The Laws of Nature | Circle Round 138

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(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

Can you name one thing that helps us build, helps us write, helps us eat, helps us breathe, and helps countless other animals on the planet?

If you said “a tree,” you’re right!

Trees are such an important part of our world. But we’re about to meet a man who learns that lesson the hard way!

Our story is called “The Laws of Nature.” Versions of this folktale come from Estonia and Finland, in Europe.

Voices in this episode include Thais Harris, Hrishikesh Hirway, Edward Hong, Jessica Rau, Nick Sholley, Alexia Trainor, and Mo Rocca. Watch for Mo Rocca on CBS Sunday Morning, and listen for him on NPR’s weekly news quiz, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! You can also check out his podcast, Mobituaries, as well as his book, Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving.

This episode was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir. It was edited by Supervising Producer Amory Sivertson. Original music and sound design is by Eric Shimelonis. Our artist is Sabina Hahn.

Coloring Page

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

ADULTS! PRINT THIS so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album so share your picture on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and tag it with #CircleRound. We'd love to see it! To access all the coloring pages for past episodes click HERE. Our resident artist is Sabina Hahn and you can learn more about her HERE.

Things To Think About After Listening

Head out to your yard, your favorite park, or just walk around your neighborhood, and see what kind of tree leaves you can find. Gather as many different leaves as you can, then bring them back home.

Attach each leaf to a piece of paper, and use staples or string to bind the papers into a book. Then ask a grown-up to help you identify the tree that each leaf came from. You can use books, encyclopedias, the internet, whatever resources you have available.

Once you’ve found the names of each tree, write them in your book. And next time you head outside, look for even more leaves to add to your collection.

Musical spotlight: The Marimba 

The marimba looks like a xylophone, but has wooden bars, and a greater range
The marimba looks like a xylophone, but has wooden bars, and a greater range

The marimba originated in Africa but is now a standard instrument in the percussion section of orchestras and jazz ensembles. The marimba looks like a xylophone, but has wooden bars, and a greater range (3 to 5 octaves versus the xylophone’s 2.5 to 4). You usually play the marimba with soft mallets, and each hit produces a quick, bright, playful sound. You can also hear the marimba in “The Twin Monkeys,” “Rabbit’s Wish,” and “The Perfect Partnership.”


NARRATOR: Long ago, in a peaceful country far up north, there lived a farmer named Hendrik.

All day long, Hendrik kept busy plowing and planting his fields. Then, as the sun went down, he pulled his wagon into the forest, where he gathered fallen tree branches for firewood, so that his farmhouse would stay warm and snug all night long.

This routine went on for years and years. Plowing, planting, gathering wood… plowing, planting, gathering wood. And eventually, Hendrik grew tired of it.

HENDRIK: Okay. Something’s gotta change! After working hard in the fields all day, the last thing I want to do is go to the forest and gather wood! Picking up branches piece by piece is downright exhausting! You know what? I’ll make things easier for myself, and simply pick a tree, and chop it down. That way, I’ll have all the wood I need in one fell swoop!

NARRATOR: Energized by his new idea, Hendrik grabbed his shiny axe from the toolshed and bounded into the forest.

HENDRIK: Alright! Now I just have to choose which tree to chop down. (looking around) Hmmm… let’s see… How about that one?

NARRATOR: Hendrik walked over to a cherry tree. Its delicate blossoms looked like tiny pink stars.

Hendrik raised his axe and aimed it at the cherry tree’s brown, horizontally-striped trunk. But just as he was about to give the axe a good swing…

CHERRY TREE: Wait! Stop! Don’t chop me down!

NARRATOR: Hendrik froze.

HENDRIK: What?!? You have a voice?!?

CHERRY TREE: I do! And I’m using that voice to beg you, good sir — please don’t chop me down! Every year my delicate pink blossoms transform into plump, red cherries that are so delicious to eat. The animals of the forest love them - and humans do, too! Surely you’ve devoured at least one scrumptious cherry pie in your time…?

NARRATOR: Hendrik smiled. He had devoured many scrumptious cherry pies in his time! His grandmother’s had been especially good.

HENDRIK: You’re right, cherry tree. And I’m sorry. I won’t chop you down.

NARRATOR: But as Hendrik stepped away from the cherry tree, he felt the temperature dropping. If he didn’t bring home some firewood, it would be a long cold night in his farmhouse!

