Like a Black Bear Do: Spiritual Animal Relations in Appalachia

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In light of the bear that recently took a trip through Johnson City, TN, it reminded me of the relationship Appalachian Americans have with the wild animals of our region. Growing up, the storytellers always told stories of our animals, how they got their stripes or spots, why the vulture is bald, or why Blue Jay’s legs are black. Many of them come from the Cherokee, one of the greatest prides of Southern Appalachia, living in the unseen kingdom of Aniyunwiya, the Principle People.

Growing up, the farm animals at Mamaw’s were always treated with the utmost respect and care. It was always recognized that they are soul-bearing animals as well, but folks had to eat. My father taught me that no mater what you’re hunting, nothing should go to waste. Everything was used from horns and claws to the bladder and hide. Whether it was for necklaces, leather shoes etc. No part was to be thrown out!

When I was young, my father explained to me how the Cherokee knew what herbs to use and how we could do the same to learn: they watched the bears. In Cherokee Mythology, Yona (bear) was wise in his medicines. He had a cure for everything and was very close with Grandfather ‘Sang, the chief of the plants. Daddy said the Cherokees watched “what the Black Bears do when foraging for food and berries,” and that’s how they first learned the plant foods here as well as the medicines of the mountains. The Appalachian mountaineers learned to do the same when tension was high with the natives; when it wasn’t some knowledge was shared between the two, which is obvious when comparing cures, charms and taboos.

Although this story took place one time in a five minute conversation when I was really young, it stuck with me all my life for some reason.

There is also the Christian colonial take on animals and their meaning in Appalachia. Blue jays are good luck to be seen but not when they stay; sparrows remind us of the patience of God; the robin reminds the sheep of Shepard’s sacrifice and that every winter has to end; the donkey holds the peace it was given when rode into Jerusalem; and the snake, the meanness of man and Devil.

My practice is root based, physically and metaphorically, on my own roots. Today, I still forage like a bear when gathering herbs because our eyes can confuse us: I crush and smell them, I examine the roots inside and out, not only to validate its identity but also make sure it’s strong chemically for medicine. Even if I’ve been using the plant for years; aside from identification, it’s also like a reacquaintance with the herb. I feel the fruits to make sure they’re ripe, make sure they have a “bounce” to them when squeezed a bit. I forage at the same times also: for berries in the morning and evening when the sun isn’t barring down on them, for flowers when the sun is high, and for roots mostly at night if I can help it, but I make do.

Little Doe River, Roan Mt, by Nicole Hollifield

Mama was always trying to make sure we wasn’t judged for what we looked like. If we had to go to the emergency room, we had to put on clean clothes and socks, so we didn’t look “odd” while there, I didn’t know what she meant by odd but I’d soon learn. I guess Mama was afraid they’d turn us away or not try to help as much if we “looked like that”. I didn’t understand at that age but now, I’ve seen it happen a couple of times. Now that I’m older, I know the judgemental looks she was fierce to avoid. Mama raised us as best she could, and we did without sometimes, but that didn’t paint who we were as people. Folks don’t know what’s under the cover, and while most of society says it doesn’t matter what you look like or how you dress, it’s a lie when those factors play into the very care and treatment you’re given by those thinking they’re better than you. Mama says: “It’s what you do with what you’re given that matters!”

So because of this, we only went to the doctor for our shots, emergencies and as a last resort after the remedies didn’t work. Now they ain’t always good for some people, one will work for you but that same one may not work for the other person. This doesn’t shake our faith in them though. Mama and nana would try many of them to get the job done and still swear by all of them after the fact!

The Black Bear is resourceful, wise, and clever. He knows just how to get to what he needs, mostly in the safest way possible. He knows his environment, he makes in comfortable and protects it. Learning about the bear’s symbolism and wisdom through those stories told at a camp fire burning long into the past led me to always equate my mother as a black bear. Fierce, protective, wise, nurturing and gentle.

