Excerpted from Phyllis’ forthcoming book, The Geography of Health: Southern and Appalachian Folk Medicine.
“When the leaves start a falling, the snakes start a crawling.”
- Local saying
We parked the truck on top of Billy Ridge at the crack of dawn to go ginseng hunting (“senging”) down the mountainside. The early cool of the October air was crisp and clean as we zig-zagged our way down the mountain, cutting a path through the brush and along the ravines. Granddaddy Light carried a walking stick cut from a young sapling to help ease his old bones through the woods and to fend off any snakes. His hands shook with palsy and his steps were slow so we moved at a leisurely pace to accommodate his affliction. Daddy carried the seng hoe and a burlap sack. The seng hoe had a pick on one side and a hoe blade on the other and could be used to dig deep into the dirt to lift out a root.
But after much of the day had passed we were empty-handed for all our morning’s effort. No seng had been found. Everyone was feeling a bit glum over this as we rested on the big rocks around the blue hole outside Cotaco cave, grateful for the deep shade of the densely packed trees by the sinkhole. Tangled fishing line littered the lower branches, signs of failed attempts to cast for the fish which swam between the blue hole outside the cave and its sister blue hole inside the cave’s mouth. Caving was one of my favorite activities, almost as much fun as walking through the woods. The magnificence of the great room, with its intricate rock formations, made skirting the bottomless blue hole well worth the danger. One false step could mean falling and drowning in the cave’s dark waters, a mishap that had ensnared the unwary more than once. I would have liked to go caving that day, but there was no time; ginseng was an important source of cash income and the day was ending.
Empty-handed, we began our long walk up the north face of the mountain on an overgrown and long-deserted road, back toward the truck. Little shrubby pine trees and greenbriar poked up here and there on the old road bed, the forest reclaiming its land. Down one side of the road was a deep wash, formed by many years of rain rushing down the mountain. This old road had never been paved, having only been used by the folks who had once lived in the settlement at the foot of the mountain.
As we headed back up, my brother Norman and I spotted a solitary chimney in the woods and went over to investigate. The chimney (“chimley” in local terms) was all that was left standing from a once prosperous settlement. The houses had been abandoned years ago when a new road was built a few miles to the east, by-passing the lowest part of the valley which was prone to flooding. The owner of the general store had abandoned the settlement, resettling on the new road. And the people had followed the store, packing up and moving, abandoning their wooden shacks and chicken coops to the workings of Nature. Soon only stone chimneys and fallen down buildings stood as reminders that people had once occupied the land.
Abandoned settlements and homesteads were always an exciting discovery and exploring them was one of my favorite activities. To explore the sites where people had once lived, raised their children and buried their dead was the most exciting entertainment in the world. Sometimes, the houses were abandoned with all the furniture and house goods left. This happened when old parents died, and their children, now living in other states, had no time to rescue possessions left behind in backwoods Alabama. These old houses and their belongings would sit for years and years until the land was finally sold and new owners tore down the houses.
Once, in similar circumstances, we had found an old trunk full of women’s clothes from the early 1900s. That treasure furnished me with hours and hours of dress-up delight. So, on this day, we were more than excited at the prospect of unique treasures, though most folks might have considered them worthless. And we were rewarded: Norman and I found an old fruit jar and discovered several small bottles and a few marbles. Amazing discoveries which we would later flaunt to our younger cousins.
There were usually fruit and nut trees around the old settlements and this was no exception. We found a pear tree with ripe fruit already falling thick upon the ground and a muscadine (wild grape) vine with the last of its thick-skinned yield not yet eaten by the birds. Both would make wonderful jellies, preserves and syrups. Abandoned settlements were also good places to find herbs, especially in the cleared areas around old chicken coops or pig pens.