HENDRIK: Okay, so if I don’t chop down the cherry tree, which tree will I chop down? (looking around) Hmmm… let’s see… How about that one?

NARRATOR: Hendrik strode over to an oak tree. Its gray-colored bark rippled with grooves and ridges.

Hendrik raised his axe and aimed it at the oak tree’s wide scaly trunk. But just as he was about to give the axe a good swing…

OAK TREE: Wait! Stop! Don’t chop me down!

NARRATOR: Hendrick’s jaw dropped open.

HENDRIK: What?!? You can talk?!?

OAK TREE: I can talk! And I implore you, good sir — please don’t chop me down! See how my acorns are still so small and bright green? They’re not yet ripe and ready for planting! Not only that, but think of all the animals that eat my acorns! Deer, squirrels, chipmunks, birds… without the oak tree, how would those animals survive?

NARRATOR: Hendrik nodded. He had often seen the creatures of the forest nibbling on the oak tree’s acorns.

HENDRIK: You’re right, oak tree. And I’m sorry. I won’t chop you down.

NARRATOR: Over the next hour, Hendrik went from tree to tree, raising his axe and readying it for a good swing. But each time he did…



ASPEN TREE: Don’t chop me down!

NARRATOR: ...the trees would cry out, and tell Hendrik why he should let them live.

The maple tree…

MAPLE TREE: My sap makes the most delicious sugar! And syrup! Pancakes just aren’t pancakes without me!

NARRATOR: The pine tree…

PINE TREE: I’m the only tree that stays green all year! Without me, the forest would look all dead and brown come winter!

NARRATOR: The aspen tree…

ASPEN TREE: I provide so much shade, and I hold so much water! So if a forest fire breaks out, I provide a natural barrier!

NARRATOR: As Hendrik listened to each one explain its purpose and function, his heart surged with pity.

HENDRIK: My goodness! These trees have really opened my eyes! Each one is so important! So special! Who am I to take my axe and chop them down?  I’ll just do as I’ve always done, and collect their fallen branches for firewood.

NARRATOR: But just as Hendrik stooped down to pick up some sticks, he was stopped...

WOOD SPIRIT: Well done, Hendrik!

NARRATOR: a voice!

HENDRIK: Wait, what?!? Now who’s talking to me!? Is it another tree?

NARRATOR: Hendrik swiveled his head this way and that. Suddenly, from behind a bush, he saw a small spritely woman leap out. The woman was no taller than Hendrik’s axe… but her long white hair fell all the way to the forest floor.

WOOD SPIRIT: Oh! You look startled, Hendrik! I didn’t mean to frighten you!

NARRATOR: Hendrik blinked his eyes.

HENDRIK: Who are you?!? And what do you mean, “Well done”?!?

WOOD SPIRIT: Excellent questions, Hendrik. Excellent questions indeed! To answer the first, I am the Wood Spirit! The trees are my children! My treasures! Which brings us to your second question. I say “well done,” because you listened to my children, Hendrik! You paid attention! You heard them out as they explained their purpose, their importance… and you spared their lives! And for that you will be rewarded, Hendrik....Provided you follow one rule.

NARRATOR: What reward do you think Hendrik will receive?

And what “rule” must he follow?

We’ll find out, after a quick break.


NARRATOR: I’m Rebecca Sheir. Welcome back to Circle Round. Today our story is called “The Laws of Nature.”

NARRATOR: Before the break, Hendrik discovered that the trees of the forest… could talk! They convinced the farmer to spare their lives, and not chop them down for firewood.

To thank Hendrik for his kindness and compassion, the Wood Spirit offered him a reward. The pint-sized woman reached into her coat, and handed Hendrik... a tree branch shaped like a rod.

WOOD SPIRIT: This rod has great magic, Hendrik. It unleashes the power of nature to grant your wishes.

HENDRIK: “The power of nature”...?

WOOD SPIRIT: Yes! With this rod, you have all the powers of nature at your command. Need help plowing your fields? Make your request, wave the rod, and the moles and earthworms will plow and dig for you. Need help planting your fields? Wave the rod and the ants will scurry out of their anthills and march from row to row, sowing every seed.

NARRATOR: Hendrik’s eyebrows shot up.

HENDRIK: The wooden rod can do all that?

