Witchery by David Shields

David Shields Witchery

Those who go into the margins of settlement, to the places where the slope is too steep, the water too distant, the forest too dense, will encounter curious people. There’s a type of person who finds the last farms congenial in the upcountry. The public schools did not matter too much. Or even churches. Stores and garages were visited every once in a while.

Three years ago I when I went on the trip to verify the existence of the Dyehouse Cherry, I traveled these areas looking for surviving chinquapins, the dwarf chestnuts, that had largely vanished from the landscape from blight or root rot. But patches survived on stony outcrops in the NC, SC, GA, TN, and Ky mountains.

The people I met did not conform to any stereotype of Appalachian hillbilly or backwoods primitive. Many claimed descent from the Cherokee, even those whose face and figure made you think of Scotland or Ireland. Native knowledge was reckoned power in the areas beyond Burning Town in NC or between Nelse and Wolfpit in eastern Kentucky. Adults will rarely talk to a young person they don’t know. But someone in their upper 50s or 60s, not wearing a suit or a uniform, they will speak with.

They will speak about plants, if they know them. But you quickly learn there are categories of plants they will not speak of. One are the valuable plants that people from outside the region have over-foraged: ginseng, ramps, wild rhododendron. The other is “witchery plants”—poisonous items, psychotropic plants, and odd items you can’t figure out why they are so classified. I got great information when I asked about chinquapins. I got nothing when I asked about truth tell tea or henbane.

Once I did get a response to my inquiry about henbane. “If you want to know about that kind of stuff, you have to ask Mister Rackle.” When I asked how to contact him, I was informed “he don’t live nowhere. He sleeps in his car.” And the car? A huge old 70s Buick that has been painted “with signs.” “If you stay more than a week hereabouts you’ll spot him.”

I make it a point not to mess with root doctors or “healers.” Too much randomness there. But as I was eating breakfast at the Huddle House in Dillsboro NC, I looked up and found an austere looking man in a clean white shirt standing by my table. “I hear you may be looking for me.”

“Are you Mr. Rackle?”
“Byron Rackle. My mother liked poetry.”
“You are a herbalist they tell me.”
“I know the virtues of plants. The wild plants, not the tame ones.”
“I’m trying to find truth tell tea.”

He shook his head no. “You won’t find that. It’s controlled by the women connected with the Cherokee Bride of Jesus Christ.”

“I didn’t know such a bride existed. Does this woman have a name.”

“She gave up her name when she took Jesus’ ring. There are 12 Indian Brides, each for different tribes,and she is the second most powerful.”

“Do you know what plant it is?”

“It ain’t one plant but four. Including one you was asking about, henbane . . . devil’s eye. You may know too much for your own good.”

I decided I had to cut this line of inquiry short, and asked, “have you heard of a plant that restores memories?”

He nodded yes. “It’s a plant wise people do not use. Memories go away because of good reasons. The past will bear you down! Canada lettuce can do it.”

“”Let me write that down. Do you have any plants with you?”

He nodded yes. “But you aren’t ailing in any way that I can see. You don’t really need help from the plants.”

“No I’m not sick. I’m just curious about plants.”

He frowned and looked at me. Finally, “I am curious about plants too, but only in their powers. You aren’t curious about the powers of plants so much. You just what to know what they are. There’s too many plants out there to be curious that way. Here’s my advice. Stop looking for all these plants you don’t know nothing about. You don’t got what it takes to hold the power in the wild plants.”

He got up and turned to the door. “At least you ain’t evil. When I first heard of you I worried that you were up to witchery. You know what the Bible says, you shall not suffer a witch to live. Then I wonder whether you was a witch killer and were coming after me. But I am not one of those. I DON’T misuse the power.

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