The idea that you could bottle a spirit, a soul, a demon, a genie, has been around longer than bottles themselves—since the earliest days of earthenware and bronze work, hollow gourds and animal skins. As long as there have been practical vessels, people have tried to fill them with magic.
Hang colored glass bottles from the shade tree closest to the house. This is to capture evil spirits.
Bottle trees came to the South from Hoodoo, not Voodoo, tradition, rooted in African folklore. But I’ve read that the superstition goes back even further, emerging from the meandering tributaries of culture that followed trade across northern Africa, Mesopotamia, Europe.
The Southern imagination doesn’t need that history, and so has shed it. The Alabama of my childhood said that bottle trees were slave things, even if comfortable, middle-class people had become enamored with them, just as they had other African imports like okra and the banjo. Slaves brought the bottle tree, slaves made it Southern, and so slaves and their ancestors are given credit for it.
Still, “slavery” isn’t usually your first thought when you see colored bottles twitching in the hot breeze, when your hands sting from the fuzz of fresh okra, when you feel whatever banjo sounds make you feel. These things have lived rich lives since Emancipation, like pretty bottles long emptied of their poison. Gradually, over generations, we repurpose our inheritance. Rather than carry around bottles of pain, we pour out the expired symbolic contents, and slowly fill our bottles with fresh magic.
Daddy keeps things he thinks will be useful someday, like scrap iron and used bolts. He also keeps things because of the stories they tell him. He keeps his father’s handmade turkey calls to tell how the old man had spent his last years. He keeps the spent shell from a .20-gauge to tell how I killed my first deer with it. He was with me. He showed me how. It was important that kills be clean, that both weapon and prey be respected, that an animal’s suffering was a sadness, not a goal.
He nurtures the two American chestnut trees I grew up alongside. “Used to be chestnuts all in these woods,” he said in a frequent, plainspoken elegy. “Then a blight took them out by the billions.” On his own property, he planted two trees that were supposed to be resistant to the fungus that almost exterminated the species. He nurtured those trees like premature newborns. Mama worried he’d kill them with too much fertilizer. He was careful. This was something that had almost not survived the changing of the world, and he didn’t want to lose it.
This was a food too rare to buy commercially, and the sweet flesh of the chestnuts fermented quickly. I’d grown up loving those brief weeks every fall when the chestnuts would ripen. Daddy remembers how I refused to wear shoes at home, even when it meant I’d be digging the broken spines of chestnut burrs out of my foot soles with a flame-sterilized needle. I’m thirty now, and we have a hard time talking to each other about much besides the weather. But even this year, across a thousand miles of distance and long telephone minutes of stiff silence, he shipped me a four pound box of chestnuts he’d gathered from those trees. Mama told me he was excited, like when he was a younger father, wrapping a special Christmas present for his son. He had to send it overnight. It had to travel quickly from Alabama to New York. The box arrived with no note and told me all the things a man doesn’t have the words to say.
I’ve only ever seen a couple of bottle trees made by regular people—you know, people who aren’t trying to look like folk artists. The one I saw most often belonged to a woman we kids called “Emma the Voodoo Lady.” With her sack and her stick, Emma’d hunch along the side of the road, picking up cans. She lived in a rotting white clapboard house in Folsom—the remnants of a plantation handed down through the Webb family ever since the government first granted the land in hopes of populating this wild territory. I don’t know for sure if Emma descended from local slave families, but for poor black people in Perry County, that’s a safe assumption. Whoever her people were, the government didn’t give them plantation-sized tracts of land. Her bottle tree might not have looked like slavery to me, but now when I imagine Emma walking the ditches in the hot mist of an early summer morning, she looks like she’s carrying a bag of our sad and shameful history.
The Holmes branch of the Webb family worked this land now, and the big, four-chimney house was only about a quarter mile from Emma’s little one. She rarely interacted with these gentlemen farmers, but occasionally she’d appear at their door. Once, she insisted to Charles Holmes that she had young children, that those children were white, and that she couldn’t find them. Charles knew his history, but this wasn’t just some artifact knocking on his back door, pleading for help in finding her ghost children. Had she knocked on my door, I wouldn’t have known what to say. Suddenly, she would have been her own person with her own problems, rather than a roadside museum piece, rather than some pitiable sociological marker, rather than a symbolic character to match this landscape and its still-standing slave quarters slouching along the nearby dirt roads. When I heard the story, I could only think about how lonely Emma must have been. What else could Charles say, but that he was sorry they’d come up missing, that he’d keep an eye out for them?