WOOD SPIRIT: ‘All that’ and more! But listen to me, Hendrik, and listen well. You must stay reasonable, and sensible. Do not wish for anything that goes against nature… anything that would be impossible in the natural world. If you do, the magic will disappear. Just. Like. That.

NARRATOR: The Wood Spirit snapped her fingers — and then she disappeared, just like that!

HENDRIK: Wowwww!

NARRATOR: Hendrik could hardly wait to take his new gift for a spin. The next morning, he brought the rod out to one of his fields, waved it around, and made his first wish.

HENDRIK: I wish for help plowing my fields!

NARRATOR: Next thing Hendrik knew, the ground was crawling with moles and earthworms, all of them digging in the dirt.

HENDRIK: Woah! It’s just like the Wood Spirit said! Thank you, moles and earthworms! Now, let’s try something else!

NARRATOR: Hendrik raced over to another one of his fields.

HENDRIK: I wish for help planting my fields!

NARRATOR: And just like that, an army of ants came marching over, dropping seed after seed into the earth.

HENDRIK: This is amazing! Thank you, ants!

NARRATOR: Hendrik began using the enchanted rod all the time. If he was craving something sweet…?

HENDRIK: I wish for some fresh honey!

NARRATOR: ...a swarm of bees would come buzzing over, carrying a sticky, dripping honeycomb.

HENDRIK: Thank you, bees!

NARRATOR: If he was feeling hungry…?

HENDRIK: I wish for some ripe berries!

NARRATOR: ...a flock of birds would approach, their beaks bursting with blueberries and strawberries.

HENDRIK: Thank you, birds!

NARRATOR: Hendrik’s life got easier and easier… and Hendrik got lazier and lazier. Before long, he was having the squirrels pick fruits and vegetables for him, and the wolves and elk gathering branches for his fire every night!

But… even though Hendrik never lifted a finger anymore... as he made his wishes he always remembered the Wood Spirit’s warning:

WOOD SPIRIT: Do not wish for anything that goes against nature… anything that would be impossible in the natural world. If you do, the magic will disappear. Just. Like. That.

NARRATOR: But then came winter.

In Hendrik’s part of the world, far up north, winter was especially cold and dark. The air was bitter, the snow was heavy, and though the sun came out for a couple of hours a day, you couldn’t feel a lick of its warmth.

And this year, when December rolled around, Hendrik was particularly displeased.

HENDRIK: Uch! Is it just me, or is it especially freezing this winter? I’m wrapped up in blankets and shivering down to my socks! And it’s so dark outside, so dreary! If only there were a way to warm things up! If only --

NARRATOR: All of a sudden, Hendrik fell silent.

And do you know why?

Because he realized there was a way to warm things up’… or so he thought.

Quick as a wink, he threw off his blankets, rushed to the table, and snatched up the enchanted rod.

HENDRIK: Oh, this is going to be spectacular! Just spectacular!

NARRATOR: Without even pausing to put on a coat or boots, Hendrik threw open the door and sprinted out into the cold. His slippered feet sank deep into the snow as he stood in his yard and gazed at the gloomy grey sky. Then he shot his arm up, and swooped the rod through the air with a grand flourish.

HENDRIK: I wish for some warmth! No! I wish for some heat! Lots of heat! I wish for the sun’s rays to shine down from the sky, more scorching and blazing than ever!

NARRATOR: Well, no sooner had Hendrik said those words than the sun came bursting through the clouds. Its golden face grew brighter and brighter… and hotter and hotter… until it got so bright, and so hot, that one of its rays beamed down from the sky, headed toward Hendrik’s enchanted rod, and...

NARRATOR: ...set it ablaze!

HENDRIK: Yowwww!

NARRATOR: Hendrik hurled the burning rod as far as he could. It landed at the edge of the forest, and the trees along the edge began to smolder and smoke.

NARRATOR: Luckily, one of those trees was an aspen — which, as you may recall, holds more water than most trees, so it prevented the fire from spreading.

And before long, the fire fizzled out.

So most of the trees were saved.

But they never spoke again.

Though it’s believed that if you walk through the woods and listen — really listen — you can hear the trees whispering to each other in the wind.

They’re telling each other the story of Hendrik the farmer, who made an impossible wish... and lost the magic.

Just. Like. That.

Headshot of Rebecca Sheir

Rebecca Sheir Host, Circle Round
Rebecca Sheir is the host "Circle Round," WBUR's kids storytelling podcast.



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