Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Down the research mole rat hole

Every year, various organizations in Hungary announce natural treasures of the year, to raise awareness of the country's flora and fauna, and gather resources for conservation. We have Bird of the Year, Mammal of the Year, Wildflower of the Year, etc. Since it is by now a very popular tradition, I decided that this year I'd make a storytelling program that contained stories for all these natural treasures; I named the idea Wonders of the Year, and got right down to research.

Just to show you what I was trying to find stories for:

Bird: Peregrine falcon
Tree: Mountain ash
Wildflower: Marsh gentian
Mineral: Fluorite
Fish: Asp
Insect: Emperor dragonfly
Mammal: Mole rat
Reptile: Viviparous lizard
Herb: Lavender
Fungus: Lion's mane

The idea was to find one story for each, and then take the whole show to educational settings. Since I had a fairly busy year, the program did not really come together until the end of September, when we have the national Night of Research: Research institutions, universities and museums are open all night, and have all kinds of exciting science-related programs. A friend of mine, Dr. Beáta Oborny, biologist and storyteller, suggested that we should take the show to the university's own Natural History Museum; she'd provide the exciting factual information for each natural treasure, and I'd tell the stories. So we did.

In the end, the research process was not at all what I'd expected. Falcons show up in lots of stories, but none mentioned a peregrine specifically (in Hungarian, "falcon" used to refer to this particular species to begin with, other falcons had other names), and of course I had to give up on the "viviparous" part of the lizard very early on. Mole rats rarely ever come to the surface, so the folklore on them was pretty scant as well. But on the other hand, delving deeper into nature stories did bring up some unexpected, delightful surprises.

I tracked down some Bulgarian folk songs in which a girl is forced to marry a dragon, only to find out that her husband has no power over gentian flowers, and she uses them to escape; bonus in the story was the way the dragon's marriage entourage arrived at her house, and the dragon women re-braided her hair "in their fashion, like a dragon." Fluorite seemed like a lost cause from the get-go, but then I learned about the famous Blue John mines in England, which just happen to have a fabulous dragon legend attached to them (courtesy of Ruth Tongue, from Forgotten Folktales).
In the cases where I could not find the exact species, I did my best to improvise. For example, lizards appear in many stories; I almost fell for one where Lizard helps find the stolen Sun, but then I found out that this particular species is known for living in colder climates and habitats, and is the northernmost reptile known in Europe. In the end, I tracked down a Hungarian folktale (a variant of the Frog Princess) where a girl, turned into a lizard, lived at the edge of the world, and ventured into underground kingdoms to help a prince acquire magical items. Similarly, I went all the way to Japan to find some worthwhile mentions of the lion's mane mushroom. There it is associated with the yamabushi monks, and it just so happens that there is a well known Japanese comedy that features such a monk trying to pray an infestation of demon mushrooms away.

The hardest challenge, in the end, was the mole rat. It has been chosen as Mammal of the Year because building the wall on our southern border (*cough*useless*cough*) cut its habitat in half, and now it is severely endangered. Because it rarely ever comes above ground, there is not much folklore attached to it, and the one that exists is pretty bad. In some parts of Hungary it was believed that killing one with your left hand gave you healing powers (not for the poor creature, obviously). Other than that, I found some beliefs that children born from sibling incest live as mole rats for 7 years (weremolerats, hey!), although the word they use for mole rat could also just be a word for a mythical creature. In the end, I found a newspaper clipping from 1927 in which a mole rat was found on the road by someone, captured, lost, found again, and eventually made it into town from where the local doctor sent it on to London. Using all these small moving parts, I made up a story from the mole rat's perspective, and spiced it up with interesting details about these fascinating creatures.

I am proud to report that in the end I managed to find stories for all ten things on the list; most of them traditional folktales and legends, with some creative additions. It was tons of work, and I didn't even get to tell all of them in one show, but I had great fun with working on it. I still have three months to take it to other venues... and I can't wait to find out what treasures we'll have on the list for next year!

1 comment:

  1. I highly respect all that research and the amazing discoveries - well done.