It’s a curious world and seems to be more curious still as we settle into October, the month of haints, omens and portents here in the mountains.
Coming of age as a lot of traditions in these hills were dying out, but weren’t altogether gone, I still have memories of people dabbling in somewhat spooky arts.
Water witching, for example. Also known as dousing or divining, a water witch would use a couple of L-shaped branches or rods to locate a good site for a well. In other parts of the country people might witch for gemstones or try to locate oil or perhaps a relative’s abandoned gravesite.
Some people put a lot of stock in dousing. Others, such as one old-timer who was around while a couple of amateur dousers wandered around trying to find a spring in an abandoned field, didn’t. This particular graybeard observed that we live in an area that’s so lush it would be more impressive not to strike water, and I suppose he had a point there.
Another witching tradition handed down was the practice of tying a pencil on a string and holding it over the outstretched palm of a youngster; the revolutions of the pencil would foretell how many children you’d have, with the direction of the revolution determining how many boys or girls you could look forward to.
As it wasn’t uncommon in those days for couples to have 10 or 12 kids, invariably the prediction would be something like four boys and three girls. But along about the same era as the pencil witching people quit having large families, meaning the predictions were generally off by an order of magnitude.
I’m not sure people were more superstitious back then. It occurs to me that we’re still superstitious as all get-out. I’ll veer away from a black cat in my path, will toss salt over my shoulder if a shaker is knocked over, won’t open an umbrella indoors and never, ever will walk under a ladder.
At least in the old days, superstitions were, for lack of better terms, more charming, or carried more portent. The charming superstitions were four-leaf clovers and rabbit’s feet, although it was often pointed out a rabbit’s foot couldn’t be that lucky, considering what happened to the rabbit.
The omens that carried portent often involved somebody’s death.
Therein lies a Buchanan family tale.
Going back decades, there was a belief that if somebody spotted a white animal – owl, fox, whatever – at dusk, it signaled the oncoming death of a family member. Such a combination of events was documented in the death of an uncle many years back. The tale circulated frequently and was passed down along the generations.
Daddy had been in hospice at the Charles George V.A. in Asheville for several weeks when he took a sharp turn for the worse, and it became evident the end was near. Family members took turns sitting with him. I was with him when he peacefully passed.
One of my nieces related to me that the night before she’d had a dream where her Maw-Maw came down from the sky riding a snow-white bear to come collect Daddy. She loved her man, and he loved bears, so the story was appropriate, and fit right in with the family legend.
Thing is, my niece had never heard that particular tale.
Buchanan is editor of The Sylva Herald.