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Taleteller To Spin Yarns

By Phil Drew, The Record

"I'm an educator here at Five Rivers," says Nancy Marie Payne, a staffer at the Delmar-based environmental education center. "But my sidelight is storytelling."

Payne is a member of the Story Circle of the Capital District, a gathering of people who like to spin yarns.

And this weekend, Payne and two of her Story Circle mates will weave their folkloric magic as a part of Five Rivers' annual Fall Festival.

Their environmentally based tales will anchor a four-hour, Saturday- afternoon celebration that includes music by two-time Northeast Country Music Association Bluegrass Band of the Year Dyer Switch, folk-rock ensemble Acoustic Hartland, and the folk foursome The Hilltown Ramblers.

The celebration will also include family activities from tile painting to "gyotaku," the art of "fish rubbing" to create an ink-on-paper impression.

Payne and her storytellers will be right at home - quite literally, in Payne's case. She has often presented storytelling events as part of the Five Rivers's busy calendar of year-round programs.

"For Native American people, most of their storytelling was done in the wintertime, staying warm around the fire," she says. "So wintertime is a prime storytelling time at Five Rivers too. In the summer, of course, we concentrate more on getting people outdoors."

Payne will be joined Saturday by fellow Circle tellers Becky Holder and Lois Hodges. "We're a group of people who love storytelling - love the tradition of it and want to keep it going," says Payne.

And, it is far more than a hobby. Payne says, storytelling is a tool for her work at Five Rivers.

As a staff educator, she says, "I do anything that needs to be done - public programming, working on the curriculum for student participation when groups come here from schools, preparing exhibits. To work at Five Rivers, you're a jack-of-all-trades."

Her own trade is as a licensed teacher with 13 years in a traditional classroom setting, culminating at the now-defunct Cathedral Academy in Albany, before signing on two decades ago at Five Rivers.

To hone her teaching skills, she joined the Story Circle four years ago.

"On the job, I use a lot of Native American folklore and Native American-style stories," she says, "And, I particularly like to tell stories about plants. Many of the plants that grow in our environment here, have a rich history to them. Our ancestors used them as medicines, as food."

And as inspiration for a good yarn or two. Payne recounts the Native tale of a young woman, pining for a warrior lost in battle, who died waiting alongside the road and became one of those familiar purple wildflowers that dot the shoulders of highways and byways throughout the Northeast.

"Storytelling is a valuable tool of environmental education," Payne says. "People remember stories far more easily than hard facts, and children hear 'once upon a time' and their ears perk up."

Catching visitors' ears will be a challenge at the busy festival. Amid the music and stories, over 2,000 people are expected to participate in a silent auction, take in numerous exhibits, pet live reptiles and partake of popcorn and fresh cider.

And then there are the meadows and trails of Five Rivers, a distraction on their own.

"There are plenty of things to see and think about on our grounds," says Payne. A seasonal wildflower garden is still in bloom, and "it's not a place you have to have money to go to and enjoy."

Those who miss the tall tales, can enjoy more yarns at the annual Tellabration sponsored each fall by the Story Circle. This year the event is set for Nov. 18 at Niskayuna High School.

For now, Payne and her fellow storytellers won't begrudge visitors' attentions being elsewhere at the Festival.

"They're welcome to bring a picnic, come early, stay late, and enjoy," says Payne.

The Five Rivers Fall Festival takes place Saturday from noon to 4 p.m., rain or shine, at the Five Rivers Environmental Education Center, which is run by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The Center is on Game Farm Road off Route 443 in Delmar. Call 475-0291 for directions and details.

Originally published on September 14, 2000, in The Record, a Troy, NY newspaper.