Aunt Bett was far more learned than I knew to give her credit for. Oh, I knew she was smart, and I held the deepest respect for her, which was very obvious since I was struck incredibly speechless whenever I was around her. I was only seven but I knew a thing or two about Aunt Bett. She was a widow and she was my Mother's real aunt, making her my Great Aunt. She knew everything there was to know about medicine, having learned it from her mother before her and her grandmother even before then. I also knew that people from all over the mountains came to Aunt Bett for her magic cures. During the winter of the year I was seven, two unusual things happened. I lost my dearly beloved grandfather, who was Aunt Bett's younger brother, and I had a very croupy year myself. As soon as March was over and done, my Aunt Bett took me under her wing. Her excuse was to find something to cure my constant croup. Truthfully, I think she needed a distraction from her brother's sudden death. The timing was right and I was a handy, if not willing, patient.
I will tell you about the treatment first, and then will take you up the mountain with Aunt Bett in search of an unlikely remedy. Aunt Bett would say I am putting the cart before the horse. Well, sorry Aunt Bett, but I am telling this story, I promise I will do it up right.
I don't remember the time frame, but I suspect that I had been the barking baby seal for more than one night. My dad was home from WWII by this time, and we were living with my grandmother who lived (by mountain standards) very close to Aunt Bett's house. It was the middle of the night of course, in the mountains that is the only hour that baby seals can be heard. I only remember that my parents were up and were applying hot towels to my chest, one right after the other when suddenly I think I smelled Aunt Bett before I saw her. It was the stinking asphidity bag which you have already heard much about in our first journey up the mountain with Aunt Bett. The hot towels came off my chest; after all. she said, it wasn't my chest that was affected, it was my throat. But over my head went the string with the new asphidity bag. Next Aunt Bett applied a cool liquid to the outside of my throat, then she placed over it a folded piece of red wool and the asphidity bag, all followed by a spoonful of another soothing liquid to the inside of my throat. At this time my grandmother Ninna brought in a kettle of steaming hot water which she placed on a chair beside my bed. Between these two little old ladies, they built a tent of quilts over my head and over the kettle of hot water. I breathed in the steam, the asphidity smelled suddenly of rosemary, the cool concoction soothed my throat both inside and out, and I fell asleep. Magic was happening and we all know that magic happens best when you are sleeping.
Croup was as scary then as it is today. I can still wake up with it all these many years later, and yep, I still sound like a barking seal and scare myself to death with that bark. All that was known then was that it crept up on an unsuspecting child in the middle of the night and woke the entire household and the dog outside by the loud bark that poured forth from the unsuspecting child's raw throat. The wail that followed that first bark was no better, sounding much like the hound baying at the moon. Croup today is best cared for with the warmth of steam from a hot shower or from a vaporizer. Having neither available when I was seven, my mom simply gave me over to Aunt Bett's magic hands.
Croup is an inflammation in the upper airways, most people outgrow it along with other childhood illnesses. I was one who didn't outgrow it, but I did learn to control it, thanks to Aunt Bett and her sidekick, GrannyNinna, both widowed at a young age, and both living off the magic of the mountains. GrannyNinna was the one who awakened in the middle of the night with my first seal bark, and leaving my parents to watch over me, she walked the mile in the dark to get Aunt Bett. This magic croup treatment was repeated more than a couple of times that year, but by the beginning of summer I was well on my way to learning to gather and create my own magical remedy, and to learn more about the healing powers of the women in my family.
You have come to know my Aunt Bett and the magic that I thought surrounded her. I think it is only fair that you also know a little bit about the fairy land where I grew up. I know the part of southeastern Kentucky that you won't read about in textbooks or magazines, nor will you see it when you drive through the area on your way to somewhere else. I miss that part of Kentucky and though it lives inside me, I am driven to go back to regain peace for my soul and to touch the hand that my ancestors reach out to me over the years. My home on the western side of Pine Mountain, in the Appalachians of extreme southeastern Kentucky was built just where the north fork of the KY River bursts forth from the flowing springs of Mother Earth. It sat in the valley surrounded on four sides by those beautiful Appalachians. I could climb to the very top of my back yard and look down the other side into Virginia.