My brother and I were so intent on our explorations that we jumped when Daddy shouted for us to “Come on!” We memorized the location of the fruit trees and took off running to catch up. Norman and I had lost sight of Daddy and Granddaddy when they had rounded a huge outcropping from a limestone bluff that jutted into the old road and so we ran a bit faster, not to be left behind. Again, Daddy shouted at us to “Come on!” and added, “Don’t let me have to tell you again.” That would be the third time and there wouldn’t be any more shouting, just a bit of hickory switch on our legs. So we went running up the old road right where it made a tight turn around the outcropping. Norman, though younger, had a head start and raced ahead as I was still making the curve. I heard him scream at the top of his lungs and then I heard the rattling warning of a snake.
Hot on his heels, I saw Norman leap over a granddaddy rattlesnake who had taken up residence in the middle of the old road. I was moving too fast to stop and so I sailed over the snake right behind my brother. My heart was pounding when I hit the ground but I just kept on running, too afraid to stop. I heard Daddy laugh, “You young’uns…leave that snake alone and get over here.” He and Granddaddy were standing in the middle of a patch of ginseng and they were both laughing as hard as they could as the snake slithered off into the woods. “Now that was a funny sight, you young’uns flying over that snake,” chuckled Daddy.
Norman and I stood catching our breath and shaking all over. “Don’t ever forget about snakes in the woods,” said Granddaddy. “Ya’ll need to learn or you’ll end up buried. Your Mama’ll be crying her eyes out. You gotta always pay attention in the woods.” He was right and we knew it. We had dropped our guard in our hurry to catch up with them. The discovery of the old settlement had made us forget about being on the watch for rattlesnakes or other creatures of the woods. And that could have serious consequences. We had been taught a lesson we weren’t ever going to forget. Afterwards, all that afternoon, Norman and I jumped at every little noise and each time a leaf rubbed our legs. We dug out that patch of ginseng as fast as we could, careful to leave some for the future and to replant some stalks with the leg of the root still attached.
Every plant has an ally, a companion, and a use. As we dug the ginseng, Granddaddy told us that ginseng, deer and rattlesnakes are often found together. Granddaddy talked real slow, partially because of his palsy and partially just because that was the way folks in our part of Alabama talked. Norman and I gave each other “the look.” We knew this story could take awhile because Granddaddy talked slower than anyone else in the world, slower than Christmas and slower than molasses running uphill. Sometimes the pauses would be so long, that you’d think he had finished the story and so you’d start to talk. Then, Granddaddy would suddenly get his wind back and finish his story. It was disconcerting but taught us patience and gave us good listening skills.
According to Granddaddy, deer eat the ginseng seeds in the early fall and the seeds pass on through and drop as the deer move around the woods. The seeds then roll down the sides of the mountain until they rest on land that is level enough and moist enough for them to grow. And that’s one way ginseng travels around the woods to new locations. That’s why following deer trails often leads to ginseng.
Rattlesnakes make winter nests in the sides of mountains near ginseng patches but above wet ground. And they go to nest about the same time ginseng is ready to dig. So most ginseng hunters run up on at least one or two rattlesnakes. According to legend, because rattlesnakes and ginseng live so close together and share the same land, they made a pact. If you injure one, the other extracts revenge; what you do to one, you do to the other. Killing a rattlesnake is always bad luck, the spirits don’t like that. And even worse, if you harm a snake, the ginseng can stop working for you. On that afternoon, listening to Granddaddy tell this story, Norman and I stopped shaking and forgot all about that rattlesnake, but it hadn’t forgotten about us.
We finished gathering the seng and were almost back at the truck when we heard the rattle. It was a granddaddy rattlesnake once again coiled right in the middle of the old road. “Think it’s the same one or ‘nother?” Daddy asked Granddaddy, never taking his eyes off the snake. “Don’t know,” he answered. Norman and I froze where we were, too afraid to move.
“Shoo old snake, we don’t want no trouble,” Granddaddy said. But the snake stayed coiled, rattling its tail.
“It’s too late for talking,” Daddy said. “You young’uns walk around and get to the truck.”
But Norman and I were still frozen, staring at the evil-looking arrowhead-shaped snake head. “Now go on I said.”
