Appalachian Thursday – Sang Hunting

ginseng2While in West Virginia last weekend my brother showed me some ginseng plants. He was checking them to see if they had seeds he could plant to spur future growth. He gathered up the red fruit with seeds inside and sowed them in a new spot. Seeds need 18+ months to germinate so if we’re lucky, they’ll sprout in the spring of 2020.

Ginseng is not for those in a hurry.

The native plant is prized for all kinds of curative properties from preventing the flu to acting as an aphrodisiac. In the Orient, the fact that the root is often shaped like a man with a body, arms, and legs, makes folks believe it has all sorts of body-related benefits. Another name for it is manroot. It’s relatively common in Appalachia, although the fact that you can get $500 or more for a pound of the dried root has caused over-harvesting.

Enter sang hunters.

There are lots of regulations around how and when the roots can be harvested. Plants should be five years old or older before they’re harvested. If you plan to export the root, it has to be 10 or more years old. How do you know how old a plant is? The first year, there will be just one, compound leaf typically with three leaflets. After about five years, the plant should be at least a foot tall and will have four or more leaves each one with five leaflets. The plant pictured above with three leaves, each bearing five leaflets is probably three or four years old. Not ready for harvesting.

If you look closely, you’ll see a wee crown right in the center. That’s where tiny flowers gave way to red berries with two seeds each inside. They’ve been planted now.

Ginseng is going to find its way into my stories one of these days. It’s ripe with potential–poaching, stealing, the solitary act of hunting through the woods, the art of digging the plant so as to keep the root undamaged and intact . . . it’s an art and a mystery.

Just the sort of thing I love to write about.

French Creek Pioneers

I had the pleasure of attending the French Creek Pioneers gathering this past weekend with my dad and brother. This is a meeting of folks descended from the original settlers of French Creek, Va., back in the early 1800s (before West Virginia became a state). There were Goulds, Youngs, Smallridges, Sextons, and Phillips among others.

I’m descended from the Phillips line. The first ancestor to come to America was Nicholas who came to Dedham, Mass., in 1630. Six generations later, in 1815, David Phillips moved his family to French Creek. Seven generations later, in 1971, I came along.

These are the Phillips for whom I named the characters in my Appalachian Blessings series. They aren’t based on any specific ancestors, but are rather a collection of bits and pieces I’ve read or seen or heard along the way. And it was SO special to set up a book table and share those stories with folks who are . . . well . . . my family!

I love sharing my Appalachian stories with just about anyone, but it’s extra special to share them with family members who share the same heritage. Here are some photos from the weekend–click on the images for captions.

 

Appalachian Thursday – Reclaiming “Hillbilly”

view 7-4-18There’s been some talk lately about how hillbilly is a derogatory word that shouldn’t see the light of day. So I’m going on the record to say I not only don’t mind the word, but that I think we should reclaim it.

Consider the word’s origin (or etymology if you prefer): hill + Billy. So basically, taking a really common name for a person and linking it to hilly terrain. I know–I was hoping for something more highfalutin.

Here are two of the earliest known uses of the word in print:

“I would hate to see some old railroad man come here and take my job, and then, I don’t think it is right to hire some Hill Billy and give him the same right as I just because he was hired the same time I was.” – The Railroad Trainmen’s Journal, July 1892

“In short, Hill-Billie is a free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of, dresses as he can, talks as he pleases, drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires of his revolver as the fancy takes him.” -New York Journal, April 23, 1900

That second one actually makes hillbilly-ness sound pretty appealing–or at least free-wheeling. But derogatory? Well, I guess that depends on who you are and how you mean it.

Pretty much any word can become derogatory–I’ve certainly heard folks use the word “Yankee” in a way that didn’t convey admiration. But if you visit Hillbilly Hot Dogs in Lesage, WV, I think they’d tell you that word–and it’s stereotypical connotations–have worked out just fine for them.