Don’t let me give you the wrong idea. Most people here don’t look this much like Old South caricatures. Perry County has black lawyers and bankers and politicians, and Emmas are few and far between. Her story stands alone, a ghost child trapped in a bottle, a curiosity that’s been caged for your safety, a highway-side oddity you can puzzle over as you drive past, like Emma’s bottle tree, like her Chevrolet station wagon, spray-painted with what we children assumed were Voodoo symbols, like what must have been in those plastic grocery bags that hung all over the car, like the woods around her house, mine, and many more, where tangled vines crept and strangled and changed the usual shapes of things, adding mystery to their meanings, alluring casual witnesses to search for something deeper that we could never find.
Once when I wasn’t yet in high school, I caught a ride home with two other white boys. Along Highway 14, we saw Emma, using her stick to knock back the waist-high forks of Bahia grass, where littered cans may have been hiding. Brandon and Wade Taylor sat on either side of me. They were brothers, sons of Conrad Taylor, president of Marion Bank and Trust. On my right, Wade drank the last of a Pepsi, crushed the can, and threw it out the window. It landed softly in the dry weeds.
“Did you throw a can at her?” said Brandon, the younger one, yelling indignantly across me.
“It missed her by a mile,” Wade said.
“I don’t care.”
“She’s looking for cans anyway. I was throwing it to her.”
I thought that even beggars might not enjoy having change thrown at them, but I didn’t speak. This was a spat between brothers—a fight in which I had no dog.
Brandon crossed his arms and stared out his window. “It’s mean,” he muttered. He’d grow up to serve on the Marion City Council, representing one of the two mostly white districts, becoming ever more frustrated and helpless as he’d sink into the complicated civic relationship between races. He’d probably snip at Wade about the can later tonight, but Emma would never know. This was probably not the first time a boy had thrown a can at her.
None of us were old enough yet to understand the pain both wealthy and not drew from each other here, or how it sometimes came misleadingly wrapped in black and white, yet each of us acted out a role I’d come to recognize later, in ourselves and in others: The one who excuses his own careless cruelty, the one who does no good with his simpering complaints, the one who does nothing but watch. And Emma, who never flinched, only picked up her can and moved on.
Way out in the Black Belt prairie, and up in the red clay hills that surround it, you may still find shade trees made into bottle trees—colored glass bottles, cleaned of their labels, hung from long, low branches like chandelier crystals, like infants’ mobiles, like mute wind chimes. You won’t find them cluttering up the landscaping of the old antebellums, or even outside the four-over-four clapboard farmhouses. Folk art doesn’t fit neatly into those scenes; it looks too much like trash. But you may find a piece on display inside the house.
Bottle trees are endearing enough to spark magazine features, to inspire bric-a-brac versions that hang over kitchen tables or fill corners of living rooms.
Before they became charming, when the bottles were actual charms, it was the more brightly colored bottles that made the most effective traps for evil spirits. Particularly favored has long been a dark blue, cobalt blue, haint blue, like the glass of certain cathedrals.
A painted sign in a pasture on I-65, north of Montgomery: Go to Church, or the Devil Will Get You. Most church marquees, even here in the Deep South, are simple and sane, but some attack homosexuality, science, and select varieties of political candidates. These are the signs people photograph and email to each other—the ones that make it onto CNN. Most people I know think signs like these do nothing but damage our reputation, giving visitors the exact stereotype they were looking for. We get upset when we must explain away this religious hostility. We say we’re not made up of superstitious country folk. We say that it doesn’t reflect the real Alabama. We get even angrier when we realize that, in part, it does.
Daddy never went to church, never spoke of it in my presence, never talked of God, let alone to him, even over holiday food. The demons he warded off were not magical, were not historical or ideological. Instead he kept vigilant watch for thieves. He nailed our windows shut and sealed them with caulk. In the body shops he built behind the house, he bolted angle iron over the windows, bradded the threads over the nuts so no one could break the glass and remove the bars. A metal fabricator for most of his life, he built a safe entirely out of eighth-inch stainless steel, complete with a two-layer housing around the padlock to ward off hacksaws and bolt cutters and all but the most determined acetylene torches. This safe held important papers, but was mainly designed to keep our gun collection. He wanted a secure vessel in which to store our precious defenses.
