Naturalist, herbalist, lecturer, writer, adventure trip leader, folklorist and prize-winning harmonica player Doug Elliott has a new book. Titled Swarm Tree: Of Honeybees, Honeymoons, and the Tree of Life (Charleston, SC: The History Press; soft cover; 160 pages; illustrated by the author; $17.99), it is vintage Doug Elliott.
There are 13 essays devoted to or touching upon various topics such as migratory beekeeping, how to pick up a skunk, fish grabbing, “Republicans in the Ramp Patch,” hitchhikers with butterfly nets, and a lot more — all designed “to illuminate the confluence of nature, humanity, and spirit.”
Elliott related in a recent email that, after graduating from the University of Maryland in 1970, “For most of the following decade, I traveled extensively from the Canadian north to the Central American jungles studying nature and spending time with traditional country folk and indigenous people, learning their stories, folklore, and traditional ways of relating to the natural world. For a number of years I made my living as a traveling herbalist collecting, displaying, and selling herbs, teas and old time remedies at folk festivals and country fairs. Attracted by the biodiversity and the richness of the traditional culture, I found myself spending more and more time in the Southern Appalachians. Accordingly, I’ve made my home in Western North Carolina since the mid-1970s, presently residing in Rutherford County with my wife and son. I still travel nowadays, teaching about nature, and performing stories and songs.”
In addition to programs on birds, bugs, reptiles and amphibians, rainforests, bogs and traditional foods, he can provide the following: “Woodslore and Wildwoods: Wisdom Stories, Songs and Lore Celebrating Animals, Plants and People;” “Groundhogology: Of Whistlepigs and World Politics;” “Possumology: Everything you never thought you wanted to know about America’s favorite marsupial” and “Everybody’s Fishin’, A Crosscultural Fishing Extravaganza: Wrestling Sea Serpents, Tickling Trout, Grabbing Catfish by the Snout!”
Elliott’s botanical knowledge is sound and extensive. Through the years, he has carefully observed, photographed, and drawn plants, including their underground systems, while at the same time collecting information from varied sources regarding their “history, legends, and lore; their uses in various cultures, medicinal properties, food value, as well as other practical ways we can use wild plants every day.”
In addition to Swarm Tree, he has published the following books: Wild Roots: A Forager’s Guide to the Wild Edible and Medicinal Roots, Tubers, Corms & Rhizomes (1976, reissued 1995); Woodslore (1986); and Wildwoods Wisdom, Encounters with the Natural World (1992).
The stories Elliott writes up for his books are natural extensions — in regard to content and style — of the stories he relates for live audiences. They don’t derive as directly from a literary tradition as they do from the rich storytelling tradition of the southern mountains; that is, they ramble around here and there, relating this and that, and then they end. As in this selection from Swarm Tree, ‘possums are often involved. In retrospect, the reader realizes that he or she has been entertained while learning something worthwhile about the natural world.
“Of Ginseng, Golden Apples and
the Rainbow Fish”
“If you want to go ‘seng hunting, you come up this fall, and we’ll run yo’ little legs off!”
That sounded like both a challenge and an invitation to go on a ginseng hunt. The offer came from Ted and Leonard Hicks when I was visiting their family homestead high on Beech Mountain in Western North Carolina. I had come there, like so many others, to listen to their dad tell stories. Their father, [the late] Ray Hicks, was a national treasure, known for his incredible repertoire of old-time Appalachian stories.
I had long enjoyed Ray’s storytelling. He was a master of the Jack tale s —stories about the naive, but resourceful, archetypal trickster character named Jack. Many of us first heard about Jack in the story “Jack and the Beanstalk.” As it turns out, the beanstalk story is only one of hundreds of these stories that were brought over from Europe by early settlers, and they were kept alive and relatively intact by those who settled the isolated hills and hollers of the Appalachian backcountry. Ray knew dozens of these wild, elaborate and fanciful tales and was more than willing to share them with anyone who came his way.
Ray was getting too old to roam the hills like he used to, so the opportunity to go ginseng hunting with his sons was too good to pass up. Ginseng is a valuable medicinal herb found in the deep shady hollows and hillsides of the Appalachian Mountains. So one morning in early October, when I knew most of the ginseng berries would be ripe and the leaves would be turning that distinctive shade of yellow, I showed up at the Hicks homestead. There I met Leonard at the top of the driveway, where he informed me that both he and Ted had gotten jobs and they had to go to work that morning.
Since I was there already, I went down to the house to say hello to Ray and Rosa. I knocked on the door and heard Ray say, “Come in.”
I could tell that he sort of recognized me from previous visits, but it seemed like he was having trouble placing me. His wife, Rosa, hollering in from the kitchen, reminded him I was the “possum man” and that I had been there a few times over the years.
I don’t know about how it is where you live, but among these folks mentioning ‘possums is a great icebreaker. And indeed Ray warmed quickly to the subject. He started talking .... and he pretty much kept on talking till later that afternoon when I stood up and said I had to leave . . .
We talked about ginseng and about how ginseng hunting gets in your blood. He was saying that when you’re walking through the woods, you can tell the places where ginseng is likely to grow — in the richer coves often near chestnut stumps, grapevines or black walnut trees.
“Thar’s a little fearn . . .” Ray was saying, speaking in his rich Appalachian dialect, full of archaic expressions and word twists. At first I didn’t understand what he was trying to tell me about. Then I realized he was talking about a fern, pronouncing the word like “fee’-ern.”
“Thar’s a little fearn I look for,” he went on to say. “If’n you find that fearn, you’ll find ‘seng (if somebody ain’t got there first and dug it). See, this here fearn, ‘hit’s all hooked up with ginseng. Thar’s a fungus hooked up thar ‘tween their roots.”
I realized he was talking about rattlesnake or grape fern (Botrychium sp.). This little fern grows in the same rich hollows as ginseng, and many mountain folks call it “‘seng sign” or “‘seng pointer” because it’s commonly known to grow in association with ginseng.
When I got home, I looked up the word “fern” in my dictionary, and it said that our word “fern” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “fearn.” So here was this backwoods mountaineer, a vestige of another era, living without a phone or indoor plumbing, speaking an ancient, archaic dialect. yet he was discussing subterranean microscopic mycorrhizal associations between plants — something that is only just beginning to be understood by modern scientists.