- Jacqueline Lawler
- Bird to Branch event at Bread & Butter Farm
The evening opened with an invitation to listen: "I would suggest, for a moment, that you close your eyes." Elise Schadler, the founder of Bird to Branch, then read from David Foster Wallace's essay This Is Water.
Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.
And so the tone was set for Bird to Branch, a Burlington-area storytelling event that meets a handful of times over the year. Schadler launched it in 2009 as an evening of storytelling for her graduate school friends. Since then, it's grown into an 80-person event at which stories are served alongside a dinner created by Schadler's husband, Sam Fuller.
About a month ago, a friend handed me a small flyer for a Bird to Branch event. It read: "Please join us for Community Storytelling & Dinner. Theme: Resistance." So I decided to head to Bird to Branch with some friends, not knowing what to expect — and not at all expecting to tell a story myself. Famous last words.
According to Schadler, the storytelling community is robust in Burlington. "There are people who actually practice and compete at 'The Moth,'" she noted. "I love going to those, but we try to create an atmosphere that is a little more intimate."
That intimacy was easily achieved at last week's venue, Bread & Butter Farm in Shelburne. That charming, family-run institution is both a working farm and a community gathering place. For Bird to Branch, we congregated in the music classroom. Its wood floor was scattered with comfy area rugs, high ceiling beams formed a rustic cathedral, and glowing string lights created a soft, warm atmosphere. Schadler had advised attendees to "bring your favorite floor pillow or camping chair. We also ask that you take off your shoes at the door, so slippers or cozy socks are a good idea, too."
We filed into Bread & Butter on an unseasonably warm February night. The parking lot foreshadowed an early mud season, and rain on the roof provided the evening's soundtrack. Friends staked out their section of the floor and made camp. As the events are BYOB, we uncorked our pinot noir. It quickly became apparent that part of the night's appeal would be running into old friends we hadn't seen since winter forced us indoors. There was a strong sense of connection from the moment we walked in the door.
The structure of Bird to Branch was five stories, dinner, then five stories more. Attendees put their name in a hat if they wanted to tell a story. At six o'clock, there was only one name in the hat. Schadler wasn't worried, though. "Once a few stories are told, people tend to get comfortable," she said. "After dinner, the hat fills up."
Her belief inspired me. In the spirit of helping out, I threw my name in. I didn't even have a story in mind. Personal experience told me that my name would not be chosen — after all, I'd never won a raffle.
But this time was different. Butterflies flew into my stomach the moment Schadler called out my name. As I walked up to the storytelling chair, I realized that mine had better be good — I was the only thing standing between attendees and the feast to come. Savory aromas were already wafting into the room.
I scanned my brain for a story about resistance and ended up talking about my hometown, Exeter, R.I. In the weeks after Sandy Hook, a very obscure clause in the town charter regarding concealed weapons permits elicited an emergency town meeting that was attended by four full buses of out-of-town NRA members. It was a story about how Tea Party-style resistance worked in the Obama era. As a result of their efforts, no measures would be taken to tighten the gun-control laws in that small rural town. At first it felt silly telling a mundane story about town hall meetings in another state, but the folks in the room made me feel at home. By the end, the storytelling felt conversational.
Ultimately, I was glad that my turn came in the first half of the night, because then I could enjoy dinner. Fuller is the cofounder of All Souls Tortilleria and is an impressive home chef. On Bird to Branch nights, he wakes up at 6:30 a.m. to plan the family-style meal and gather ingredients. Last weekend, he featured a new white-corn tortilla that All Souls was testing, as well as ingredients fresh from Bread & Butter. "Really, the farm decides the meal," Fuller said. "They provided pork and beef heart. Those ingredients inspired me to infuse a Persian influence, and we went from there."
That night, we were stuffed with green rice and quinoa, a beet-cabbage slaw, black beans, pickled carrots, roasted sweet potato with pepitas and green chile, braised beef heart in tomato sauce, and slow-roasted pork shoulder seared with bitter orange. Though Fuller is the culinary wizard, Schadler handles dessert. There were two kinds of cookies: chocolate chip and no-bake chocolate oatmeal.
The second round of storytelling was decidedly more relaxed. Not only were we in early food comas, but, as Schadler predicted, plenty of volunteers rounded out the night. Everyone grew either braver or more comfortable being vulnerable.
Each storyteller interpreted differently the evening's theme of "resistance." There were tales of political arrests, travel, meditation, sea turtles and poachers. Some even sang songs. But to give many more details would be a disservice to the spirit of the evening. Even in revisiting my own story, I could not re-create the feeling of Bird to Branch — and maybe that's the point. Like theater, the experience depends on being in the same space with others.
As Fuller put it, "The thought behind the name Bird to Branch was creating a space for people to congregate — like creating a tree that was calling the birds."
Schadler added, "It's amazing when you're walking down the grocery store aisle and someone says to you, 'I don't know you, but I know this amazing story about your grandmother.' Community-generated stories allow people to get really intimate."
Though I knew I would be reporting on Bird to Branch, I eventually stopped taking notes. The stories I heard were personal, interesting and demanded rapt attention. And it was a worthwhile way to spend a Saturday night.
Schadler said the next Bird to Branch is likely to be in early summer. Keep an eye out for those little fliers.