Daddy also had to reinforce the bedroom floor so that it could support the weight of the safe. Regular target practice maintained our reputation along this tar-and-gravel country road, he said. We saw lots of traffic, despite the dead end. Especially on weekend evenings, cars would pass, and then return five to ten minutes later. Drug arrests were common here, though our house has never been burglarized. Perhaps my father’s paranoia, real or rumored, was an effective deterrent. He only hung one kind of sign along the overgrown trails in the surrounding woods: No Trespassing.
Daddy knew there wouldn’t be much of an inheritance when his father died. The trailer wasn’t worth much, and there wasn’t much else. “I’d like to have his guns,” Daddy told his sisters, “just because they were his. A lot of them have got stories behind them.”
You protected your guns, Daddy said. You never left them lying around unattended. They were easily sold for cash. “Some damn nigger’s liable to steal it,” he said. “To them it’d be just a gun. They wouldn’t have no idea why it mattered.”
Once, he came home from work to find a plastic Dr. Pepper bottle—less than half full, spray-painted red—hanging from the low branch of the old hundred-foot oak tree out by our mailbox. He cut the nylon thread, brought the bottle back to the house in a quiet fury, and left it on the kitchen counter, waiting for someone to ask him what it meant. “Somebody marked us,” he said. “Keep an eye out for anything suspicious in the next couple of days.” He soon got a call explaining the bottle in our tree. It turned out that we had been marked. By the power company, who’d gotten lost looking for what Daddy had cut down. Apparently, around here, underequipped utility workers need to find inventive ways to communicate with each other.
In much Southern lore, evil is always external to one’s home and family, never comes from the inside, never comes from ourselves. Our stories guard against the devil in disguise, the careless drunk, the Misfit, the conniving stranger, the catastrophe-prone idiot whose mistakes make victims of the good and the innocent. Recognizing one’s own capacity to harm the world is much less of a priority. Much Southern literature has been made of this. We defend ourselves by excluding others. Often, it’s our fatal flaw. Ever looking outward, watchfully, we beat back the dangers of the world just as we beat back encroaching kudzu to a point just beyond the property line.
Now, the bottle tree is a fun little ghost story, a primitive people’s quaint folklore whose replicas you can buy from craft fairs and online artists who build models as simple as shoe trees, as elaborate as New Orleans cemeteries, from unfinished wooden dowels, from wrought iron scrolled into any style you like, from gnarled wood suggestive of the spooky and the wise, of Spanish moss and veiled mysteries and Magical Negroes. How adorable some people, even local people, find the myth. How they bring it into their homes and smile at it as they would a nursery rhyme, then reach to the crosses on their necklaces, and manage to take them seriously.
Quaintness is but one stage a symbol goes through during the life cycle of its meaning—call it advanced middle age. Other stages follow.
It took us two hours to drive to Birmingham, but I loved the place anyway. In its lurching struggle of what to do with its past, the city has come up with a lot of the usual things: the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, for example. But as symbols gradually lose their significance, as post-postmodern anti-ironic hipsterdom grips part of my generation like a plague of skinny jeans and studded leather belts, old pain and pride and fear all wash together, leaving only the objects themselves, husks shucked from their meanings, the empty boxes important things once came in, filled in blissful forgetfulness with happier, newer things. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Bottletree Café.
This is the indie rock scene in the state, a popular stop for mid-career and up-and-coming rockers stopping for weekday gigs between the bigger shows in Atlanta, Nashville, Austin, New Orleans. You can see this for yourself. PBS broadcasts Bottletree’s live music on We Have Signal, our answer to Austin City Limits. I’ve seen some damn fine music here.
The menu gives occasional nods to Southern cooking with gumbo, pimento cheese, fried green something-or-other. But there are vegan options: hummus, quinoa, black beans in unnatural forms, things conjured out of soy—exactly the pan-cultural fusion the gluten-intolerant cool kids are doing all over America right now. You might not notice the simple iron bottle tree by the front door. Or you may be tempted to hang your coat on it.
Inside, the coolest of dive bars meets the hippest of coffee shops. You may peruse the used books, or while away a Sunday with one of the previously-loved board games. A long, narrow porch has been walled in with plywood and paneling. Old vinyl LPs are screwed right into the walls. You can marvel at the exploded pastiche of America—paintings styled like ‘50s comics, coconut monkeys, kitschy geegaws whose meanings have dissolved into puzzled laughter at the wretched excesses of other times. Here, all signs and symbols are open to interpretation, and nobody is made to feel unwelcome.
