Black as Dirt

Most Witches and Rootworkers these days talk on connecting to nature. Most of it is mumbo-jumbo of “connecting to the earths energy” and “spending time in nature”. The Mountain folk did that on a daily bases, sans all the “energy”.

Getting back to the earth is more than spending time on your front porch or going on a safe hike in a group. It planting crops and tending them till harvest, after which they are cut down and speared. It’s being alone by the raging Nolachucky while getting some sand and stones. You always have to know your land. This way if a stick cracks from behind or you hear a growl, you know the area it came from, what easy access there is to you, and the best way for you to get out of that area.

“Spending time with Nature” is getting scratches all over from the wild black berries and brambles all over your shoes and pants. It’s having tough feet from going barefoot most of your childhood. Most who know me know that I still hate shoes. I’ve always run through the woods barefoot, trusting the tough native skin in me. There have been sometimes when that toughness was no match for a broken bone beneath the leaves or a dropped pin hung in the rug.

There’s been a break in Appalachia’s connection to nature. In the time that I’ve been on this earth, this place has “advanced” and caught up with the rest of the world in smart phones, super Walmarts, wifi, centeral heating, etc. Before this, the neighbors knocked on the door if they need anything, they didn’t send a Facebook message. When heating was poor in the winter, blankets and towels, even newspapers, were jammed under the door or in the windows to keep the cold out.

It was these times that the common man tilled the soil and speared the tobacco. Nowadays, they work at McDonald’s and live online with a false visage of “getting the money.” They no longer know how to farm and grow, so instead they strip wire and collect cans. The old folks were at home in nature. Today’s folks need backpacks and other supplies “just in case.” Those “just in case” happenings occur when one’s land is foreign to their eyes. They knew the land, more so than we can understand.

It’s always been normal for me to be constantly grounded, because I always am physically. I was the last generation who had nothing better to do than to play outside long after the street lights came on. The parents enjoyed their time alone just as well. “Don’t come back till your feet are black as dirt”, Mama’d tell us.

And I did just that. My sister, however, was the clean child. Never got her hands in the dirt once as I can remember. Maybe that has something to do with our differing paths. I’m digging my palms into the earth and she’s soaring for a perfect world up there somewhere.

Not sure when my relationship with the land began. I’ve always felt close to the wild, sometimes a little too close. At the age of 3, we lived up in Gray, TN in a trailer near some cow fields. My Mama recounts the story she ’bout had a heart attack when I wondered off over the fields and she found me standing beneath a bull and running between its legs. The bull was uncaring of my presence apparently.

At the age of 5, I had a pet praying mantis. No my mother didn’t know, but when she found out she made me let it go. We lived in an apartment building in the city then (the bill incident seemed to have initiated that upgrade). I went outside and let the mantis go in the big bush outside my bedroom window. It astounded my mom when we found that the same mantis was now living in that bush.

He did so for years until we moved again. I would often look out my window and see him nested on the branch closest to my window. Can’t remember if unnamed him or not, but it was obvious we had a connection.

At that same apartment building, there was one time I was outside with the family. It was dark. It was either a cookout or the Fourth of July, I can’t remember. But I was walking by one of those big bushes outside the building when I stopped and thought i saw something on a branch. I leaned in close and from the branch right in front of my face came the head of a copperhead snake. Needless it frightened me a bit, but the snake sat there for a second and then retreated back to its abode. That was my first encounter with one.

My second encounter with a copper head was in Greenville when my father was pulling up a minnow trap from the creek on my grandmothers land. Inside the trap was a copperhead that slithered towards me when he opened the trap. Needless to say, 5 year old me thought it a good idea to pick the snake up. I’m still not sure if it was good or bad, as the snake didn’t bite me as younger me played with it. This new friendship was ended by a severed head…

I have sense kept this unique relationship with nature. I’ve learned her secrets of poisons and antidotes growing in the same place, her signs of the weather, and the signs left by the lands other inhabitants.

I always make sure the bird feeder is full, that the land spirits and Little Folk get their due, and that the land beneath my feet is clean. My trash or not, it doesn’t belong in my garden or the field across the street. When you come to work this craft, you get in sync with Nature everyday; it is not reserved for those “special” days between seasons. The most you will get in rhythm in nature is not through meditations or telepathic communication with animals. They’re inhabitants just like you.

The best way is to work the land you love on, till the soil and follow the old folks in watching the signs and listening to the frogs. Plant a garden from seed and watch them as they grow through their patterns. Study the soil and what inhabitants live there. And never forget the land spirits and Wee Folk. You’ll find gifts often in the garden as well as new residents, such as the leopard toad that has been in my garden for weeks now.

Take your shoes and shirt off. Feel the earth and know you may get sunburned. But the relationship to come will be more empowering. There’s been many a time that I’ve woken up to a prickliness in my feet and thighs, and come to find that someone began construction down the road or someone’s peddling around the fields behind the house.

When the wildfires purged the Smokies last year, many of us mountain witches worked for days to bring the rain. It rained when the weather channel called it to be sunny. With egg shells, corn kernels and pine needless, we brought the rain to Appalachia.

For the past 80+ years these mountains haven’t been allowed to burn in wildfires like they naturally should. Now the forest floor has so much debris and erosion that old trees are likely to fall come the next big storms and if a forest fire began, all that fuel would fuel it for weeks, spreading the damage and fire to homes and other ranges.

They are now contemplating doing controlled fires to get rid of all the fuel so the small mountain fires can then happen naturally with no worry of them extending to far. Building this working relationship of give and take, but mostly give, is work in and of itself. The land will prove to be a huge ally in your works. I often feel the land lend me energy when I’m weak or even warn me of danger, from which I recall of a dream and red clay face. I wouldn’t call it work though, as the bones of this land are my bones, my ancestors bones. It’s a labor of love.

So learn the soil and roots that nourish your roots. Spend time with the land, speak with the inhabitants thereof, and grow your root. Be weary though. The land spirits and little folk can tolerate human ignorance, but once you let yourself run amuck and start misbehaving when it comes to the land, expect a big wake up call.

Because of this I am careful with what I use in the garden and I never litter. I carry the trash with me, including spent cigarette butts, until I can dispose of them properly. You wouldn’t trash your friends house would you? Don’t do so with the land.


Author: Jake Richards

Jake (Dr. Henny) follows family practice as a Yarb Doctor and Conjure man in the Appalachian Folk Magic tradition. He follows the legacy of his mother (a seventh daughter), that left behind by his grandfather, a baptist preacher who was a blood stopper, wort doctor, and thrush doctor; his grandmother, who was a knowledgeable woman in these works before Alzheimer’s set in; his great, great grandfather who witched for water in Washington County and his great grandmother who taught and worked from her roost at the foot of Devil’s Nest Mountain. Jake is the author of Backwoods Witchcraft: Conjure & Folk Magic from Appalachia, available for preorder on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound. When he's not writing, blogging, reading the bones or trying for clients: he is either traveling, gardening, sewing, book binding, reading, or sculpting. For questions, readings, recommendations for future posts, interviews and the like, you are welcome to email him below:

One thought on “Black as Dirt”

  1. Thank you for this. This makes so much more sense than some of the New Age version of connecting to the land. Not saying it’s wrong, but this version rather resonates with me more. I personally have been being called to “The Old ways” and this is definitely is that.

    Liked by 1 person

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