Excerpted from Phyllis’ new book, Southern Folk Medicine: Healing Traditions from the Appalachian Fields and Forests
“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 down the mountainside. The early cool of the September air was crisp and clean as we zig-zagged our way down the mountain, cutting a path through the understory brush and along the ravines. Granddaddy Light carried a walking stick cut from a young sapling to ease his old bones through the woods and to fend off 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 sang hoe over his right shoulder and a burlap sack in the other hand. The sang hoe had a pick on one side and a half a hoe blade on the other and could be used to dig deep into the dirt and lift out a root.
As the day wore on, we were empty-handed for all our morning’s effort. No sang had been found. Everyone was feeling a bit glum and a bit tired as we rested on the big rocks around the blue hole outside a Cotaco Valley cave, grateful for the deep shade of the densely packed trees around 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.
Caving was one of my favorite activities, having been introduced at a young age by my father. This particular cave was alluring – its great room was magnificent with a cathedral ceiling that seemed to stretch upward forever. On the far cave wall, intricate rock formations created a water fountain effect with little pools of water flowing from one smaller pool at the top of the cave wall downward to the next larger pool and on until it reached the largest pool at the floor of the cave. In the middle of the great groom was the blue hole, a sinkhole filled with fresh water. No one knew how deep it was, only that it connected to a similar one outside the cave.
But today, there was no time for caving; ginseng was an important source of cash income and the day was getting on. Empty-handed, we headed back toward the truck, a long walk up the north face of the mountain on an overgrown and long-deserted roadbed. 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 plateau shelf of the mountain.
As we headed back up, I spotted a solitary chimney in the woods and went over to investigate. The chimney (or chimley in local terms) was all that was left standing from a house in 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. The people had followed the store, packing up and moving, abandoning their wooden shacks and chicken coops to the workings of Nature. For you see, the people had never owned the land their houses were on. The vast acreage was all owned by one family as was the general store. They rented to tenant farmers who worked the cotton fields in the valley below. Soon only stone chimneys and fallen down buildings stood as reminders that people had once occupied the land and that cotton was no longer king.
Abandoned 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 intriguing activity in the world. Sometimes, the houses were abandoned with all the furniture and house goods left inside. This happened when elderly parents died and their children, now living in other states, had no time to rescue possessions left behind in the backwoods of Alabama. These old houses and their belongings could sit for years and years until the land was finally sold and new owners took possession.
My brother Norman and I loved to do this type of exploring. Once, in similar circumstances, we had found an old trunk full of women’s clothes from the early 1900s. What an amazing treasure! You just never knew what you might find in abandoned houses. On this day, I found an old fruit jar, discovered several small bottles which had once held patent medicines and hair tonic, and unearthed a handful of marbles. To a child, these were amazing discoveries which I would later flaunt to younger siblings and cousins.
There were usually fruit and nut trees around the old settlements and homesteads and this was no exception. The pear tree was ripe with fruit already falling thick on the ground and a muscadine (wild grape) vine with the last of its thick-skinned yield not yet eaten by the birds or possums. 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.
I was so intent on my explorations that I jumped when Daddy shouted for me to “Come on!” They had found some sang.
Every plant has an ally, a companion, and a use. As we dug the ginseng, Granddaddy said that ginseng, deer and rattlesnakes are often found together. Granddaddy talked really, really slow, partially because of his palsy and partially just because that was the way he talked. Any story that Granddaddy started could take awhile, Granddaddy talked slower than molasses running uphill on a snowy day, as the old saying goes. Sometimes his pauses would be so long, that you’d think he had finished the story and so you would start talking. Then, Granddaddy would suddenly get his wind back and with great indignation for being interrupted, finish his story. It was disconcerting but taught us patience and gave us all good listening skills.
According to Granddaddy, deer eat the ginseng seeds 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 are looking for their winter’s nests about the same time ginseng is ready to dig. Most ginseng hunters run up on at least one or two rattlesnakes during a season. 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.
We finished gathering the sang and were almost back at the truck when we heard the rattle. It was a granddaddy rattlesnake coiled right in the middle of the old road bed and ready to strike. Daddy moved to one side of the snake and Granddaddy walked over and stood between me and the snake.
“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, “it’s done hissed at me.” Daddy picked up a big rock, ready to deal with that rattlesnake.
“Get to the truck,” Daddy said, motioning me onward. But I was frozen, staring at the evil-looking arrowhead-shaped snake head. “Go on, I said.” And I knew he meant it this time and so I headed toward the truck giving the snake a wide berth. With one last look back, I saw Daddy draw back his throwing arm and I knew we had seen the last of that old snake. Daddy had a fearless attitude about handling snakes or killing poisonous ones. He had been known to grab a snake by the tail, swing it around and around and pop off its head with a whip-like action. He also liked to keep a rat snake or corn snake in his tool shed to keep down the rats. It’s also kept Mama out of his shed too. She was extremely afraid of snakes.
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 me toward the truck, 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.