In East Tennessee, just south of the Kentucky border, Clear Fork Creek carves out a little valley from the Cumberland Plateau. There’s a road through the valley, tracing the creek, and folks live along it, clustered into unincorporated communities. Thickly forested mountains rise up quick and steep on either side, and cut out of those mountains is hollow after hollow, and more folks live back up in them, where time and light are funny.
A woman named Carol Judy keeps an isolated home in Tussy Cut hollow and spends her days in the surrounding woods. I met Carol in Knoxville, sixty miles to the south, at a Saturday crafts market in my neighborhood last summer. She had brought sassafras tea to share with anyone who cared for some. I did, because I had never tried sassafras tea and had recently heard my grandmother reminisce about how her mother would dig up the roots and brew tea from them. The cup Carol gave me was how I imagined it would be: simple, but rich, and sweet with the taste of earth. She watched me as I sipped. “You like it?” she asked, eyebrows raised, smiling. I nodded warmly. She had dug the roots herself, she said. Carol reminded me of a hobbit, with a round nose and face and big alert eyes. She had a vitality and sense of good humor about her that made me curious. She told me where she lived and invited me to visit sometime.
In the spring, I looked her up and she said to come when the days got long and things turned green. So in the warm and swelling early days of June, I drove north into the mountains to see her.
When I pulled up, Carol was hanging her head over a washbasin in the yard, soaping her hair, and she yelled hello to me with her eyes closed. She is in her sixties, white hair to her shoulders, a hunched-over back. I waited while she rinsed her head in the water she had hauled from the cold creek that runs along the back of her property.
Later, in camouflage overalls, a long-sleeve button-up shirt, and her heavy snake boots, she was high-stepping through the pathless understory of a hardwood cove, thick with nettles, trillium, Solomon’s seal, jewelweed, and poison ivy, and I followed behind. The light dappled us as we walked through the canopy of poplars and oaks and umbrella magnolias.
“Here. Here we go,” Carol said, and we shuffled to a stop. She drew my attention to the patch of yellowroot we were standing in. Carol sat down next to a plant and started to turn up the earth around it with the hand cultivator she’d been carrying (which she called simply her “digger”), raking the metal tines into the dark soil to loosen it. After a minute she set the tool aside, her hand feeling around the roots, then pulled up with her fingers a small tuber. She broke it open to show me the striking color that gives the plant its name. Yellowroot is known to be anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-parasitic—good for colds, flu, stomachache, mouth sores, eczema, and many other afflictions, Carol explained, stuffing the large part of the tuber into a potato sack. She’d promised some to a neighbor who’d been sick. The part of the root still attached to the leaf and stalk she stuck back into the tilled soil, covering it again so the plant would keep growing, and we moved on.
Carol is a root digger. Twenty years ago, she was working in tech support at a small dial-up Internet company when she decided to go to the Philippines to take a class at the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction, an organization that works at finding sustainable development solutions for communities in poverty. Her boss wouldn’t give her the time off, but she went anyway. When she returned, jobless, she started digging “in a serious kind of way”—that is, for money. On any given day, depending on the time of year, Carol would dig yellowroot, mayapple, sassafras, bloodroot, wild yam, ginseng, black cohosh, or any number of other plants, which she then sold to buyers, who sold to herbal supplements and pharmaceutical companies for the global market, the price marked up along the way. When she first started roaming the woods for her income she was hunting a delicate moss that grows on decaying logs—she pointed some out to me—for a buyer from Georgia who paid ten dollars for every trash-bag full. That buyer sold the moss to a company in France that was providing it to hospitals for use as bandaging and as an antibiotic.
But Carol doesn’t dig much for money anymore. Now she is an organizer at the community development institute she helped establish in an old schoolhouse down the road, working to reconnect people in her community, especially young ones, with their place. It’s what she calls the task of “merging people and landscape back together.” She says that central Appalachia has suffered “erosion—the slow leakage of its people,” and wants to find ways for people to reinhabit the mountains. Root digging is one of them. “Where people are trying to live with the land, there’s always a need of interaction with it. Root digging’s a way to train and educate people to quest, ask questions, be aware of their environment, find empowerment.”
Carol is known around these parts as “the forest granny,” and she harvests roots for many people, who give her things like eggs and meat in return. “I harvest a little bit of a lot of things, but the ones I harvest are the ones I make use of,” she told me as she dug. Yellowroot is her favorite because it’s the most all-purpose medicinal plant in the mountains. A man named Bruce told me that he was able to quit taking his heart medication after Carol got him on yellowroot. She liked knowing this. “To me, it feels really good to have someone say, ‘Carol, that oil you gave me had that baby cleared up in an hour.’”
