Once upon a time, there was a girl and her grandfather. Her grandfather was a storyteller, not flamboyant in delivery, but self-assured and comforting. He selected and passed along all of the stories that he dreamt might ignite the imagination of the young people in his life. When physical closeness was not possible the stories were made into recordings, to be listened to over and over again at bedtime. Why? Because he understood that stories are connection. Because he instinctively knew that stories build the emotional bridge in the mind between fact and understanding.
It was a gift that none of his family will forget. So in the spirit of my grandfather, please allow me to tell you a story.
Right on top of the Niagara Escarpment and deep in the woods there is a lake. It is a small and non-descript lake, but it exerts a great pull on all who come near it. Over several centuries communities of Iroquoian, likely Wendat, people settled nearby; coming and going in concert with the fertility of the soil.
In the 19th century a family by the name of Crawford arrived from Scotland and settled near the lake, which then became known as Crawford Lake. The family logged the area sending white pine timbers as far as the Welland Canal and eventually took over a thriving lumber mill in the nearby town of Campbellville. This all is a matter of archaeological and historical record.
What you will not find in any record book is the story of the blue-sky winter day when workers loaded recently felled logs onto a two horse sleigh to be transported to the mill in town. The shortest route took them across the frozen lake, and the team set out sure-footed onto the ice. The wind was cool, but the sun was strong and as the sleigh approached the middle of the lake the driver and his teammate heard the groans and sharp pings of cracking ice. Urgently, the men shouted for help as they drove the team forward with the ice parting beneath the runners of the sleigh. As the sleigh started to sink beneath the freezing water, the team of horses scrambled to regain their footing against its weight. Struggling to save the horses, the men eventually had to give up and run for the safety of the shore. When they turned back to look at the lake, both the horses and the sleigh had sunk out of sight.
Many years later, the Crawford family had a cottage on the shore of the lake where their grandchildren would come to swim, picnic, and fish. Legend has it that when they stayed the night and snuggled cozily in their beds, they were warned never to go down to the lake at night, especially during a full moon. If they did and they looked deep into the water they would see the eyes of the horses glowing in the moonlight from their resting place at the bottom of the lake.
Crawford Lake is a very unusual lake. It is what is known as meromictic, meaning that due to its small size compared to extreme depth, the water column doesn’t circulate properly. The result of this “partial mixing” is that only the top half of the lake water contains oxygen. The bottom half of the lake is virtually anaerobic and therefore is free of plants, most bacteria, and fish. What does this mean for the Crawford family horses? If they fell in the lake over 100 years ago…they would still be there today. They would still be at the bottom of the lake and would be almost perfectly preserved (if completely covered with sediment).
Crawford Lake is an amazing, beautiful time capsule that reveals a great deal about the history of our region. From core samples taken from the bottom of the lake researchers can see when Iroquoian people lived nearby (introducing corn pollen) or when European settlers first arrived (hello ragweed pollen). Incredible, but for many people, and especially for school children on a field trip, these facts can be too dry to be digested. The story about the horses provides some social context in which to settle the facts and makes it easier to remember why Crawford Lake is so completely fascinating and worth protecting.
Whether the story is true, we will likely never know. What we do know is that by using stories to convey information we are engaging an ancient and effective teaching technique; a technique that would have almost certainly been employed by the original Iroquoian inhabitants of the village and by Indigenous people across North America.
“…[T]hey did ceremonies and imparted to those that chose to walk in their footsteps, the sacred responsibility, of remembering those stories.“
Anishinaabe Knowledge Keeper Stephen Paquette
In fact, storytelling is still a fundamental educational technique employed by many First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people.
Neuroscientists are beginning to understand why storytelling is so powerful. Researchers have found that your brain is more active when presented with a story than when presented with factual information. When test subjects are hooked up to an fMRI and are told factual information the auditory cortex and Wernicke’s area (the region of the brain responsible for processing language) become active. When the same factual information is shared as part of a story, however, many more parts of the brain become active. Wernicke’s area and the auditory cortex are activated once more, but so are any areas that would help the subject visualize or experience the story. When you are caught up in a good story your brain will almost be able to see, smell, taste, hear, and feel what the characters are experiencing and all the areas responsible for these actions in the brain light up. You probably were not moving when you read about the horses sliding back into the freezing water, nevertheless your motor cortex was activated as your brain made sense of that part of the story. Our brains are wired to make sense out of the world we live in through stories. Stories create mental space where sustaining attention on the subject at hand seems effortless and great amounts of information can be conveyed and retained.
Over 30, 000 school children visit Crawford Lake each year and for many of them the “Horse Story” has opened the door to learn about the science of a rare meromictic lake. Frequently, our students return with their families and take them to shore of the lake where they tell their own version of the story. In the end our students remind me over and over again how the art of storytelling not only helps us understand the facts of the natural world but also, and perhaps most importantly, how it connects us to each other. It is an art that I hold in highest esteem, having learned it from a master.
Last modified: July 15, 2016