I don’t mind it a bit if someone suggests that being from a farm in West Virginia makes me a hillbilly (maybe I’m a hillbetty). I’m proud of the place I grew up and the people who shaped me. Sure, there are problems–just like everywhere else. But there are also plenty of amazing stories of people overcoming, sticking it out, and staying true to their heritage.

So I say let’s ignore those folks who think hillbilly is a dirty word and reclaim it. In my book a hillbilly is someone who loves the hills and hollers of Appalachia; someone who has some knowledge of living off the land; who holds family close; who will step up to help a neighbor in need; is a creative problem-solver (do a search for hillbilly air conditioner); who knows how to laugh and makes a habit of doing so often; who plays hard, eats hearty, and loves deeply.

In short–some of my very favorite people in this whole world.

#hillbillylife

 

Laying Up Treasure

treasuresThis past weekend a good friend and her family hosted a yard sale to empty out her grandparents’ house. Health issues and advancing years have forced the couple into a facility and it’s time to think about selling the little house they’ve lived in for so long.

Thistle and I stopped by for moral support AND to shop for a memento or two. I’ve known this sweet couple since we moved to our current house and she’s the one who first invited me to the church my husband and I now attend. I knew she collected teapots and thought it would be nice to have one.

I came away with a deviled egg plate just like the one my mom used when I was a kid along with a cast iron corn stick pan and a sweet little Brown Betty teapot. Which set me to thinking about what I consider my “treasure.”

I started walking through the house to pick out my favorite things. There’s the salt box and cast iron, elephant-shaped bottle opener from Dad’s childhood. Five or six wee pitchers from my grandmother’s collection. My mother-in-laws 40th anniversary salt and pepper shakers. The embroidered picture Aunt Bess stitched. A Christmas figurine from Mom’s childhood along with the butter mold she used when I was a kid (made by my great uncle).

And then there are the items that belonged to the senior ladies of the church. An amber glass cake plate and hand-painted dessert plates from Billy. A toll painting of a basket of eggs from Ann. And now Betty’s brown Betty teapot and egg plate.

These are my treasures.

But it’s not the THING so much as it is the person each one brings to mind. As I tallied my treasures I realized the value isn’t in the tangible item, but rather in the intangible memories and emotions and . . . love.

Matthew 6:19-20 says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Betty’s teapot has a chip in it. I might break that egg plate while doing the dishes one day. Every last item could be lost or destroyed but that’s okay because they aren’t really my treasures. And ultimately, it’s not even the people they represent that’s the treasure–love is. And love never fails.

 

Appalachian Thursday – Summers in the Yard

grass

Learning to blow a piece of grass between her thumbs to make a honking sound.

Of an evening, I often sit out on the front steps and watch the daylight linger. As the fireflies rise and Thistle nibbles grass it’s fun to think about what a fabulous playground the front yard supplied when I was a kid.

There were endless yard games with siblings and cousins–all kinds of tag, Simon Says, and made up games with balls. We generally played barefoot and would get all sweaty and breathless then there would be that prickling feeling as the sweat dried and the cool of the evening settled in. Mom sometimes only washed our nearly black feet before bed. I think the prospect of bathing three tired children helped her prioritize.

Of course, we also caught fireflies and stowed them in Mason jars with holes punched in the lids. We were occasionally allowed to bring these in to flicker in our rooms as we drifted off to sleep. When the June bugs came (in July), we’d sometimes tie a thread to a leg (a tricky job) and have a bug on a leash.

Then there were all the things you could do with what grew in the yard. Pinch a blade of grass between your thumbs and blow on it to make a wonderful, honking sound. Tie flowers together to make chains for your hair and neck. Chew on sweet clover.

It was easier in those days to be drawn outside. There were only two or three channels on TV, no video games or electronics, and even our toys paled in comparison to the wide world of summer outside the front door. I sometimes see neighbor children outside on summer days and it makes me glad. Maybe I’ll stop by and show them how to tie flowers together, how to blow on a blade of grass–these are skills worthy of being passed on.

