More on the Root-digger

More on the Root-digger

June 10, 2018

Four summers ago, I went to write a magazine story about a root-digger in the mountains of East Tennessee, coalfield country. I spent five days with her, riding around that rugged region & talking with neighbors, walking in the woods with her. I have 38 pages of notes & several hours of recordings. She told me that she needed my discernment—the story I would write after I had observed her life and her community. I wrote my story, some little discernment for her perhaps. She has since passed away. And I feel that I never was able to give her the gift of my larger story, beyond the confines & necessary limitations of the one I did for the magazine. Because there was so much more. There always is, but especially with her; her mind was large, and her work was expansive, not easy to encapsulate. I’d like to find a way to keep telling it.

Carol Judy was concerned about the extractive industries that had plundered and are plundering Appalachia, taking what they can and leaving destitute communities in their wake; the shame of the mountain people, mostly men, who feel forced into jobs that require them to tear up the land, their homes; the insurmountable work & invisibility of mountain women; the collective loss of connection to the commons, the mountains, that inhabitants experience; the flood of consciousness-numbing prescription drugs that the pharmaceuticals industry pumps into Appalachia to fill that absence.

Carol rightly thought of mountain communities as rich, diverse communities of healing plants & forest resources and was emphatic to call her community money-poor, not poor. Knowledge of the mountains is an endowment, she said. The wisdom of living in place could be invested. She was working on how to do that, studying the food forests of foothills settlements in France. She was developing a concept of mountain communities as “green pearls,” a play off of mountain-communities-as-“black pearls” that the coal industry had developed. She wanted to teach the soft skills of listening & dialogue.

Each day we rode around to neighbors’ houses to talk and share plant knowledge. In the woods, digging roots, she talked my ear off, and I followed behind, furiously taking notes as I walked. But at night she would take me back to the little mountain house I was staying in and leave me there under the stars, alone, in the dark, and she would wait until late the next morning to show up again. She understood my process, the process of rejuvenation and darkness-integrating, the dreaming of plants. She got it, on so many levels. At her own house, she told me it was “the one place I can be still. And you have to be still to learn.”

Carol was a forest-products worker, which meant that she, too, extracted. But she demonstrated how one could make peace with the biotic community, planting roots back, never taking too many, seeding ecological knowledge & understanding. She took kids into the woods to harvest spicebush & make tea. She dug yellowroot, harvested moss (the hospitals in France still use it to bandage wounds, she said, a naturally powerful antiseptic). She was a plant lady, known as a granny doctor, but I thought of her as cultivating the people of her community like a forest, trying to restore a disturbed ecosystem of people—their hearts, their bodies, their minds, their spirits—to health, to vibrancy. As we visited around, she cared for folks & checked on them as she did her goldenseal patches, to see how they were growing. Harvesting from them if they were strong enough to give medicine, she took the seeds of their knowledge & inspiration and scattered them around to the spread-out neighbors; or, if she saw that they were in a weakened state, giving them some of her yellowroot medicine, watering their spirits some so that they could grow stronger, reassuring them so that they would know their own value.

Ginseng to her was the great botanical warning of Appalachia, its near-extinction a tragic exhibit of how plants-as-medicine became a casualty of greed, a quick payoff from the global pharmaceuticals industry. Ginseng’s loss is due to no longterm, plant-dreaming deep-time consciousness of the medicine of replenishment & reproduction. Some addicts were now selling ginseng roots for cash in order to get synthetic opioids, a strange twist of how a global economy distorts & commodifies mountain medicine, the outcome of which is ill health, loss, sadness. When we went to help neighbors dig & mash clay to build a clay oven, she talked to the young people hanging around there about drugs & counseled them, also clear & careful not to conflate plant-medicine marijuana with drugs, & they seemed to listen to her, & they asked her questions. “Sometimes roots help, and sometimes it’s just the belief that helps,” she told me.
The belief. The belief that home can be medicine, that the earth has healing for us.

She took me to see a man, a friend of hers, who nurtured the feminine consciousness of plants in a safe place out behind his house, through the woods. He protected and lovingly cared for dozens of ginseng plants there, and I remember that his steps exuded caring, exuded respect for his place. He was uneducated and did odd jobs to get along. But he would not sell his ginseng. That work, to him, was spiritual— though he didn’t say it, I knew that. His cultivation of the plants was his way into a deep-time deep-plant consciousness of his place, which was his universe, his way of making peace with it. I could see that.

When Carol would first pick me up in the morning, she would talk of deeper subjects: rituals & rites of passage for women & men, the indigenous eco-management concept of considering seven generations ahead, the problems of private property. She’d tell me of her dreams & visions, talk about the foods forests. She’d talk about worker-owned co-ops, welfare reform, living wage work in the mountains, addiction, land trusts, subsidized housing. “It’s not real clear what I do,” she told me. “I don’t really know what to call it, I just do it.”

Now that she’s gone, I wonder how her community is growing without her & hope that the seeds she ceaselessly scattered there have taken off.

{Photograph mine, 35 mm film.}

Read story here, at the Oxford American.

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