The Stolen Evergreens

I was just going to tell you a story again this month but I’ve run in to a snag. First I began to think that I had already written up this tale for you at some previous time and spent ages hunting through my archives to check. A useful activity since it showed me just how badly organised the archive was and spawned a fairly extensive re-organisation of my hard drive and updating of the catalogue. I did not find the story while I was at it.

Despite the total absence of evidence and only two missing articles that might be it, I remained unconvinced that I haven’t already told you this tale, it’s the one where a bird has damaged it’s wing and can’t fly south for the winter so seeks shelter amongst the trees. You know the one, the Birch, the oak and The Willow are all a bit offish and haughty, refusing to give the poor creature sanctuary but the Spruce and Pine offer shelter while the Juniper provides berries. The denouement coming in a conversation between the North Wind and the Frost King: the cold northern air asks if it can take all the leaves in the forest and the benevolent Frost King says “Yes, but do not touch the leaves of the Spruce Pine and Juniper for they were kind to the little bird.” and instant karma is delivered to the wood.

Having decided that I am not going to tell you that story, I went in search of a variant on the same theme. This is where things became really surprising. My extensive library of world folktale and myth has not one mention of why evergreen trees keep their leaves. The internet turned up a verbatim version of the folk tale outlined above but with one key difference: It was attributed to an author! One Florence Holbrook of Chicago to be exact. Horror of horrors! Could it actually be (gasps) Literature?

A further hunt for an original folkloric source revealed an even more terrible truth. A very slight variation appeared, the bird being specified as a sparrow, the oak and maple playing the part of the arrogant arboreals rejecting the avian, only the Pine giving charitable succour to the otherwise doomed feathery refugee, and “The Creator” handing out the appropriate punishment and reward at the end. This tight, economical version is credited as Cherokee and contains the bones that Holbrook appropriated for her construction back in 1904. How can I say this with such assurance? Since it is out of copyright, the full text of Holbrook’s Book of Nature Myths in which “Why The Evergreen Trees Keep Their Leaves” appears is available online if you search far enough, and in the preface she clearly states “The subject-matter is of permanent value, culled from the folk-lore of the primitive races; the vocabulary… is increased gradually, and the new words and phrases will add to the child’s power of expression. The naive explanations of the phenomena of nature given by the primitive races appeal to the child’s wonder about the same phenomena, and he is pleased and interested.”

So we have a tale, originally unique to the Cherokee people, taken for the education of the invading Europeans and over time stripped of it’s provenance to the extent that it is possible to find it and assume, by the way it is presented as an otherwise unspecified folk tale, that it is native to this continent. At this point the cultural appropriation is complete. I am not sure now if I shall ever tell this very fine story again, not wishing to profit from the proceeds of theft, but if I do I shall take care to credit the Cherokee nation for it’s genesis without insulting them as primitive, an odd accusation considering they have, in this myth, addressed a question apparently unasked across the rest of the world.

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