I fondly remember a time as a kid when I sat cross-legged on a creaky cabin floor in Logan Canyon, surrounded by cousins, attentions held rapt as our grandfather playfully led us on a classic storytelling lion hunt. He would begin, “We’re going on a lion hunt.”
All us kids would echo, “We’re going on a lion hunt.”
“A man-eating lion hunt.”
“A man-eating lion hunt,” repeated again in chorus.
With that simple call-and-response refrain, we’d be off on a shared adventure—bushwhacking through thick green jungles, wading through the torrential rapids of cascading rivers, climbing to the steep heights of nearly unscalable mountains—all while firmly planted on that old, splintering wooden floor.
Such is the magic of storytelling. Years ago, when a festival aimed at capturing, sharing and celebrating just such magic was created in Utah, no one knew the enduring institution it would become. Yet, this weekend marks the 20th anniversary of the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival. From its humble beginnings in 1990, this multi-day festival has blossomed into one of the preeminent gatherings of its kind in the country. It has grown so large it now has a permanent home in Mt. Timpanogos Park at the mouth of beautiful Provo Canyon, with satellite locations for accompanying musical performances and craft-honing workshops across Utah Valley.
“Sure, over the years we’ve grown, obviously, and changed locations to accommodate more and more people,” says Debi Richan, vice president of festival programming and a fine yarn spinner herself. “But I really think the essence of the festival hasn’t changed that much at all. It is still such a great place for a family to sit down together and hear stories. That’s one of the best things about the festival: It brings families together and gets people talking to each other.”
If anybody knows, it’s Richan. Not only has she been at the festival since its inception, she also does a tremendous amount of outreach in the public schools. She knows first hand how information comes these days in such a rapid-fire manner—through factoids, texts, tweets and MTV-style editing—that many people are rendered incapable of even sequencing a basic story. For the most part, we are no longer experiencing even the most fundamental 15-minute story that takes us through a simple logical progression with a classic narrative arc.
“It’s a shame,” says Richan. “Our society is built upon a fabric of storytelling. Historically, it’s how we communicated critical information including ideals, morals, love, tragedy—the core of our culture. As I see it, our modern society lacks a good deal of true storytelling.
“We have a lot of movies, but a movie gives you exactly what a character looks like, exactly what a character moves like and exactly what a setting is like. There’s really little, if any, room for you to work your own imagination. A good storyteller’s job is to give you just enough description that it’s you who have to really make up the story in your own mind.”
In a sense, storytelling allows the space for a person to create the entirety of that imaginary world. For all the technological advancement that humans have achieved, for all the myriad ways our modern society has developed for us to be tuned and plugged in 24/7, there really is no equivalent to the art of storytelling and the spark it provides our own imaginations. Perhaps that’s why such festivals as Timpanogos— festivals that figuratively transport us directly back to primal roots of oral traditions and communal gatherings around fire—remain popular year after year.
Perhaps that’s why for all the actual traveling to odd, foreign and sometimes even dangerous places I may have done throughout the years, some of my most vivid memories are sitting frozen to that cabin floor, whispering in courage-bolstering solidarity with my cousins as we approach a dark, dark cave, “Shh, let’s go in.”