“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 vast repertoire of old time Appalachian stories.
I had long enjoyed Ray’s storytelling. He was a master of the Jack tales–stories about the archetypal, naïve, but resourceful, 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 that 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 opened the door and found Ray sitting on the bed in a T-shirt and boxer shorts, about to pull his overalls on. He was just getting up. He rather immodestly invited me to sit down–in a chair facing him–while he got dressed.
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 good icebreaker—a great way to get a conversation started. 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. He started in about the mating habits of ‘possums, how the male’s organ was forked and how when they mate, he puts it in “her nose holes” and how these little “jelly-like things” form in there and she just snorts ’em into her pouch.” (She impregnates herself with a sneeze!) He also told me about how “them little ‘uns latch right onto her tits and don’t let go until they’re ‘bout grown…”.
I had heard much of this kind of discussion before (and I had surveyed the scientific literature about ‘possums). I knew he was right about the male ‘possum’s bifurcated organ and about the little ‘possums adherence to the mother’s nipples. As for his account of the mating habits and sexual practices, there has been little scientific documentation confirming what he described– but what a tale! I just listened and took it all in. ( For more on possum sexuality, lore and lifestyle see my book,Wildwoods Wisdom Chapter 17 Raccoon Discipline and Possum Lessons and Chapter 18, Advanced Possumology)
This is what I had come for. As much I enjoyed his old stories about Jack, I really loved to hear his and Rosa’s observations and interpretations about the natural world. They told me that screech owls will latch onto chickens and suck their blood. They will get up under the wing or on the chicken’s back. Rosa said she saw it happen to one of their chickens when she was younger. Her daddy heard a commotion out at the chicken coop and found the banty rooster in distress. When he brought it back to the house, there was what looked like a lump on its back. The lump, they soon realized, was the screech owl. That rooster never would go into the coop at night after that experience. It would roost in the house right on the woodpile next to the fireplace. (Lucky rooster!)
Ray told a story about being out in the woods gathering white haw bark and other herbs. While he was gathering he heard these two fellows talking loudly, discussing whether to run him off or not. It was just before dark and he figured he’d better get out of there. They followed him out of the woods talking and threatening all the way. When he got out of the woods and onto the road, he looked back just in time to see one of them fly out of the woods on dark wings, make one quick swoop over the field and disappear into the dark forest. It had been two hoot owls hollering at him.
He spoke about three kinds of wild cats: (in order of size) the bobcat, catamount, and panther (“what they call a cougar or a mountain lion anymore”). Ray said he was followed by a panther one time. He filled his shirt tail with rocks and kept throwing them at it, but it was in the trees following him. Someone had advised him to head into an open field, in this circumstance, so this is what he did. When he got out into the open field the cat refused to follow. It stood at the edge of the forest and screamed three times like a woman and disappeared. Ray was glad he remembered that advice.
We talked about ginseng (More on ginseng in Wildwoods Wisdom p.136 -146) 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, grape vines, 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 our word “fern” comes from the Anglo-Saxon “fearn”. So here is this backwoods mountaineer, a vestige of another era, living without a phone or indoor plumbing, speaking an ancient, archaic dialect. Yet he is discussing subterranean microscopic mycorrhizal associations between plants– something that is only just beginning to be understood by modern scientists. Jack in Two Worlds is the title of a recent book about the Jack tales and their tellers. I was amazed at how apt that title is to what I had just heard.
On a previous visit I had asked Ray about dung beetles, and he told me he called them tumble-turds because of their habit of rolling balls of manure. He had seen them struggling to roll their balls up the hill and that he had tried to help them with their load but “they’d always get scared and sull up” (play possum), he lamented. I like to visualize Ray as this sweet-natured, open-hearted “Jack-like” mountain lad who was willing to stop along the way to help a dung beetle roll its heavy load.
He said there was a Jack tale about dung beetles that his granddaddy used to tell but it was “too rough for Richard Chase to put in that book” (Jack Tales and Grandfather Tales by Richard Chase). He said he’d “study on it” for me and see if he could remember any of it.
When I asked about it this visit, parts of two versions of the story came out. One version of the story came from his granddaddy and another from a neighbor. The best I can distill from what he told me goes something like this: It seemed like Jack was in a rivalry for the princess (“the king’s girl”). His rival offered him a whole bag of gold if Jack would agree not to say anything for three days. He agreed.
Before long, a set of circumstances involving treachery and deceit ensued, and he was hauled into court and accused of various crimes. Since he could not speak for himself, he was thrown into the lions’ den with a mamma lion and her two cubs–and the lions were hungry. Fortunately, however, Jack had a way with animals and somehow, he made peace with the lions.
Meanwhile back at the castle, the king’s girl and the rival were in the bed together. The rival was indeed a fast mover!
However Jack had a few moves of his own, even though he was trapped in the lions’ den. He called forth some animal allies–the mouse and the tumble-turd beetle–and he sent them on a mission. He sent the mouse to tickle his rival’s “nose holes” to make him sneeze furiously and to make his nose run uncontrollably. The tumble-turd beetle was sent to roll a ball of manure up between them. (The other version says the beetle rooted out a pile of manure from his rival’s back end.) Whatever the details of the method, the result was that some serious shit was stirred up between them.
The princess was completely grossed-out and she promptly terminated the relationship; she threw the rival out of bed and went straight to the lions’ den “to see if Jack was eat up or not.” Well there was Jack smiling up at her. He was in fine shape. He had the mamma lion tied up on a leash and he had made pets of the two cubs. Last we heard, ol’ Jack was still married to the king’s girl. He’s still got most of that bag of gold and he’s a’ doing well.
I had just heard the story of,”Jack, the Tumble-turd and the Mouse”, a tale full of preposterous absurdity and clear lessons, not only about drawbacks of allowing the lust for gold to supersede one’s ability to defend oneself, but also about open-heartedness and forgiveness, where naïve and simple Jack joins forces with two, lowly beasts and triumphs.
Doug Elliott, Naturalist & Storyteller, Union Mills, NCOf Possums, Panthers, Ginseng, and Jack –A Visit to the Hicks Homestead
Excerpted from: SwarmTree–Of Honeybees, Honeymoons and the Tree of Life by Doug Elliott