When did food get so complicated?

sink

Those are cherry tomato plants in the back.

I remember the first time I heard of free-range chicken. Having grown up on a farm, I couldn’t think what that meant. What other kind of chicken could there be?

Then I found out about tiny cages, cut off beaks, and other abominations. And I learned that “free-range” didn’t mean chickens actually went outside–it simply meant they could if they happened to find that little door in the side of the massive chicken house.

Eating seemed relatively simple when I was growing up on the farm. We raised a fair amount of what we ate–garden stuff, fruit, dairy products, domesticated and wild meat. And when we bought things at the grocery store we were generally looking for the best quality at the lowest price.

That was that.

In college, it was all about the cost. My goal was to get the most of the foods I liked for the least amount of money which I also needed for education, car expenses, entertainment, clothing, and so on.

Then I started focusing on things like fat and calories. “Healthy” eating. Food became the sum of its parts–fiber, protein, sodium, saturated fat, vitamins, etc. I started paying more attention to those nutrition panels on the sides of packages.

And now. Now I’ve read books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Palin and Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin. I’ve become aware of the atrocities happening daily in our food system. I’ve become aware that a fair amount of what’s sold in the average grocery store isn’t even food. It’s a man-made approximation of food. Now I’m reading ingredient lists or even better, buying things without a label. You know, fresh fruits and vegetables, bread from the baker, or a fresh chicken at the farmer’s market.

Which brings me full circle to what my grandparents ate. They grew it or made it. If they didn’t have it or couldn’t get it locally, they did without. No tomatoes in January. No strawberries in December. No shrimp or crab in central West Virginia at all.

But there was fresh-caught trout rolled in meal from their own corn. There were Sunday pork roasts from the hog butchered on Thanksgiving Day. There were cakes made with milk from the cow and eggs from the chicken. There was hot cornbread with apple butter.

I think a big part of the problem with our food system today is that we no longer eat to fuel our bodies. Food has become a form of entertainment. We don’t eat so that our bodies and minds have the strength they need–we eat to titillate our taste buds. We eat to satisfy cravings and delight our senses.

And, I would argue, this is not a bad thing in and of itself. God made food GOOD. Psalm 34:8 says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” We all know the delight of tasting something good.

But when I’m willing to sacrifice the well-being of animals, the land, and the environment just because I crave a feedlot beef cheeseburger followed by chocolate dipped strawberries out of season–that’s when I’m in trouble.

Food shouldn’t be so complicated.

So here are a few things I’m doing to try and reset the natural balance:

  1. Buying local food. At the farmer’s market it’s easy. In the store I’m checking to see just how far those peaches were trucked. From South Carolina? Good. From South America? Not so good.
  2. Making things from scratch. Okay, I did buy donuts for an event at work the other day. But the goal is to make more things from scratch. Homemade pancakes are actually not much trickier than from a mix.
  3. Composting. A huge amount of our landfill waste is FOOD. A compost pile at the far end of the driveway doesn’t even smell bad.
  4. Growing a few consumables. My husband will tell you I have a black thumb. Even so, I can keep a pot of herbs going. And I have a tomato plant in the flower bed that’s currently loaded with wee fruit. Here’s hoping I can harvest some soon!

How about you? What are you willing to do to simplify your food?

Appalachian Thursday – Lightning Bugs

You know it’s summer in the mountains when the lightning bugs start putting on a show. As kids, we loved to catch them and drop them in a mason jar with holes poked in the lid. Then we’d put that jar on a dresser in our rooms to watch them twinkle until we fell asleep.

Now I’d rather just sit outside and watch the show all across our yard and into the trees. And while I now know what’s happening is actually a cutthroat mating dance, it’s still incredibly lovely. And peaceful. And a little bit magic.

I realize some of you out there don’t have lightning bugs (or fireflies if you prefer). So I thought I’d offer you a peek at last evening’s light show . . .