Now right up front I am going to tell you that this story might be a little bit offensive to some of you. I don't mean it to be at all, but I can't tell the whole story unless you have the bad mixed in with the good. The good wins in the end, and knowing that should make the story a little easier to deal with.
I was maybe eleven years old, and by that time I thought I knew the mountains like the back of my hand. There were times when I wandered up my back yard for about a mile or so, straight up, just to be. I hope you know what I mean, there are times when those of us who love nature, just want to be. We don't need to talk, don't need radios, tvs or books, or even people, we just want to be. So I wanted to be. I wandered upward for awhile and after about an hour I ventured to the right and continued edging my way around to the side that overlooked Bottom Road, a state highway that led the way to Virginia. I remember thinking that if I had a mind to, I could follow that road all the way along the side of the mountain and end up right about at Joe's Dairy Cream and have myself a custard cone, if I had any money, and if it wasn't already late on an October day. I started to turn back, when I glanced down and saw at a distance a stooped old man making his way upward.
I realized I was on the wrong side of the mountain, well off my family's property, but most people knew me and knew I was usually gathering some plant for Aunt Bett, so I always felt pretty safe. And besides I could climb trees with the best of them when I was running from a ghost or a bear or an elephant, neither of which I ever did see. So I lingered a bit and watched the stooped old man trudge his way up the mountain. While I was watching, I caught a whiff of smoke, and a rather sweet smell in the air. It didn't smell like a forest fire, but being the time when leaves were on the ground, fire could be a possibility. I stayed where I was and kept watching the old man, finally recognizing him as Old Man Carl, well known around those parts for his liking for moonshine.
I wondered where he was going, because usually I would see him sprawled out on his daddy's front porch, more inebriated than sober, and I knew to stay pretty far away from him. I followed him for awhile, and watched him walk through some bushes , so I scrambled upward and above him so I could see what he was up to. I had never seen a moonshine still, folks, until that very day, and somehow I knew immediately what it was. Well, I was out of there like every haint in the mountains was hot on my heels. I ran straight to Aunt Bett's house, because by then, I could tell her anything. I must have scared her to death, because she dragged me into the kitchen and kept wiping my face with a damp cloth, thinking I guess, that I might be going to swoon. When I finally caught my breath, and she had calmed me down enough so that I could tell her what I saw, I got one of the longest lectures of my life from that sweet little old woman. What an eyeopener it was.
"All rite now, chile, you done saw somethin' you hadn't ort to see, but since it's already done, I might as well tell you the rest of it. Ol' Man Carl, he ain't a bad sort, he just weren't brung up right. He comes from a long line of bootleggers, and it ain't right but that's jest the way it 'tis. Now bootleggers don't usually drink what they sell, but seems like Carl started when he was a young'un, and he ain't never stopped. He knows better, since he knows he's on his way to his death bed, but don't seem like even that will stop him. Now since you know this much, let me tell you about this here tonic you done helped me make."
Back in the early spring Aunt Bett had taken me on one of our little mountain excursions to find a beautiful little plant that she called liverwort. We know it now as Hepatica. Hepatica nobilis grew in the mountains of southeast Kentucky along shady edges usually slightly under cliffs or rock overhangs. It has a sweet little blue flower, and you already know my feelings about blue flowers, but it was a plant that Aunt Bett had no other use for than to make a tonic from it. It bloomed in March and April, and we always gathered the plant at that time. We hung it in clusters on the overhang of Aunt Bett's back porch and there it stayed till it was completely dry. Most of the time she crumbled the dried leaves and flowers to use as a tea, but I also remember that she made a decoction from the dried plant, saving the strained liquid in brown bottles with cork stoppers. The word on the label was "Liver".
Research tells me that the plant is poisonous in large doses, but that is true only of the fresh plant. Drying or heating it dissapates the toxicity. Native Americans and early herbalists used hepatica tea as a laxitive, particularly for children because of its mildness. It was also used for indigestion and to ease pain in the gall bladder. In 1883, used as a liver tonic, it became a cult medicine and 200,000 kilos of dried hepatica were used. It was also used as a diuretic, and externally it was used successfully when applied to slow healing cuts.
Well, Aunt Bett used it as a liver tonic. Not long after my discovery of the moonshine still, I was spending the night with Aunt Bett. We had spent the day making up one decoction or another and were getting ready for bed. We heard the shuffling of heavy boots on the front porch and a knock on the door. Aunt Bett turned on her front light and opened the door. There was Ol' Carl, stooped over, beat up old hat in hand, mumbling something that I could not hear. "Speak up, Carl, don't you be mumbling at me. I know what you come for, but you just go ahead and ask for it like a man." Ol' Man Carl, spoke up but he never looked up. "Well, Bett, reckon my liver's gonna kill me yet, but could ya just give me a drap o' that liver tonic to ease my sleep tonight?" She did, but not without her usual lecture. "Carl, you are a lot younger'n me, but your insides must be about 95. You've been drinkin' that rotgut likker since you's a little boy, and it's done ruint your life. I can't cure ya, but I'll give you my last drap of tonic if it'll give ya some comfort, cause at the rate you are drinkin', you ain't long for this world."
She bid him good night and closed the door. I begged Aunt Bett to not tell my family about my moonshine discovery, and to my knowledge she never did. It was a few more years before I left the mountains and went away to school, and in those years I saw a lot of Ol' Carl, sleeping it off on his daddy's porch or sometimes in the dark of night on Aunt Bett's doorstep asking for more liver tonic. I had not thought of him in a very long time, but I would say that there was no change in his lifestyle, and I am sure Aunt Bett kept on giving him liver tonic whenever he asked for it.
That's just the way Aunt Bett was.
Photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these excellent photographers: Evert and growin.