When you grow up sheltered in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains, magic is all around you. My people came from across the world to these mountains and hollers: bringing with them a mixture of religions, demons, folklore, and wisdom. The mixture of these cultures, combined with the ever-present heady spirituality of the hills, which forms alongside a deep belief in the Lord Our God and his son Jesus Christ, produces a wide array of spiritual practices. Among them are the Wise Women or the Appalachian Granny Women, of whom I am directly descended.
Born to parents that were incapable of parenting, my beautiful Grandmother Molly took me into her arms and never looked back. She had fourteen children, seven of whom were buried after stillbirth in the family graveyard, and seven she raised to full grown. My mother was the youngest of the seven. My Grandmother Molly was an amazing woman, when she should have been enjoying retirement and watching her grandbabies grow, she brought me into her home and her heart as a newborn babe and raised me. My Grandmother scratched out a living in any way she could: from washing, drying, and ironing all the linens for the local boarding house that we picked up and delivered every week in baskets and my little Red Flyer wagon, to splitting railroad slats in our backyard with an axe while the palms of her hands bled from blisters. Whatever it took to put food in our bellies and keep the roof over our head in place, I learned from my Grandmother that “man’s work” was just an expletive for the ignorant that didn’t have a little one looking to them for all their needs.
My Grandmother Molly used the moon phases to know when to plant, growing a productive healthy garden out of the rocky ground on top of the mountain. She hand hoed, carried buckets of water the mountain side to water, and used those vegetables and fruits to feed us, to give to our neighbors in need, and to barter for things that we needed. She read the signs in nature which told her what years would be good for certain plants, which crops were sure to fail, and when winter would move in upon us. She harvested wild herbs and plants from the fields, mountains, and roadsides to bolster our food supplies, to add flavor to her meals, and to make poultices and medicines. You see, our town did not have a doctor. If you wanted to visit a doctor you had to travel up to two hours away to the “city” to get medical or dental care. We were poor, dirt poor, and that complicated getting medical and dental care as well. So, women learned from their mothers, who learned from their mothers, and so forth…the art of healing, herbs, plants, and the like.
So these beautiful wise women, these Appalachian Granny Women, brought healing, comfort, and doctoring to their hills and hollers. Have a crying baby that is pained with teething? Have an unfaithful man you’d like to keep closer to home? Have an infection from a cut? Or a broken heart? Men and women traveled from all over the nearby town and hollers to get help from my Great-Grandmother Rosa and my Grandmother Molly. They ground up herbs, plants, and barks to make creams, poultices, tinctures, and with these they offered up prayer or magical words, always giving grace and thanks to those who came before them.
I remember, as far back as age five, traveling by foot up into the West Virginia mountains to visit my Great Grandmother Rosa. She lived in a little house that looked like it grew up out of the ground. We would often travel to help her kill and clean her brood of chickens, rabbits, or the two giant hogs she would raise each year to split up amongst the family. She had a garden by the house, which produced most everything she needed along with the apple trees that stood around the house. I can still remember the taste of her apple hand pies, so warm and full of cinnamon after a hard day’s work. Her kitchen was a magical place and if I close my eyes, I can still remember the smells and what it looked like. She hung garden and field herbs to allow them to dry, which filled the house with tangy deep green scents. I would ask her what an herb was, and she could tell you everything about it, from the name to what it was used to treat. I can still remember her beautiful hands and the care she took in making tinctures, herb mixtures for compresses, and poultices.
One of my favorite stories to tell about Great-Grandma Rosa has to do with the hogs she raised for the family every year. She would start these little baby piglets off in what she called the Hog Shack, a little barely nailed together roofed shack that sat about a hundred yards from the house. It was a simple process: you feed them, watch for disease, and the pigs grow. These hogs would grow into monsters that were hundreds of pounds, whose pleas for food included ramming the walls of their little shack until the boards shook and dust would fly up. I would worry for my Great-Grandma, she was a tiny little thing, not quite five feet tall, but what she lacked in size she made up for in moxie. She would grab the big buckets of hog slops and carry them out to the shack. About halfway there was a hickory tree that had been there for longer than the house had been, I believe. She would put the buckets down long enough to reach up and break off a little switch and press it between her teeth as she finished carrying the buckets to the hogs. She had to go into the pen with these hogs; one wrong step and they could have easily crushed her. But she would walk up in there with a bucket of food like she owned the place and those hogs would be snorting and trying to get pushy with her. My Great-Grandmother would rear back with that switch and swat those hogs right across the snouts. You should have seen them; one good swipe and they were cowering in the corner from this little lady that might have weighed 100 pounds wet with rocks in her pockets.
I knew right then and there that my Great-Grandma Rosa was not a lady you needed to mess with and that she might have been small, but she was mighty.
She was also an excellent teacher, showing her daughter—my Grandmother, all about herbs, home medicine, magic, and the bounty which our mountain home could provide us with. My Grandmother’s house was a magical place. I remember waking up in the early morning to the sounds of glass tinkling in the kitchen. There are fewer things more beautiful than home canned jars of vegetables cooling on the counters in the early morning sun, like pieces of stained glass. Of all the places in the house that I loved, the root cellar was a favorite of mine. The shelves that held all our canned food from the garden were there, in addition to all of my Grandmother’s drying herbs, and magical medicinal mixtures. It smelled like the earth; damp, cool, and fresh, like the ground in the spring after a fresh warm rain.