We did not have to travel far up the mountain to find the illusive mouses ear, Aunt Bett's sure cure for croup. In fact it wasn't illusive at all, but it did not grow in abundance on the mountain. Mouse's ear (Hieracium spilophaeum) is also known as Hawkweed, but to Aunt Bett it was always and ever Mouseseer. It does not grow well in the mountains because it needs sunny, sandy, dry soil, and mountain soil in eastern Kentucky is certainly not dry nor sandy. But hawkweed is adaptable and of course now is considered invasive, so it persisted and there were spots of it to be found even in the mountains. Aunt Bett taught me where to find them. I was expecting tiny little round mouse ears, all soft and fuzzy. I had the soft and fuzzy part right but the plant looked like a hairy dandelion to me, and it even had a yellow bloom also much like the dandelion. We were to gather the leaves and the bloom, so I carried the dozens of brown paper sacks and clothespins, and Aunt Bett carried the big burlap sack in her long skirts. You and I both know the ritual by now, we gathered the plant, careful to not bruise it, folded it safely in the paper sack and dropped the clothespinned paper sack into the big burlap bag. When we filled up the burlap sack, always leaving enough plants behind to reseed and regrow, we headed back down the mountain. Sweat had darkened my new asphidity bag, and the heat was causing strong and unusual odors to pour forth from it. However, I had learned early on that no two asphidity bags ever smelled the same. New smells coming from it no longer worried me because much as I hated the stinking thing, Aunt Bett told me it protected me from evil, and I for sure believed every word out of that little woman's mouth. I stunk, but there was nothing living or dead in those mountains that could ever hurt me!
The story that Aunt Bett told to me during May and June of my seventh year is that mouse's ear is named hawkweed because old folks thought that the hawk would tear open the plant and wipe its eyes with the juice so that it could have better vision to find its small prey in the large forest. Aunt Bett swore by the story and though I have never seen the hawk tear into hawkweed, I know it is true because Aunt Bett said so.
Aunt Bett taught me to brew a tea from the small hairy leaves, and that is what she put inside my throat when I had croup. She also told me that using an external application of the tea soothes the parched throat. I know now that the tea acts as an astringent, and is in fact a very cooling agent. She went on to tell me that mouse's ear "eases the muscles of the throat and the breathing tubes inside a body. It makes you cough up all the pizen (poison). It cures asthma, croup and whoopin' cough, it is for sure a magical cure."
Aunt Bett also taught me to dry the leaves and stems and to grind them into a powder. The dry powder was used alone for stopping nose bleeds. Sometimes new leaves had to be gathered very quickly if there had been an accident which involved a bad cut to a person. I remember being sent to the hawkweed spot alone one time when one of Aunt Bett's nephews had cut his leg while cutting firewood. You must remember that a fire in the kitchen stove was needed at all times, so cutting firewood was not just a winter activity. I raced to gather new leaves of hawkweed, and while I was gone Aunt Bett had cleaned the wound and bound it together with clean strips of white cloth. When I returned with the hawkweek, the fresh bruised leaves were placed over the bleeding wound in a cross pattern, much like a weaving of the leaves, then they were bound tightly by a clean new binding. The binding was not to be changed for 5 days, and then only Aunt Bett was allowed to change it. By the fifth day, Aunt Bett opened the binding, removed the leaves, and the healing of the wound was obvious. For good measure Aunt Bett let me place more new mouse's ear leaves over the healing wound this time, and I was delighted to use my best over and under weaving method. It was so good I was disappointed when Aunt Bett bound it again in more wrappings and not another soul was able to see my amazing woven design. I absolutely knew it was the magic in the design that had healed the cut in the man's leg.
The most common use of mouse's ear was as an infusion. In Aunt Bett's words, here is how an infusion is prepared:
Gather the mouseseer in a bunch tied with a string. Hang the bunch upside down from a nail on the back porch. Hang there till dry then grind and save in a covered glass bottle.
To make an infusion, measure out a ounce of ground mouseseer in a cup. Pour on biling (boiling) hot water. Sweeten with a dose of honey. Drink a cupful.
The infusion can be used on the skin, too.
A fluid extract must be made when the plant is fresh because all the plant is used, except the roots, to make the extract. Aunt Bett taught me to make the extract over a hot stove on many hot summer days, and sometimes I wonder if any of those glass bottles are still there in the house where she lived. An extract is made by boiling the chopped plant in about two quarts of water, boiling down to one quart, straining, then saving the water and the strained plant parts.
The process is repeated with the plant parts in a quart of of clean water, boiling again until only a pint of liquid is left. The third step involves the same plant pulp, and a combination of the first saved water and the second saved water all mixed together and boiled again until only a couple of ounces of liquid remains. Strain and discard the plant pulp. Save the remaining liquid in small glass bottles, and when cool, vegetable glycerine can be added to preserve the medicinal quality of the herb. Making fluid extract is an absolutely exhausting process, and I hope Aunt Bett is not listening, but I really don't recommend it.
The processes that Aunt Bett and GrannyNinna taught me are priceless. In reality I know that I will never use them, just like the stinking asphidity bag. But just having the knowledge living inside me is such a treasure. I will always catch a whiff of rotten leaves and remember the asphidity bag, that is something I can never forget, but it isn't something I think about consciously. It is the same as knowing secretly that I can still get to the top of a mountain much more quickly than most, because I know the secret that lies in climbing sideways and leaning into the body of that amazing mountain. 'Cause that's one of the lessons I learned when Aunt Bett took me "diggin' sang where the trilliums grow."
Another story for next time.
Images courtesy of PlantFiles