And we knew he meant it this time and so we headed toward the truck giving the snake a wide berth. With one last look behind me, I saw Daddy pick up a rock and I knew we had seen the last of that old snake. Daddy enjoyed handling snakes and had a fearless attitude about killing poisonous ones. He had been known to grab a snake by the tail, swing it around like a whip and pop off its head.
With Granddaddy’s story fresh in my mind, I knew that killing the rattlesnake was bad luck and I was worried about what might happen to Daddy if he killed the snake. I called out to him, but he just motioned us on to the truck, paying no attention to me, his eyes never leaving the snake. The snake and Daddy were in a contest and there would be only one winner. And that was the end of that old snake.
Ginseng was the only medicinal plant my Daddy ever used until late in his life when his brother B.J. moved to northern Florida and sent him an aloe vera plant and a gallon of aloe vera juice. After that, Daddy said that aloe vera “filled in the cracks that ginseng left.” And ginseng was the only plant I was allowed to dig, study and use for many, many years. Both Daddy and Granddaddy felt that ginseng, in the right amount, could do most everything. I spent years learning those amounts and those uses.
I ate my first ginseng when I was only a little girl. It was fresh dug from the ground and the smell of the rich-woods dirt filled my nostrils as I took a bite. I was taught to chew on a tidbit of the woody root, slowly, savoring every drop of its sweet bitterness. After that, I could keep a bit of seng in my mouth for hours, worrying it around and around the way a cow chews a cud.
We always kept some dried ginseng in a kitchen drawer; the one where all the odds and ends of the kitchen end up. There among the matches, can openers, screws and receipts were the dried broken bits of the seng which were too small to sell. The collection grew every year. I still have a few of those broken seng roots, given to me by Mama when Daddy died of an unusual blood cancer that strongly resembled the bite of a rattlesnake. The roots were a last gift and reminder of those precious times in the woods. The roots are as hard as a rock, and many have been dried 30 years or longer, but I can still chew on one for quite a few hours, letting the sweet bitterness fill my mouth, conjuring up memories of life the way it used to be.
Living with a plant, the way I did ginseng, is the perfect way to get to know it and for it to know you. Ginseng has its own personality, a quality that permeates its medicine, affecting all levels of the body. It can be wiry and tough, offering armor against invasion, keeping out that which is not needed. At the same time, ginseng can be gentle, influencing the body on a deep cellular level, supporting the immune system and fortifying the spirit. As with many herbs, the dose makes the difference. As a tonic, a little ginseng each day, just a little, supports the body and improves health.
Producing only two or three seeds a year, ginseng uses its energy wisely, storing most of its vitality in the roots. Ginseng likes to grow on the north side of the mountains in well-drained soil. And unlike other herbs of the woods, ginseng, the King of Herbs, is not merely harvested or gathered, but rather, it is Hunted. Hunting implies that the plant has an innate intelligence it uses to hide or defend itself from attack and capture. Granny Light told me that ginseng, or Little Man, is smart and can become invisible unless it wants to be gathered. And from my experience, I believe this to be true.
And ginseng is sneaky. You can be standing in the middle of a patch and not even know it. Or sometimes you can walk around and around a patch before you realize it is there. But on rare and glorious occasions, you can just walk into the woods and there it appears at your feet, in total welcome and acceptance. Seng has a rare mysterious and magical quality. When I was young, I was sure that ginseng could just pick up and walk through the rich wood’s dirt to evade capture.
Senging is a magical word itself, being used as both a verb and a noun. That day, we went senging together and later Granddaddy would tell the story of the seng to the rest of the family (especially the rattlesnake part). As you might have gathered, ginseng hunting was an annual event in our family that was anticipated with excitement and enthusiasm.
Every senger has his or her own way of hunting the plant and seldom are two hunter’s methods alike. I was taught to look for running water, deer trails and rattlesnakes as signs or markers that seng was nearby. I also learned that little flat ledges on the sides of the mountains often hold the plant. My ginseng education included instructions to never take all the plants in a patch but to leave some for future growth. And I understood the necessity of keeping my ginseng patch secret, because others might steal every single plant if they could find them.
