Grab your headphones and go for a walk: Would You Wander, a nature/ storytelling podcast at Nextfest

By Liz Nicholls,

“You’ve come to the right place. Exactly where you are…. So c’mon.” – Episode 0, Would You Wander

Yesterday I went on a stroll by the river. And there was a friendly voice in my ear.

It wasn’t frantic instructions, peppy exhortations to step faster, stride longer, sweat more (I’m pretty resistant to those anyhow). The voice didn’t ask me to conjugate verbs in French, follow a map, or even pick my route. Nothing happened, and it was strangely calming.

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In Nature Nurture, episode 6 of Would You Wander, Sam Jeffery’s highly unusual podcast series at Nextfest, actor/director Emma Ryan simply invited me to be aware of my world and what I was seeing, and hearing, and touching. It felt easeful, so I kept going….

In episode 1, Lito the Rusalka, Sofia Lukie told me a story, inspired by a Ukrainian tale of love sought, lost, gained. In five fleeting parts, it was all about our relationship to water, and floated our pandemic sadness in “a year of disconnectedness,” our magnetic attraction to what lies under the surface. The river valley seemed like the right place to listen to that, too. So I kept going….

“Part storytelling part nature exploration,” Would You Wander is, in this initial Nextfest incarnation, six episodes, each with a different storyteller who wrote and performed their own stories.

The six debut “Wanders” came about as a pandemic project, says Jeffery, a U of A acting grad with a multi-faceted career in fight direction and intimacy coordination/direction.“I joined the Canadian Conservation Corps and spent a few months volunteering in Ontario. And the third stage (of that) is ‘a self-directed community service project that includes education and outreach’.” As an artist, she wanted her project to have a theatre/storytelling aspect.

For us in our year-plus of isolation — a lot of it stuck inside, paralyzed or fuming depending on the day — Nature has had a cathartic, almost mystical, allure. “I was looking for a way for people to share their stories and their connection with Nature,” says Jeffery. Her invitation wasn’t confining or prescriptive. She put the call out to “people who wanted to tell stories about Nature…. I left it up to the storytellers to decide how they wanted to share.”

And there was a striking variety of responses, as Jeffery describes. Witness the range of “Wanders,” from “an educational meditation on mushrooms, and how humanity deals with conservation to a Ukrainian folk tale that looks at water…. Another is a meditative walk that invites you to be present in your surroundings: what do you see? what do you feel? Another talks about trees, and invites you to sit somewhere and listen to some poetry for a bit….”     

“The idea is put headphones on, go outside, and take a walk. And share a story while you walk,” says Jeffery. The results are ‘educational’ in that “storytelling has a lot of power. As Indigenous cultures know, a story isn’t just a story; it’s a way to pass knowledge down.”

If there hadn’t been a pandemic, Jeffery “would have wanted a storyteller to pick up people and take them on a guided walk” in person. But podcasts and their voice in your ear have a particular kind of intimacy. “And a broad reach,” as she’s discovered. Only 30 per cent of people listening to the trailer and the introductory Episode 0 live in Canada.

“I’m planning to continue,” Jeffery says of Would You Wander. “I’m excited about the potential of the project going forward; Nextfest is a springboard.” In this first round “the performers are mostly theatre artists,” but that could change in the future.

Her time in Ontario as part of the Nature Conservancy’s “invasive species project” was a life-changer, Jeffery muses. “Four months cutting invasive grasses on the Saugeen Peninsula helped me realize how good it is to just be outside!”

Would You Wander is available as part of Nextfest (which runs through Sunday). The storytellers are Sarah Emslie, Emma Ryan, Sophie Gareau-Brennan, Sofia Lukie, Gabriel Richardson, Dean Stockdale.

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