Appalachian Thursday – Spring Planting (by the signs)

produceIt’s finally March and while we still have redbud, dogwood, and blackberry winters to go (at a minimum), country folks are thinking about plowing the garden.

When I was a kid my father and one of the more mature ladies of the church would have pretty much the same “discussion” every spring. She believed strongly in planting by the signs and Dad was determined to convince her it was not only silly, but un-Christian to do so.

As far as I know, neither one ever came around to the other’s way of thinking. I suspect it would have spoiled the fun they had rehashing the subject every spring.

There are still plenty of folk who plant by the signs in Appalachia. Here’s a quick primer, in case you want to give it a try this year:

  • Plant ABOVE ground crops when the moon is waxing (getting bigger). Things like peas, lettuce, tomatoes, squash, etc.
  • Plant BELOW ground crops when the moon is waning (getting smaller). Things like potatoes, carrots, turnips, etc.

That’s the BASIC rule. Now, let’s look at the signs. Each month, the moon passes through each of the 12 signs of the Zodiac, which can be divided into four elements:

  • Water – Cancer, Pisces, Scorpio
  • Earth – Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn
  • Fire – Leo, Ares, Sagittarius
  • Air – Gemini, Aquarius, Libra

Water and Earth are FERTILE elements while Fire and Air are BARREN elements. Generally speaking, you want to plant in one of the fertile signs and cultivate, prune, and harvest in the barren signs. Of course, you’ll also want to match the phase of the moon to the particular sign. (E.g. Plant potatoes in a fertile sign while the moon is waning.)

Of course there are a few caveats as well. NEVER plant on Sunday, a fiery, barren day. And don’t plant while the moon is full, new, or in one of its quarters regardless of the sign.

Got it? Good. Now go plant something. But only if it’s after the last frost date for your region. (FYI–You should plow a late snow into the soil–it’s known as poor man’s fertilizer.)

There are also rules about the proper sign in which to set fence posts, cut your hair, shingle a roof, or do just about anything, but we won’t get into that. And you can always check out the Farmer’s Almanac, which has planting days all figured out for you!

FYI – Today is a good day to get in your root crops, but tomorrow is a barren day–a good time to get in some pruning!

Appalachian Thursday – Mountain Monsters

flatwoodsNorth America has Bigfoot. Nepal has the Abominable Snowman. Ireland their Banshees. Everywhere you go, there are monster stories.

Well, West Virginia is not one to be left out. My home state has several mythical monsters of its own. Our uniquely Appalachian monsters include . . .

The Mothman – This is the legend that inspired a 2002 movie starring Richard Gere which may be why it’s our best known monster. The mothman is a ten-foot tall figure with massive wings and red glowing eyes. He allegedly appears before tragedies like the 1967 Silver Bridge collapse at Point Pleasant, WV, that resulted in 47 deaths. Some folks say it’s just a blue heron.

The Flatwoods Monster – This is the one closest to where I grew up. When I drive to the farm I pass through Flatwoods where a colorful cutout of the monster stands near the road. This was a one-time siting in 1952 when a group of kids saw a UFO crash and went to investigate. They say they saw a green figure that appeared to be floating and emitting a sulfurous smell. When others went to the same spot in the light of day, there were “skid marks” that might have been the tracks of vehicles investigating the kids’ claims.

The Grafton Monster – This one lurks near where my mom lives. It may be kin to bigfoot–a tall, ape-like figure with a smooth skin like a seal. It’s rumored to whistle as it stalks it’s prey. Hmmmm. Sounds like something teenage boys out to scare their girlfriends might come up with.

The Philippi Mummies – This pair of do-it-yourself mummies are less elusive monsters. The Barbour County Historical Museum keeps the mummies in glass-topped coffins in the bathroom. The weird twist is that a farmer acquired the bodies from the WV Hospital for the Insane in 1888 and tried out his own embalming solution on them. It worked and the pair toured with P.T. Barnum before being returned home. I hear you can still see them for just $1.

Groundhog Day (and an even lesser known holiday)

Freddie

Thank you Katrina for the shot of Freddie!

You probably know that last Saturday was Groundhog Day. Not exactly one of the big ten holidays, but still, there was a bit of hoorah around Punxsutawney Phil who did NOT see his shadow which means an early spring! Of course, French Creek Freddie, a resident of the West Virginia Wildlife Center located not far from our family farm DID see his shadow. So I guess that means six more weeks of winter back at the family farm. Sigh!

Saturday was also Candlemas, a Christian holiday celebrating the day Jesus was presented at the Temple after Mary’s 40-day time of purification. Simeon held Jesus in his arms and called him, “The Light of the World.” Hence, Candlemas. It was tradition to take candles to the church to be blessed for use throughout the year.

Of course, we can’t take a Christian holiday and not fiddle with it. So some pagan traditions slipped in, including a superstition that if the sun came out on Candlemas, thought of as winter’s halfway mark, it meant another six weeks of winter. Conversely, an overcast day predicted an early spring.

An Old English saying goes like this:
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.