Further this led to a fine thread linking all Appalachian people. Looking at the folks in my life, I can easily equate them to the animals based on the old tales: the gossiper is the blue jay, loudest bird in the woods; your enemy is the mockingbird, never revealing her real voice, but always closer than you think; the nurse is the cow, always nurturing and motherly (my mother’s kitchen was always decorated with cows; she also worked in the nursing field for over 15 years); the chatty-kathy is the squirrel, always jarring his teeth.

However, behind each there is wisdom to be had: watch what you say cause you might be heard, never take anything at face value, always remember to be kind, and never silence your voice.

In Appalachia, we learn a lot from the animals and other forest dwellers around us, whether directly or indirectly, spiritual or superstitious. We take from them wisdom in the form of omens and signs, but also company as our elder brothers and sisters of the hills. The forest is a wondrous place, so unlike human society yet it mirrors it so very much. Everybody’s doing their thing and minding their business, feeding their families, and now preparing for winter.

There’s no wonder in all of witch folklore, our closest companions have been animals of different kinds. We see it everywhere in books and movies and tv shows. The connection between man and beast is not a line or a barrier in these hills. We know we live in their home, I’ve heard it all my life, “the bears are coming down from the mountain for food cause we ran them out of their home,” is a variation I’ve heard from family and friends, even on the news here.

When a bear is loose here in the cities or towns, our highest goal is to get it safely back to the mountains without any needles harm. Deer on the other hand are a nuisance, but that’s also our doing: we killed off all the wolves and cougars back in the day for their hides and to protect lifestock. Now we’re the only hunters of the deer here cause we killed all the others into extinction.

This theory that we live in their home (in regards to the region of Appalachia) has a long history going back to the Principle People and other native tribes, based on the story where the mountains heard the stars talking: visitors were coming from the stars! Everybody began preparing. The mountains moved themselves to create valleys for us to live in, the big river pooled himself off every which way to provide drinking water. The stars told them: they don’t have claws or sharp teeth or fur to keep them warm, which brought a response from the animals who said they would offer up their furs and teeth and claws in return for certain ceremonies of thanks.

So everybody made way for us. “We done overstayed our welcome,” as daddy once said. This isn’t our home, we are guests. Because of this deep bedded connection practices, both native and colony, have endured: picking the seventh plant so there’s more for later on (usually done widely by folks when hunting Sang or ginseng, the seeds are also replanted to further the populations growth), never intentionally wasting any part of an animal (always giving thanks for it also), and always putting medicine “back” (returning used plant parts to the earth or creek).

There’s an unbroken cycle of relationship in Appalachia between man and beast, in many areas it runs deeper than these valleys. This is evident in the charms and cures for animals in or out of husbandry, pet or not. When we didn’t have enough money to by cat food, we’d cook for the cats too. Hell I still do, They love scrambled eggs!

The relationship between witch and animal is also evident in the Appalachian lore of witches as well. An old witch in the smokies a long time ago had her own sister attacked by squirrels for stealing something. Another witch, Gussie Profitt in Virginia also got back at the folks who did her wrong, burned her house down, with the help of her toad who turned into a devil and confused the man in his mind; it’s said you can still see him wondering the woods following the toad saying “I’ve been witched. I’ve been witched.” There’s also the story of the witch and her friend, Raw Head and Bloody Bones, the skeleton of a bo’ hog who got into her discarded magics and was able to talk and walk just like a human. In all of these stories, whether true or fabrication, wisdom lies behind them. A wrong is still a wrong regardless of blood, taking justice yourself isn’t always a bad thing, and the truest friends can be found in the strangest of circumstances.

Whether you’re looking for a sign from the heavens in bird formations, the rutting of deer, digging turkeys, day-time bobcats, or a cat cleaning itself before the fireplace: listen and watch and wait and think. Cause that’s how the black bear do!

Note: this does not in anyway refer to animal spirit guides, no such thing ever existed in Appalachia among the immigrants. The Cherokee referred to spirits of animals but in a different and vastly religious way compared to today’s new age concept.

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