Storytelling

Oyster River shanties, Chatham

A cold, dark little land

Over a dozen years ago, when I was on a research trip to Vancouver, BC for "The Bostoner," friends invited me to a dinner party. At some point in the evening, I looked down and realized I was the person out of the six seated at the table who still had food on my plate. While everyone else had been eating, I'd been talking.

Quickly, I apologized for gabbing on so, and dug into my food. Our hostess quickly dismissed this by saying, "Oh, no, it is all very entertaining." Then she turned to her other guests, explaining, "You see, he comes from a cold, dark little land where all the people have to get them through their miserable winters is to tell stories to each other. They've developed quite a gift for it."

How's that for an image of the Cape? I would have nearly bit my fork in half if there hadn't been a fair bit of truth to this. Spinning yarns, fish stories and more than good-natured ribbing are hallmarks of those who have spent a good deal of time here.

Part of it is that history goes back a long way here, relative to the rest of the country. Some families have been here for well over 300 years. The first hundred would have been accompanied by a single book, the bible, for diversion. That leads to a great deal of invention outside of that medium.

Then there's the relationship with the sea. There's always something unexpected happening out on the water, which means something to talk about. On the other hand, while one is working, talking can make the time go faster. When clamming with Jamie Bassett, we'd get to analyzing some movie or changing the lyrics of popular tunes to reflect clamming culture, when all of a sudden Scott Eldredge, our patron, would forbid us from speaking another word.

We would look up and realize our chatter was causing other diggers to creep closer, to hear what we were saying. That's a compliment to our entertainment value, but when you're working a productive flat, the last thing you want is close company. This pre-dated waterproof headsets and iPods.

Then, of course, there's the fact that when the world comes to stay with you for the summer, they want to know about the place. That can lead to stories. Many is the young local who has found himself invited to a rather posh cocktail party with his survival dependent upon his ability to talk entertainingly about what growing up here was like. More than likely, our real estate industry seems to have used this approach as a business model.

We tell good stories. For the most part, we don't need to make anything up, either.

Matthew Griffin and Andrew Buckley with Justin Demetri at the Essex Shipbuilding Museum

I was reminded of this yet again during a documentary scouting trip to the North Shore. Returning to the subject of "The Bostoner" - the Columbia Expedition of 1787 - it begins with another great storyteller, Captain John Kendrick, who grew up on the shores of Pleasant Bay.

One of the expedition's two vessels, the sloop Lady Washington, was supposedly built on the Essex River. So I found myself at the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, interviewing their researcher, Justin Demetri, while two other of Chatham's native sons were working at telling the story. Even though they are using the latest technology, Matt Griffin as cameraman and Chris LeClaire as set photographer were doing no different than generations before them.

Setting the scene. Telling stories about the sea, ships and the people who sailed them. Me, I just yak away with whomever is put in front of me. It takes real talent to step back, assess the situation, and focus on exactly the best way to convey what is really going on.

The technology of digital imaging, through still images or video, certainly allows users to go from neophyte to semi-pro in the matter of weeks. But there is no software program for talent. There is no hi-tech gadget or web site that confers creativity upon the user.

This homegrown resource is unique, and for the most part, completely overlooked and uncultivated. At best, young, talented and creative people are told they should leave to pursue their craft. Any other place this side of the Middle Ages would be falling all over themselves to find ways to staunch the brain drain. Yet a few hang on.

Let's not kid ourselves, though. They remain for their own reasons, not ours. Our storytellers are willing to continue here not because of how we have preserved this place, but despite our inability to do so.

 Read Andy's other columns at this blog or at The Cape Cod Chronicle.

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