Healing the mountains, healing the people
Byron Ballard is one misunderstood witch.
“There is this whole cultural mythology that witches aren’t human. They’re seen as these otherworldly creatures,” she said. “Then, you have this Hollywood icon in films, and with things like ‘American Horror Story’ or ‘Sabrina The Teenage Witch,’ these beloved characters, but that’s not who we are or what we’re about.”
Known as “Asheville’s Village Witch,” Ballard is a fourth-generation Western North Carolina mountain woman, one steeped in the rich, intricate culture of people, medicine, food and folklore that make these hills shine with a vibrant past and promising future. It’s her mission, and passion, to uplift the longtime techniques, practices, storytelling and, most of all, pride of what it means have deep roots in Southern Appalachia.
“I find more and more that people come here and they want to take away from the culture what works for them — the beauty of the mountains or the handicrafts or the music,” she said. “But, a lot of people still look down on native Western North Carolinians, where they might think, ‘I don’t want these mountain people cluttering things up with ideas that aren’t like mine.’”
Ballard is the author of Staubs and Ditchwater, a book recounting the folk healing and folk magic Ballard not only grew up with in rural western Buncombe County, but also has collected over her many years of practicing natural medicine and pagan traditions. Recently, she published the sequel, Asfidity & Mad-Stones: A Further Ramble Through Hillfolks’ Hoodoo, which dives deeper into the mountain culture and longtime backwoods techniques of Appalachian people.
“I really thought with the first book I was preserving a culture, that perhaps wouldn’t be around in the coming years. But, as I travel and perform these practices, I’ve found there are a lot of people still out there, folks who came out of the woodwork when they heard what I was doing,” Ballard said. “It’s been wonderful, and a blessing to me, to find out all of these things aren’t really fading. There are plenty of people my age, in their 50s, and younger, who are doing this — this isn’t ‘Grandma Betty’ doing it up on a mountain somewhere, it’s everywhere in Southern Appalachia.”
But, with preserving and sharing this knowledge, Ballard also sees it as part of her duty to also ensure the protection of our mountains and resources. She points to the unhealthy harvest of ginseng and golden root, both due to “miracle drug” demand here and abroad. She also notes of her travels to the now-defunct coal mining communities of Kentucky and West Virginia, where genuine poverty and hardscrabble existences are daily lives for countless residents.
“I don’t want to hear about urban poverty until you see just how bad rural poverty is,” she said. “I did a lot of traveling, a lot of talking with people in those coal communities, a lot of listening, and seeing their transition out of coal is heartbreaking. It also shows us how lucky we are in Western North Carolina to still have our mountains, our clean water and resources.”
And within her efforts to shine a light onto the beauty of Southern Appalachian culture, Ballard also works tirelessly to push out the negativity and darker side of the people who have set deep roots in this fertile ground.
“I want to be clear, there are definitely aspects of our Appalachian culture we need to let go of — xenophobia, homophobia and racism. We can let all of that go and still hold onto a vital, vibrant culture,” she said. “As mountain people, we tend to get our backs up about stuff, get righteous about things, but we need to see that not everybody is a Baptist or a Methodist. If we can get out of a place of fear, and really know that we’re in a time when our culture can keep the good pieces and transform out of the pieces that don’t serve us, then that’s going to be a beautiful place for all of us.”
So, what about the misconceptions when the words “magic” and “witch” get attributed to you out of novelty and misguided curiosity, rather than out of the necessity of real knowledge passed down through the ages?
“It is triggering for people. It makes people uncomfortable. But, we’re practicing the same techniques that my ancestors, and many others’ ancestors, practiced,” Ballard said. “I pull out my suitcase full of mason jars and ingredients, and people become so fascinated with what they see, where they connect and see the same things their grandparents used to survive.”
Ballard noted the long history of witches, one in which they were seen as the “doctors” of European villages and communities for centuries, a respected position that only found itself targeted by the creation of the university system during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
“Witchy women did all the doctoring. They caught the babies, took care of the dead, and were herbalists,” she said. “But, with the rise of the university system, the only people who were allowed to practice medicine were those who attended the universities, which were rich men, so they had to find a way to demonize these women, to get people to stop going to them and go to these new doctors.”
And as the 21st century takes shape, Ballard sees a significant societal and economical shift in perception and appreciation about what she practices, and what she wants to share with the world — the power and positivity found amid the knowledge of nature and nurture.
“People are so hungry for something authentic. So, when I pull out the old jug of mugwart — one of the most common weeds on the planet — they hold, smell it and are fascinated by its uses,” she said. “What I’m trying to do is take an academic background of capturing this mountain culture, versus how we grow this stuff organically and figure out what to do with it, versus how we work with the energies of the most ancient mountain range in the world.”
Want to go?
“Asheville’s Village Witch” Byron Ballard will present her book Asfidity & Mad-Stones: A Further Ramble Through Hillfolks’ Hoodoo at 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 30, at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva.
Writer, ritualist and teacher, Ballard believes in keeping the beloved but fading art of folk magic alive. Her first book, Staubs and Ditchwater, generated widespread interest, which allowed her to travel and share her practices, gather stories, materials, and other ways of folk magic. She shares this with Asfidity & Madstones. Ballard serves as elder priestess at Mother Grove Goddess Temple, a church devoted to the many faces of the Divine Feminine, where she teaches religious education and leads rituals.
www.citylightsnc.com or 828.586.9499.