My Grandmother taught me everything she knew; we were partners in crime together. We would travel the roadsides and the fields, and each walk was a lesson recounting what each plant or weed looked like, whether toxic or good for medicinal purposes. It was during these times when I learned to recognize poisonous Hemlock from Queen Anne’s Lace by the telltale blue flower in its center, where I learned that Slippery Elm Bark could be brewed into a tea that is good for sore throats, and which mushrooms were safe to eat and which ones were best for poultices. We would sit on the front porch snapping green beans on the swing; this is where I learned about the spirits of the land, ancient and awesome. This was also where I learned about God and about his son Jesus, a healer in his own right. She taught me the magical words, how to pray, and how we should always use our knowledge for good and help others.
I had my Grandmother Molly for sixteen very short years before losing her to a massive heart attack. There wasn’t enough room inside the little church house where her body lay in state to hold all the people that came to honor her. Over that week I got to meet people that my Grandmother had helped. I got to hear all the stories about how she had helped deliver babies when the mama or the baby were in jeopardy, how she offered herbal cures that helped to heal the sick, and about her love for the community and her neighbors. Losing her, was not just a loss to me and her family, but to the whole community that loved her. They were her patients and friends, and we all celebrated her life and loving spirit and laid her to rest on top of the Mountain together.
It was after the funeral when I left me little Mountain Home. I had to move to the city and live out the rest of my time in high school with an aunt and uncle. When that was done, I went into the United States Army and served my country honorably. Years later, when my first baby was born, I settled down with my husband and my family and returned to my country ways. My husband comes from a family who are very strict Southern Baptists, so I know that my heathen ways were initially disturbing for him and his family. I seemed just as happy in church alongside them as I did in front of my own altar at home honoring the ancient Gods. I can tell you that my love for the good Lord above and his son Jesus is as strong as the love I have for the Goddess, whose feminine grace lies in every aspect of our daily lives.
I tried for years to be strictly church going, but it just didn’t suit me. I loved the worship, the music, and the spirit when it would move…but I found that there were a lot of expectations about how a Christian should walk, talk, behave, and believe. But the thing that was the most difficult to swallow were the judgments being made about others. My Grandmother taught me to love everyone, irregardless of any differences. She would have given someone the last meal on her stove and the shirt right off her back if they needed it. So, I decided right then and there that I was going to make the choice to live like her.
It was during this time that a good friend of mine called me up and we were talking about this new spiritual practice she was taking up, called Wicca. I was intrigued, because what we discussed sounded so familiar to me: healing with herbs, words, and stones, that I checked out a few books and began to read about it. And there it was, in black and white, the transition of the Appalachian Granny Woman into this idea of Paganism or Wicca, and it felt like home.
When I am standing in my altar room at home, I can feel my Grandmother and Great-Grandmother beside me, guiding me. When friends ask for help, whether it is because they are having a hard time becoming pregnant, have a baby they cannot soothe, an upset tummy, or they want to find their true love, with the help of my Ancestors behind me, I work to help in any way that I can. I grow my own herbs and make my own potions, poultices, tinctures, and creams. We grow a large vegetable garden and I look to the moon in the same way the women who came before me did, to show me the signs of when and what to plant to be successful. I always try to honor them by giving assistance to my friends and neighbors when it is needed, by sharing what I have.
Whenever my hands touch the soil in the spring to plant, I know my Grandmother is with me. I have her book, the same one with notes from my Great-Grandmother about medicinal treatments. I’ve recently started to add to that book on my own. I have embraced this name: Witch. Healer. Wise Woman. Granny Woman. Call it what you will. And each day I am aware that I can be a force of good in this world, so I do my best as a human being to do so.
The fall is upon us now, and in less than a month we will begin to celebrate the dying time of the year, my favorite season of all because this is the time we celebrate the harvest, prepare for the cold and the snow of winter, and when I begin to put together the celebrations for Samhain (Halloween) and Yule (Christmas). I start to brew stovetop moonshine using the recipe from my great-grandparents that was passed down amongst the women in my family, that will be handed out as gifts for the holidays. I decorate my altar in the beautiful tones of fall leaves, wrap up in the quilt my Grandmother made me, and have conversations with her in my heart.
But of all the things I do, passing what I have learned on to the next generation seems more important than ever as my hair turns silver and my hands start to look more and more like my Great-Grandmother’s than my own. My youngest son, now a practicing Pagan like his mom, has shown interest in learning. So, we take walks together and learn just like I did, walking in the footsteps of the Appalachian Granny Women that came before me. My oldest son has shown interest in learning how to cook and prepare food and how to grow things in the garden. I hold this time so close in my heart as a mother and try to teach them to always love their families, friends, and neighbors. More and more I am sure that my Great-Grandmother and my Grandmother look down on me with pride, just as I look on my sons now.
In these trying times, surrounded by Covid, brutality, racism, and uncertain days ahead, I know without a doubt that if my Grandmother could tell us how to move forward, she would say that “Pain shared is pain halved” and that we should “Love one another.” I urge everyone reading this to remember that we all share this great big earth together and to love your neighbor and try to bring a little more understanding to each day. You never know what another person may be experiencing, so be kind to each other and be safe as we move forward into the days that lie ahead. Blessed, Blessed Be.
Linda Hinkle, born and raised in the West Virginia coal country, is a solitary practicing Witch/Healer who currently resides in Ooltewah, Tennessee with her loving husband and two sons. Linda is a Licensed Master Social Worker, currently working with her fellow sister and brother Veterans to provide resources and assistance at her current place of employment. Linda is a disabled Army Veteran and former Army Combat Medic, she went from healing the body to additionally healing the mind. She plans to live out a life of service for the rest of her days.