Once there was a wise old man. He was so wise he could answer any question anyone ever asked him, no matter how difficult. One day, two young people were talking and they said, “We're going to fool that old man. We'll catch a bird, and go to the old man, and say, 'This that we hold in our hands today, is it alive or is it dead?' If he says 'Dead,' we'll turn it loose and let it fly, and if he says 'Alive,' we'll crush it.”

So they caught a bird, and they carried it to that old man, and they said, “This that we hold in our hands today, is it alive or is it dead?” And that wise old man looked at those young people and he smiled. And he said, “It's in your hands.”

Susan Griffin pointed this story out to me in a book of speeches by women. Fannie Lou Hamer had ended a speech with it at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Institute in 1971. As I tell it around, people tell me that they have found it in other sources as well. Ms. Hamer was talking about “The Special Plight and the Role of Black Women,” but the story can apply to any problem, any choices people need to make. I have been using it in ecology programs, along with some of the following stories:

All God's Critters Got a Place in the Choir, words and music by Bill Staines, illustrated by Margot Zemach. Dutton, 1989.
A joyous celebration of all animal and human life. All ages.

Animalia by Barbara Berger. Celestial Arts, 1982.
Brief tales of wise and holy people who have lived gently with animals. 3rd up.

Buffalo Gals and other Animal Presences. LeGuin, Ursula. ROC Fantasy, 1990. [c. 1987, Capra.]
Modern fantasy stories.

“Come Again in the Spring” in Richard Kennedy's Collected Stories. Harper, 1987.
Old Hark refuses to go when Death comes in winter. The birds have stayed North because he feeds them and they will die if he goes. The birds help Hark in a wager with death. (Also published separately, o.p.) 3rd up.

“Coyote at the Movies” in Coyote's Journal, edited by James Koller and others, illustrated by Harry Fonseca. Wingbow, 1982.
When he finds the lumber company promo film, Coyote knows just how to show it. Jr. & sr. high.

“The Crocodile in the Bedroom” from Fables by Arnold Lobel. Harper, 1980.
The Crocodile prefers the orderly flowers on his wallpaper to his wife's unruly garden. 1st up.

Crow Boy by Taro Yashima. Viking, 1955.
Chibi is too shy to do well in school, but finally a sympathetic teacher helps him show what he learned walking over the mountains to school. 3rd up.

Elsie Piddock Skips in Her Sleep by Eleanor Farjeon, illus. Charlotte Voake. Candlewick Press, 2000.
Elsie learns to skip rope from the fairies and with her special skill saves her town's precious land from development.

Flossie and the Fox by Patricia McKissack, illustrated by Rachel Isadora. Dial, 1986.
Flossie outfoxes the fox with a little lesson in animal identification. K-3rd.

“The Golden Earth” from Fire on the Mountain and Other Ethiopian Stories by Harold Courlander and George Herzog. Holt, 1949.
The Emperor, by a nice symbolic act, warns some European explorers that he does not intend to let them exploit his land. 3rd up.

Hamanaka, Sheila. Screen of Frogs: An Old Tale. Orchard, 1993.
In this story from Japan, a young man who has frittered away his riches is about to sell the forest where he played as a boy, but the frogs persuade him not to.

Her Seven Brothers, retold and illustrated by Paul Goble. Bradbury, 1988.
In this Cheyenne legend, a girl understands the speech of animals and birds. Her understanding leads her to her destiny as one of the eight stars in what we call the Big Dipper. “It is good to know that they once lived on earth. Listen to the stars! We are never alone at night.”

Hidden Stories in Plants: Unusual and easy-to-tell stories from around the world together with creative things to do while telling them, by Anne Pellowski. Macmillan, 1990.

The Invisible Hunters/Los Cazadores Invisibles by Harriet Rohmer, Octavio Chow, and Morris Vidaure, illustrated by Joe Sam. Children's Book Press, 1987.
The magical Dar plant makes the hunters invisible, but only so long as they do not use guns or sell the meat. When they get greedy, the magic turns against them. A story in English and Spanish from the Miskito people of Nicaragua. 1st-4th.

“Justice” from The Devil's Other Storybook by Natalie Babbitt. Farrar, 1987.
A big-game hunter arrives in Hell and is ordered to hunt a rhinoceros using only a net, “...and it goes without saying that, without his gun, he was very much afraid he would find it.” 3rd up.

Keepers of the Earth: Native American Stories and Environmental Activities for Children by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac. Fulcrum, 1988.
Separate teacher's guide available.

The Legend of the Bluebonnet retold and illustrated by Tomie de Paola. Putnam, 1983.
In this retelling of a Native American tale, the elders learn that the drought is caused by people taking from the earth and not giving back. A young girl's unselfish gift brings rain, and the bluebonnet. K-3rd.

“The Lion-Makers” from the Panchanantra, translated by Arthur Ryder. Also in More Best-Loved Stories Told at the National Storytelling Festival. National Storytelling Press, 1992.
The experts know how to do it but not when to stop. Also in Just Enough to Make a Story by Nancy Schimmel, Sisters' Choice, 1982, and in The Tiger's Whisker by Harold Courlander. 3rd up.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. Viking, 1982.
Great-aunt Alice was once a little girl who wanted to travel the world and then live by the sea, as her grandfather had. But there was one more thing she had to do. “What is that?” Alice asked her grandfather. “You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” he told her. 1st-4th.

Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe. Lothrop, 1987.
A snake is well treated by a young African woman who knows he is good for her garden. He turns out to be a handsome prince. 1st-4th.

Nine-in-One Grr! Grr! told by Blia Xiong, adapted by Cathy Spagnoli, illustrated by Nancy Hom.
“'That's terrible!' squawked Bird. 'If Tiger has nine cubs each year, they will eat all of us.'” What can Bird do to preserve nature's balance?

Ntombi's Song, by Jenny Seed, illustrated by Anno Berry. Beacon, 1989.
Ntombi, a Zulu six-year-old, overcomes her fear of the dark forest on her first trip to the store alone. K-3rd.

The People Who Hugged the Trees: An Environmental Folk Tale, adapted by Deborah Lee Rose, illustrated by Birgitta Saflund. Roberts Rinehart, 1990.
Amrita loves the trees that protect her desert village from sandstorms. When a ruler orders the woods cut, she runs to hug her favorite tree and the other villagers do the same. The ruler is adamant until a sandstorm comes and he sees that the trees are more useful as trees than as a fort. Adapted from a story of Rajasthan, India. 1st-up.

“The Rice-Puller of Chaohwa” from The Tiger's Whisker and Other Tales from Asia and the Pacific by Harold Courlander. Harcourt, 1959.
A farmer ruins his crop by impatience. K-up.

Save My Rainforest by Monica Zak, Volcano Press, 1992.
The true story of Omar Castillo, who, when he was eight years old, convinced his father to walk with him from Mexico City to Tuxtla Gutierrez to save Mexico's rain forest. Also published in Spanish as Salven mi Selva by Sitesa, 1989. (Available from Mariuccia Iaconi Book Imports, 1110 Mariposa St., San Francisco, CA.94107.) 1st - 6th.

“Slower Than the Rest” from Every Living Thing by Cynthia Rylant. Bradbury, 1985.
Leo, who is “slower than the rest” in school and unhappy about being in a special class, wins recognition and pride for his report on forest fires, using his pet turtle as an example of an animal who couldn't escape. “It isn't fair for the slow ones,” he concludes. 3rd-6th.

Song of the Trees by Mildred D. Taylor, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. Dial, 1975.
A black family in Mississippi during the depression defend their forest from a white man who wants to cut it down and cheat them. This is a novella, not a short story, but fairly short and terrific for reading aloud. 3rd-6th.

“The Strange Folding Screen” from Men from the Village Deep in the Mountains and other Japanese Folk Tales compiled by Molly Bang, translated and illustrated by Garreth Bang. MacMillan, o.p.
A painted screen reminds a man of the frogs who persuaded him not to sell his land and thus saved the forest and pond.

“The Tailor” in the introduction to Just Enough to Make a Story by Nancy Schimmel. Sisters' Choice, 1982.
As his coat wears out, the tailor makes a jacket from the unworn parts, then a vest, etc. “The Journey” from Mouse Tales by Arnold Lobel can be told with it for contrast. The mouse buys something new whenever anything breaks. “The Tailor” also appears, with activities, in Spinning Tales--Weaving Hope: Stories of Peace, Justice and the Environment, New Society Press, 1992. 1st up.

The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks retold by Katherine Paterson, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon. Dutton, 1990.
The lord orders the mandarin drake captured so he can admire its beauty, but the drake loses his lustre without his mate and his wild home. A kind maid turns the drake loose and is threatened with death, but the duck and drake return as people to save her. Japanese folktale. 1st up.

“Talk” from The Cow Tail Switch by Harold Courlander and George Herzog. Hold, 1975, c. 1947. Also in Best Loved Folktales of the World, edited by Joanna Cole. Doubleday, 1982.
Inanimate objects start objecting to a man's treatment of them.

“Umai” from The Inland Whale by Theodora Kroeber. University of California Press, 1959.
Umai waits and watches and catches the rhythm of the water before she proceeds on her canoe journey to the edge of the earth.

“Werburgh and the Troublesome Geese” from The Giant at the Ford and Other Legends of the Saints by Ursula Synge. Atheneum, 1980.
The convent's geese are harassing the nuns, destroying the garden, making a continual uproar. St. Werburgh finds that they are protesting being eaten, and forbids further slaughter (unless a goose is caught in the garden). Peace is restored, as is a goose already in a pie. 4th up.

The Wounded Wolf by Jean Craighead George. Harper, 1978.
The leader of the pack brings food to the wounded wolf until he can hunt again.

Why the Sky is Far Away by Mary-Joan Gerson. Little, Brown, 1992.
An African folk tale about the consequences of wasting food.

Ecology Stories to Tell is updated from Just Enough to Make a Story: A Sourcebook for Storytellers by Nancy Schimmel (Sisters' Choice, 1992) and may be reproduced in its entirety only, including introduction and credits, by any library, school or other non-profit organization, without permission. (Remember to use recycled paper.)

Environmental Song Audio Tapes for Children

Stories for the Seasons