When I was in sixth grade and studied world history, I came across a picture of the Lascaux Cave paintings. I was so excited to show it to Aunt Bett and explain to her that it was painted thousands of years ago. I had never been able to teach her anything that she didn't already know, but I was sure she had never seen the cave paintings. She looked very carefully and then she said, "Hmmmmm, wonder why they didn't paint any plants?"
I thought at the time that Aunt Bett just didn't get it. There I was, trying to teach her something she might not know and she only questioned why there were no plants in the paintings. Years later when I was in college and studying ancient history I discovered Venus de Willendorf, a tiny sculpture of a mother figure from thousands of years ago. I thought of Aunt Bett at the time and remembered our brief conversation about the cave paintings. Now, many more years later, it occurs to me that Aunt Bett did get it, and maybe it was the cave painters who didn't. She believed that all things were intertwined: humans depended on plant and animal equally for survival. Neither plant nor animal nor humans had a lesser value in the great realm of life according to her. It also explains a great deal about her spirituality.
Aunt Bett belonged to the congregation of a small church that only met once a month. It was about a mile from her house. Since she distrusted all things mechanical, she could not be convinced to get into my family's car for a ride on Sunday mornings. Most of the time I hopped out of the car and walked along with her on the way to church. We talked as we walked, or not. It didn't seem to matter. She didn't always agree with the preacher's message, but that was because she seemed to have her own beliefs about things. The best way for me to explain it is to say that her theories on nature, animals, humanity and a supreme being were all mixed together in the same pot. You couldn't have one without the other. Working hard to set aside enough food to survive a winter, providing healing medicines for others, being thankful for a good crop, were all right up there on the same value level as walking into a church building on a Sunday morning. Legend, lore, sunshine, rain and the story of David and Goliath? All equal in value to Aunt Bett.
I tell you this so you can understand that what she taught me was a mixture of all of her beliefs, her theories about life. A valuable lesson? You better believe it. She was such a strong woman she could have moved a mountain if it got in the way of anything she felt compelled to do. Well, almost.
Take Solomon's Seal for instance.
Polygonatum biflorum is a small plant that likes rocky woods and thickets. It also prefers shade. I spent more than one early morning crawling around in the shadowy undergrowth trying to gather Solomon's Seal for Aunt Bett. There were several rocky cliffs on the mountain behind her house, and a lot of the time those cliffs created an overhang to the path we traveled. Solomon's Seal grew most often on the edge of the rocky cliff formation. It was my job to look for a way to climb up to the top of the cliff and out to the edge of the overhang to collect the plant. From my perch on top of the cliff overhang, I would dig up the plant, roots and all, and drop it straight down to the burlap sack that Aunt Bett held open. It was probably about a 10 foot drop, and I never missed.
The roots can be boiled three times in clean water and eaten like potatoes since it is an excellent source of starch. They can also be baked. The stems can be cooked and eaten and the very young shoots can be eaten like asparagus. Steeping the roots and/or the leaves in boiling water provides a tea which aids the lower bowel processes. None of that interested me at the time, I was just happy I could play monkey and climb to the top of the overhang on hands and knees, or swing like a chimp from a grapevine to get down. I even perfected a Tarzan yell that bounced around all over the mountains. I thought about yodeling a time or two; Aunt Bett tolerated the Tarzan yell, but she put a stop to the yodeling.
Now Aunt Bett swore that the fresh roots of the young plant could be made into a poultice that would fade bruises and heal cuts overnight. On the early morning that I remember, an old man who lived down the road a little ways from Aunt Bett came knocking on her door. I must have spent the night with her because it was barely daylight. He said: "Lissie done fell down th' well 'n she are black an' blue but ain't nothin broke. Kin ya fix 'er? I been prayin' all night and it ain't worked yet. I need her well real bad." This was in early summer and Lissie was the woman of the house, probably about 80 if she was a day. Old Will couldn't survive if anything happened to his Lissie. Aunt Bett didn't cut any slack with anybody so she said: "Will, prayin' all night ain't gonna do a bit o' good iffen you don't do nothin' 'cept pray. You git back down there an' you git some clean towels an' some blankets an' you get her outten them wet clothes. I'll be there right dreckly." It probably wasn't the first time that Lissie had fallen into the well because it wasn't a dug well, it was a deep place in the creek beside their house right at the point where it was fed by a cold mountain stream. Rocks surrounded it and a lot of the time moss caused the wet rocks to be slippery. Aunt Bett knew this and also knew that he probably had not bothered to get her into dry clothes. So we went to get some fresh Solomon's Seal roots.
The roots were sliced lengthwise and laid across the bruises on Lissie's legs and one arm, then wrapped and held in place by strips of clean white muslin. Will stood by watching, wringing his hands and saying "Laudy, laudy" over and over. I thought he looked right pitiful, but Aunt Bett had other thoughts. "Will", she said, "now you lissen here, you moanin' an' groanin' ain't gonna help Lissie none, this here's Solomon's Seal and it'll take the black outten them bruises real fast, but it ain't gonna take the sore away overnite. You git up offen your knees and you help tend to your woman. The good Laud only gonna hep him that hep his own self. I'll be back checkin' on her afterwhile, and I ain't gonna ketch you on yore knees, now, am I?"
I looked back as we left, and there was Will on his knees beside Lissie, shaking his head and moaning "Laudy, laudy."
Through nature, medicines had been provided. Aunt Bett had been given the ability to derive the medicines from the plants and the knowledge to apply them properly. She believed that each of us had the responsibility to take what we had been given and use it to be of help to others.
Will and Lissie lived a few more years, and Aunt Bett and I wore a path up the mountain gathering Solomon's Seal for Lissie's bruises. I can hear Aunt Bett now: "He ain't got no sense, reckon he thinks them Laudy, Laudys gonna hep, but they won't hep iffen he don't git up offen his knees an' hep her git that water'." Her cures were laced liberally with a sprinkling of good common sense.
Aunt Bett sure had a time trying to change Old Will, he was a mountain she could hardly budge. But she sure did try.
That's just the way Aunt Bett was.
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to Equilibrium, Poppysue and Xyris.
About Sharon Brown
I am a retired high school art and humanities teacher. I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast KY and now I live with my two rescued cats, Jazz and Daisy, in far western KY. I am an artist often doing commissioned work, and in addition to writing articles for Dave's Garden, I also write boating stories for a nautical magazine as well as other venues. My greatest loves are writing, painting, my 5 year old grandson, then learning the history of our numerous wildflowers in Kentucky. And, of course, there's gardening.