When Carol does sell the roots, each one fetches a different price on the market. Ginseng is worth the most by far, at anywhere from five hundred to a thousand dollars a pound, depending on the economy. The Latin name of its genus, Panax, means panacea, Greek for “it’s good for what ails ya,” but ginseng is most commonly taken to strengthen the central nervous system. Most of Appalachia’s ginseng is exported to China, where it is used in a popular energy drink, sold in clear glass bottles with the root coiled inside. Wild ginseng is increasingly rare here due to overharvesting.
“I don’t fool with sang,” Carol told me. She just wants to know it’s out there, that it’s thriving. “But sang sings that si-rene song of I’m going to make you a lot of money,” she said. And so a lot of diggers, desperate for cash, do fool with it. Many of them, she explained, are supporting prescription drug addictions: “There’s not a family in these hollers that doesn’t have somebody addicted to drugs.” Too often, ginseng is harvested out of season and poached from private land. So if Carol sees ginseng in the woods, she “tops it,” breaking the leaves off so that other diggers won’t recognize the plant, allowing the root to keep growing underground.
Later that afternoon, we went to see a man by the name of Morley, keeper of a secret ginseng patch deep in the woods behind his trailer. He was lean, with a tan, somber face. For work, he mows, digs roots, and “piddles around—a little bit of everything,” he said, reflecting the variegated incomes of many people in this region. Carol asked if he would show me his ginseng patch. He trusted her. “Back this way,” he motioned, and I followed him around the house, down a thin path that entered the shade and cool of the woods and led up the ridge. Morley moved like someone in the practice of walking the forest, with a quiet reverence. When we reached the ridge, he began to point out the ginseng. It was everywhere. “When I was about eighteen,” he told me, “I thought, before long it’ll be something you have to go see in a museum. So I started to seed a little patch of it.” For more than fifteen years now, he has tended the patch and managed to keep it hidden from poachers. He reached down and plucked off a plant at the stem, pushed it toward me like someone giving a bouquet of flowers.
As we walked back to the house, I asked Morley what he liked about root digging. He squinted up to a mountain that stretched out in front of us. “Wilderness,” he said flatly. “I guess it’s what you call being free.”
The next day, when the sun rose high enough to clear the line of tulip poplars next to the run-down house where I was staying, and the dew burnt off the grass, we went digging for roots on coal company land. To get there we drove a gravel road along a creek, past a coal tipple and signs posted with mining permits. We ground to a stop at the base of a coal silo. “I have to show you this. Look up there at the top,” Carol said. “What’s that sign say?” I craned my neck to see it, some one hundred feet up. JESUS IS LORD, I read aloud. Carol looked at me aghast. “Mega-industry has co-opted Christianity,” she said. “My church is the woods.”
The Clear Fork Valley is in Tennessee’s coal country, in what’s known as the Cumberland Gap coalfield. The coal-rich mountains are of a forest variety known as the mixed mesophytic, a type that distinguishes them among the great forests of the world. In contrast to the two or three species that dominate most forest types, some eighty woody species share the canopy and understory here, and the herbaceous layer is like none on the continent.
We drove up another road and parked in the shade of a buckeye on the edge of an old cemetery. Years back, the coal companies tried to close down the roads and cemeteries to the public, but, she told me, “we won that battle.” Above us, unseen, was a ten-mile strip of mountain that had “just disappeared.” Carol moved through the patch and I took my place behind. She was methodical, loosening soil and pulling away the shallow roots, reaching out now and then to pinch off the top of a nettle growing in among the yellowroot, slowly filling her potato sack.
“I’ve been digging in here for nineteen years,” Carol noted, as she pointed out black cohosh, a plant used to treat menopause. She picked up a sizeable cedar limb to use as a walking stick. Later, stopping to dig a wild yam root, she realized she had set her digger down when she’d found the cedar limb. She got the root up anyway and we tramped along—she’d find her digger another day. We clanked through a pile of ancient glass Mountain Dew bottles, stepped around a box spring with its rusted coils poking up through the leaf litter. We didn’t find any ginseng, and that upset her. “I know ginseng’s in trouble if I can’t even find it in here. This is its habitat, and all the companion plants are here.”
She dug a root for me called Indian cucumber. “Here, taste it,” she said. It was cool and crisp, and it did taste like a cucumber. We ate the soft shoots of greenbrier. I got a nettle sting that itched and burned so Carol crushed the stem of jewelweed and told me to rub the clear liquid on my skin. It was soothed immediately. “We have distanced people from the ability to know they can do some things for themselves,” she said as we walked down a slope. “We have lost knowledge—how did we lose so much in a hundred years? Mega-industry is generally a mono-economy. Here it was first timber, then coal, gas, and oil. Root digging is not a mono-economy. Knowledge of place breaks the mega-industrial cycle.”