There’s a whitetail deer head mounted on the wall—a svelte six-point buck covered in coin-sized panels of mirrored glass, like a disco ball. This is the image Bottletree chose for its website—the image many take with them when they leave this place. That’s fitting. The whitetail is a totem around here, of food, of wildness, of both conquering and communing with that wildness, of pride, of cruelty, of shame, of the judgments of backwardness hunters endure, of the arguable barbarity of putting an animal’s preserved body parts on display. But here all of that tension and mutual hostility is gone, obscured under disco glass. The hip kids have taken a symbol of this place’s complicated past, and have begun to cast off meanings, to render objects powerless with a jolly application of hot glue and shiny things. This is what you do when you’ve inherited something you can’t throw away, but don’t think you deserve.
But there’s only so far this can go toward a merciful forgetfulness. We’re still not ready to do that with a Christian cross, whether it’s the kind that swings from necklaces, or the kind that lives in photographs, burning with a very old terror in the not-too-distant Alabama night.
Daddy didn’t like to leave the house much. But a few times every spring and fall, he felt up for driving the hour to Tannehill State Park for Trade Days, where local people set up booths to sell old family artifacts, handmade crafts of leather and wood, and food from burgers and fries to boiled peanuts and football-sized sheets of freshly fried pork rinds. Then there were vendors of surplus building supplies and cheap plastic toys and household utensils, State Fair-grade hawkers come to sell rebel flag apparel, mythically ornate knives, and all manner of totems—from belt buckles to trailer hitches—bearing the whitetail deer and the largemouth bass. Some of my friends raised in the affluent suburbs of Birmingham—Homewood, Hoover, Mountain Brook—didn’t know such an Alabama still existed.
Walking from table to table under the tall canopy of loblolly pines, Daddy mostly went for the antique tools. Sometimes he’d buy something practical for use around his house or his body shop: an impact wrench, a supply of replacement axe handles, a set of wind chimes the size of organ pipes, tuned to a sonorously low octave. Mostly, though, he enjoyed pointing out arcane objects and telling me what they were for, leaving it up to me to imagine how it must have been to live with the need for giant ice tongs, an adz, a sling blade, mule hanes, and the mule-drawn plows that went with them.
“I bet that’s broke the back of many a man,” he said, grasping the worn handle of a single-bladed “middle buster,” his voice reaching back to his old folks, to sounds as arcane as this equipment, especially compared to his simple and dignified all-purpose way of talking. He handled a bucksaw quietly, as you would any other childhood memory that had rubbed blisters on your blisters.
He picked up cedar turkey calls and declared them inferior to those his father had spent his last years whittling. He bought a brace—the hand drill so named because of how hard you had to lean against it to make a hole in anything—in case our fifty-four-and-a-half-acres were ever permanently cut from the power grid, and we’d have to get by with only our hands.
Daddy’s hands—like rebar wrapped in saddle leather—were already hard enough to get by on. He enjoyed movies about settling frontiers. His spirit was more Old West than Old South—or New South—more Clint Eastwood and Sam Elliott than Billy Bob Thornton and Burt Reynolds.
He bought the mule hanes to hang on our back porch, even though he hadn’t been near a mule in decades. He bought Mama a butter churn, even though she loathed her mother’s hours spent working the dasher. It would be good for lemonade at the family reunion, though—porous crockery naturally cools its contents. Daddy bought me a draw knife because I’d taken an interest in traditional archery, and had tried to carve my own bows in the style of the one-thirty-second portion of my ancestors who were Cherokee. Though, at his encouraging, I then wrapped them in fiberglass that would otherwise have gone to patch a hole in a pickup bed.
He moved from booth to booth, past old records and books and anything made in China. He stopped to talk with his Aunt Edna, who had learned to make quilts for everyday use, but now sold them here—at least at a higher price—to people who only considered them art. He laughed with her when she reminisced about lotion made from goat tallow, about homemade everything, about all the things the young’uns don’t know and don’t care to know. It was always a polite, uncomfortable laughter, each of us carrying our own semi-sacred object, perverting its intended purpose, paying good money to transform into symbols what had once been the tools of life, their wood worn thinner at the grip of callused hands, their metal pocked from the sweat of their users, their dirt and rust and bloodstains scrubbed almost as clean as any store-bought conversation piece, things in which each generation could trap the world as they understood it, no matter how the rest of it kept changing. Here, Daddy ignored Aunt Edna’s merchandise; she herself was the artifact, filled with memories and meanings and other old things I’d never know—things he’d put in a bottle and take with him, if he only could.