her approach is graceful but the results are short-lived. All the while this poor boy is frustrated, alone and confused. I'm watching and I have this feeling. It's like, okay, this is the time to tell a story. Because only something as complex as a story can possibly make sense of this suffering. So I turn inwards. There I encounter the feelings in myself. I draw on the things I've learned, the things I've been reading, the things I've been saying and the things that have been holding my attention. I listen to it all speak through my imagination. The story takes shape. I wait for the right moment. A little later, when emotions have settled, I call everyone to the log circle. Then I tell this boy's story. I resolve it, not by fixing the problem but by telling the problem. And that creates a language, that awakens empathy and the willingness to be present with suffering. We can say, "Hey Billy, I see you're out looking for friends. I see how hard it is, that you're feeling lonely and frustrated and that's okay. Keep trying buddy, keep singing your song." And we know what we mean. We know it in ourselves.
That is so beautiful and poetic. How would you describe the relationship between poetry and storytelling?
I think both poetry and storytelling are in love with language. Precise language. Where every word and phrase is no more or less than it needs to be to communicate what lives beneath the surface. And they are also in bed with cadence. Because poems and stories should be read and told and remembered. And cadence helps to print the words on the heart.
A lot of the work you are doing with children seems to center around providing them with the tools necessary to tune in and listen to what is going on in their inner world and subsequently to express what they find in their own unique way. Can you describe some of the ways in which you are providing these sorts of experiences for your students?
I run 6 to 10 week programs with small groups of kids. The programs are designed to nurture artistry.
We start with a theme, which requires some basic technical skill. For example, so they can experiment with textiles, the kids might learn some basic stitches. And if the space is set up with care, if the language is precise and the intention is clear, then learning some basic stitches might nurture quiet and attention. With quiet and attention the soul can be heard. Sometimes I'll guide the kids inwards with story, other times I'll just be a mirror for their ideas. And all the while I'm building rapport. And I'm not taking it too seriously. And it's all their ideas. I choose the medium. I create the container. I find the language. And then with a few technical skills and a language to guide them, they follow their hearts. I get to know these kids, so I know when to encourage and when to pull back. I know when to celebrate and when to set boundaries. And I'm always reflecting, always maintaining the container, so that a journey unfolds. Then we celebrate everything with an Exhibition, the ups and downs and never got theres. We invite everyone and we tell them all, "Now here we are, onwards we go, somewhere is calling."
Can you remember the first words (ie. poem, story, lyric) you fell in love with as a child?
The earliest memory I have of a story is the story of how cheetah came to have black stripes running down its cheeks. I read it in a book my grandfather gave me. He was a poet and a park ranger in the Kruger National Park. The story goes that cheetah lost a race and cried for so long tear marks were forever burned into its fur. From that moment until this one I've known how to tell the difference between cheetah and leopard.
How does poetry and story telling allow children to connect with one another and the world around them?
Poems and stories are languages of heart, or at least they can be. They speak in symbol and they make us feel. They turn the world into a place of feeling. Walking around with feeling is walking around connected. How that happens is the subject of my research. But I'm no expert. The most I can say is that feeling is a type of knowing and poems and stories contain a type of knowledge and when we hear them we know too.
What is most important to you right now?
Memory. I so easily forget.
What is your biggest question for the world? If you have one..
What's the rush?
What is your dream for the world?
That we heal the wounds in our culture that pollute our rivers.
Who would you like to see interviewed on We The Tender Hearted?
Take my hand.
Photos and video by Dani Fine, filmed on location at Centennial Park Bush School in Sydney, Australia