No matter their personal favorite methods of ginseng hunting, everyone in the family agreed that ginseng is found in the snakiest places. Aunt Jewel was known to wear heavy Army boots with metal stove pipes tied around her lower legs to protect against rattlesnake bites. She would often brag about how many strikes she heard pinging against the metal pipes as she walked through the snaky brush.
My uncle Waylon continued to hunt ginseng after my Daddy had stopped, carrying on until his heart and legs just couldn’t make their way up and down the mountain slopes anymore. Waylon was little and dark, with the coloring of a Creek Indian, the face of an Irishman and the fiery temper of them both. He fought for and protected his ginseng patch with knife and wits and few of the old wildcrafters wanted to cross him in the woods. When uncle Waylon was in the hospital, nearing the end of his life, I had the opportunity to hear tales of ginseng hunts from the older men who came to the hospital and visited him. It was a rough and tumble business and people protected their patches fiercely. Money was scarce and herbs like ginseng, pink root, butterfly weed, button snakeroot and smilax brought in much needed cash. Men earnestly protected the location of herb patches and gathered the plants in secret.
One of my most important lessons in how to find a patch of ginseng took place in Moon Hollow, so named because the only light at night which could be seen shining through the trees was the light of the moon. Moon Hollow was a favorite of ginseng hunters as well as fox hunters – a thousand acres of uninhabited land. Daddy and I left right after breakfast and Mama expected us back home by dinner time (lunch). The food would be on the table promptly at 11:00 a.m., a filling meal of beans, potatoes, cabbage slaw and cornbread. Daddy and I passed an abandoned grist mill wheel across a creek and moved deeper into the hollow than I had ever been before. We walked and walked, until Daddy suddenly stopped. He pulled a paperback Western novel out of his back pocket and settled himself on the ground at the foot of a big tree, leaning back against the trunk to read.
“Between that tree,” he said pointing, “that rock and the creek, there are six or seven ginseng plants. Let me know when you find them, Sister.” And he started reading.
I looked around me and every plant looked the same: green and about a foot tall. I couldn’t locate the ginseng by looking for their red berries; it was only late summer so I didn’t have that sign to guide me. I walked around, back and forth between the creek, tree and rock but I couldn’t find any ginseng.
“Are you sure there are ginseng plants here?” I asked him. “Yup,” was the only answer I got.
I looked some more, walking back and forth. I stopped to examine the leaves on a plant. I still couldn’t find any ginseng.
“Hurry up, Sister” he said. “It’s almost dinner time.” Time was running out.
Frustration is too mild a word to describe how I felt as the morning wore on. “If you’re going to learn about herbs,” Daddy said, “this is how you learn it.”
I was about ready to cry. I just couldn’t find any ginseng. I stood there, in the middle of all these green plants, closed my eyes, took a breath and felt the tension leave my body. I just didn’t care anymore and in not caring, I became calm and quiet.
The woods surrounded me. I kept my eyes closed and let my other senses sharpen. I heard the sounds of the birds in the trees and heard the wind rustling tree limbs and leaves. I felt the wind flow over the skin of my face and hands. I felt the sun on my head, hot and constant. I smelled the water from the creek and heard the flowing sound of its movement over rocks in the creek bed. I smelled the musk and decay from the deep leaf liter on the ground. I heard Daddy breathing and heard the turning of the page in his book. I smelled Life: the life of the land, rich and thick. And in that moment, I became a part of the land too. I couldn’t tell where I began and ended or where the land began and ended.
I opened my eyes and the ginseng plants were just glowing, simply glowing. They looked vibrantly green as I pointed to them.
“Here they are,” I called to Daddy, pointing them out. He stood up, looked to where I pointed and put the book back into his pocket.
“Let’s go eat,” he said and that’s all the praise or comment I ever got. But that was his way, the Indian way.
And that was how my path with the plants consciously began.