So how did the groundhog get tied into that? Well, there’s this entry from Berks County Pennsylvania storekeeper James Morris’ diary dated 2/4/1841:
“Last Tuesday, the 2nd, was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks of nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”

Freddie has been checking for his shadow since 1978 (presumably several Freddies). And he’s not the only one. Here’s a list of other groundhogs around the nation:

  • Punxsutawney Phil: Pennsylvania
  • Buckeye Chuck: Ohio’s official groundhog
  • Staten Island Chuck: The Staten Island zoo
  • Smith Lake Jake: Birmingham, AL
  • General Beauregard Lee: Stone Mountain, Ga.
  • Octorara Orphie: Lancaster, Pa.’s
  • Dunkirk Dave: Dunkirk, NY
  • Woodstock Willie: Woodstock, IL
  • Malverne Mel: Malverne, NY
  • Jimmy The Groundhog: Sun Praire, WI
  • Stormy Marmot: Aurura, CO

I don’t know about all these predications, but I do know that our weather is supposed to be in the 60s the next few days and I’m glad of it!

Christmas in Appalachia

Christmas treeWhile I suppose we were relatively modern when it came to my childhood Christmases, the old-timey traditions are still hanging on in the mountains. And there are some I very much think we should revive for broader use. Here are a few of my favorite Appalachian Christmas traditions:

VISITING – My 85-year-old cousin and I were lamenting the fact that no one visits anymore. It was customary throughout the year, but especially on Christmas day. The idea was to simply get out and see your neighbors. In my experience, the older folks stayed at home awaiting company while the younger ones did the traveling. You didn’t stay long, but there were refreshments–fruitcake, cider, cookies–and it was bad luck not to partake lest you spoil the Christmas Spirit.

CHRISTMAS GIFT – If you go a bit further back, there was a tradition of carrying small gift items like candies in your pockets as you went visiting. If you met another visitor the first one to say, “Christmas Gift,” would win a gift from the other.

DECORATIONS – There was plenty of greenery to be had–pine, holly, or even bittersweet–and it was simple enough to cut a tree. Decorating the tree was another matter. Common decorations included popcorn strings, paper chains, seed pods wrapped in the foil from chewing gum wrappers, gingerbread cookies, and scraps of bright fabric.

SERENADIN’ – No, not caroling. The idea was to gather as many noise-making items as you could lay your hands on–cowbells, shotguns, pots and pans, etc. A group of serenaders would then sneak up on a neighbor’s house after bedtime and commence to making as much racket as possible. The neighbor would light a candle or two and invite the seranaders in for refreshments. If the neighbor heard the group before they got started, he’d fire off a shotgun to let them know they’d been “caught.” And then he’d invite them in for cider anyway!

A CANDLE IN THE WINDOW – This had a couple of meanings. First, it was a welcome for visitors or even strangers–light for the path and warmth for the feet. Second, it indicated that the Holy Family would be welcome and wouldn’t have to sleep in the stable.

TALKING ANIMALS – Okay, so this is just superstition. I think. The idea is that at midnight on Christmas Eve animals can talk. I actually worked this one into The Sound of Rain with Judd remembering a time he and his brother Joe snuck out to the barn in hopes of chatting with the family’s livestock.

So if you see me next Tuesday, watch out. When I holler “Christmas gift,” I’ll be expecting a little something. And in turn, I’ll be sure to tell you what Thistle had to say at midnight the night before.

Appalachian Thursday – Funerals

GE DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve attended several funerals lately and it got me thinking about how much a part of growing up in Appalachia funerals have always been. As a child I often went with my parents to funerals. Shoot, everyone went. It’s just what you did.

The two things I remember most were open caskets and all that food. It was rare to go to a funeral where the deceased wasn’t on display. Everyone passed by the casket. The family would be stationed at the head so friends could offer condolences and hugs. Someone would inevitably say, “Don’t she/he look natural.” (My grandmother put considerable thought into what she would wear for burial.) Then, after the funeral, everyone would go back to the family’s home where there would be a ridiculous amount of really good food supplied by the community.

And, of course, there were quite a few superstitions associated with death. I didn’t necessarily see these things, but I certainly heard about some of them. Here are a few of the more interesting ones:

  • When someone died, you stopped the clocks to mark the time and prevent another death.
  • Deaths come in threes. If two people died reasonably close together, someone would always predict a third. I always found this a wee bit unnerving.
  • If you hear a screech owl at dusk, someone will die. I still feel a jolt when I’m hiking in the evening and hear an owl hoot.
  • It’s bad luck to walk across graves. We helped mow the church cemetery when I was growing up. This one worried me.
  • Pregnant women aren’t supposed to look at a corpse lest their child be “marked.”
  • Setting an empty rocking chair in motion signifies death. This one feels like a lovely metaphor more than a superstition.
  • And my favorite–bees carry the news of death.

All in all, these customs and traditions made death pretty approachable for me. And, as the people I care about get older (as do I!), I find myself grateful for growing up in a place where death was very much part and parcel of life.