That evening, back at my little house, I watched two wrens that were hard at work building a nest in the corner of the windowsill. They swooped onto the sill with beaks full of moss and leaves and took turns packing the soft material down into the nest, then chirped and dived to the ground to get more bedding before coming back again with full beaks. Occasionally, kids buzzed up and down the gravel road on four-wheelers. Toward dusk, the mountains grew quiet and seemed to lean in from all sides. In the full thick dark, a frog chorus was singing loud in some low place.
On my last afternoon in Clear Fork, Carol took me to see Jerry Miller, the man whom folks around there call “the wizard of the woods.” He dressed in black and wore black sunglasses with dark lenses. Brown splotches of nicotine stained his lips and his wavy gray beard rested on his chest. Beneath it hung a necklace he had carved out of buffalo bones. We met Jerry at home, a tiny cabin with a red roof, set into the mountain and obscured by the surrounding overgrowth. Deeper into the trees, he told me, were the remnants of the house he grew up in, the seventh son of sixteen children. His mother and father were known in the community for their plant knowledge and herbal healing. Around the age of nine, Jerry began to take an interest in it himself. “I would bring every plant I could find to them and ask them, ‘What’s this one?’” he said. “I’ve been studying plants now for forty-one years.”
Carol, Jerry, and I ascended a steep road that cut down the mountain past his house and had been ripped up by logging trucks—farther up, Champion Paper was clear-cutting five thousand acres. Just that morning, Carol said, she’d given a ride to a digger who, she learned, had been poaching ginseng from those woods, ahead of the chainsaws. For diggers harvesting ginseng out of season, she said, “They only have to look around them and they don’t feel they have to justify anything. Mountaintop removal and clear-cutting can do more damage in one fell swoop than any digger could.”
The wizard walked with a cane in his right hand, the consequence of having been the unlucky passenger in a single-car accident three years back. Fashioned from the limb of a dogwood tree, the cane had a stout honeysuckle vine twisted around its bottom half, painted green to look like a snake. As we made our way down the steep slope, Jerry pointed out plants and I scratched down the names. Witch hazel, rue anemone, jack-in-the-pulpit, smartweed, hawkweed, spicebush, star root, bellwort. He touched each specimen with the tip of the cane as he said its name and medicinal use. “Spikenard. I know a guy who chews that one for heartburn.” He took off his shades and I saw something of a twinkle under his bushy white eyebrows; he had brightened. Hepatica, wild ginger, milkweed, foamflower, vine maple.
“Aha! Black birch!” Jerry hopped a ditch and set his cane against the birch’s trunk while he whittled away some of the bark. He made his way back over and handed me and Carol some to nibble on. “The original toothbrush!” Carol cried. We chewed the minty bark. Before we cut around to the other side of the mountain, Jerry sat down on a wide log to roll a cigarette. Clamped between the very tips of his fingers, he brought it from his thigh to his mouth like he was doing bicep curls, his arms veiny, muscles taut. The wizard of the woods is also a logger. He has a small-scale enterprise with a man who farms and keeps guineas on the mountain above Jerry’s house. They practice selective logging, cutting only some of the trees. He took out a set of Chinese medicine balls that had been jingling in his pocket and twirled them in his palm—therapy for his bad hand, which was surgically restructured after the accident.
When he finished his cigarette, we kept walking, looking at plants, Jerry explaining their uses. We rubbed and sniffed leaves, ate them. At the end of our circle around the mountain, I counted all the names I’d scrawled out to find he had identified exactly one hundred plants. “That’s pretty good,” I said. He demurred. “I still don’t know them all. There are so many to know—I’m always still learning.”
The day had grown hot, the air heavy, and leaving Jerry’s we were given to quiet contemplation. Back at Carol’s house, clouds rolled in fast, the sky went suddenly gray, and it began to rain. We went to visit with some friends of Carol’s, who were sitting on the porch watching their four young children play in the mud of a newly tilled garden plot. They howled with glee, throwing and smearing mud on each other. We waited out the shower there, not saying much, just watching the kids, listening to the rain on the porch roof. When it passed, we said goodbye and moved on. It was toward sunset, and the sky had that after-storm glow—rays of clear yellow light, the air fresh and tender.
The car rocked us gently through the valley’s tight curves. We passed a place in the road where the adjacent mountainside had been recently logged. The felled trees, soon to be hauled out, were lying on the steep, bare slope. The poplar trunks were straight, but the angles of the fallen trees were chaotic, sharp. The understory was stripped, the slope turned to mud, and it seemed the logs could come sliding down at any moment. We went around another bend and the valley opened wide. White, ethereal mist rose up, draping the mountains in a vaporous garland, and behind the mist they were a bright June green—an impossible green.
“Look at that,” Carol whispered. “If you could have an image of the earth breathing, this would be it.” We were quiet awhile, taking it in. “Mountains left whole are an endowment,” she said finally. “I have a life because of these mountains.”