STORIES OF PLACE
Stories of Place is an intergenerational storytelling program, directed by LiKENeer Mary Hufford, that focuses on the special places that shape community life in Central Appalachia.
Stories of Place director: Mary Hufford Hufford@likenknowledge.org
Martin County Stories
Since 2018, in collaboration with Martin County high school and community partners, Karen Rignall (Associate Professor, University of Kentucky (UK) has been coordinating a process of story-catching by high school students in Martin County KY. But, where should these stories go? In Summer 2021, Karen Rignall brought together various participants in Stories of Place / Martin County who determined that the best platform for sharing these wonderful stories would be a website. This dedicated team of Martin County citizens and LiKENeers have been working all fall, and a new website, Martin County Stories, will soon be launched, that states:
• Our mission is to open a civic space where Martin County citizens across generations can present the beauty of their home, in their voice, through their eyes, in a beautiful mosaic display of the realness of Appalachia;
• Our vision is to be a place for an online community filled with love and pride for our homes and each other and a source for resources about the land, culture, and people in Martin County.
Key leaders in this effort are high school students, UK undergrads and graduates from Martin County: Alyssa Dyer, Chloe Hale, Madison Mooney, Liz Stayton. Ashley Watkins, took the lead in website design during her joint UK / LIKEN internship — bringing gifts from her Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies major and her Appalachian coal mining family roots.
Women, Ginseng, and Ecologies of Care
Each ginseng root bears traces of its history: what part of the region it came from (i.e. boney = coalfields; bulby = mid-0hio Valley), whether it was wild or transplanted, and tell-tale signs of defective wildcrafting. “Like the person who brought this in,” laughed Janet Hodge, who buys ginseng at Barker’s Fur Shed in Smithville, WV. “I had to remind them not to use a toothbrush to clean their ginseng. They got this crazy look on their face, like, ‘How did you know?’ It sticks out, doesn’t it! You want it clean, but not too clean.”
Photos of Janet Hodge by Mary Hufford
Over the course of 2021, LiKENeer Mary Hufford gathered stories of women who are skilled stewards of ginseng in West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee–under a grant from the Smithsonian Institution’s “American Ginseng: Local Knowledge, Global Roots” program. Ginseng’s association with masculinity is reinforced in popular representations of diggers and buyers as men, representations that hark back to the early days of the fur trade, when long hunters, diggers, and trappers fanned throughout the region in search of a wide variety of roots and pelts. Yet many stories are told in communities throughout the region of women who ginsenged. A number of women figure on lists of certified ginseng buyers in each state, and in professions that engage them closely with ginseng. What do perspectives of women contribute to the story of ginseng? With support from the Smithsonian’s American Women and History Initiative, and in cooperation with LiKEN, the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage has begun addressing the silence on women in public histories of ginseng.
In cooperation with the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism Initiative, the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage is developing an interactive website focused on historical and contemporary human interactions with and stewardship of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolia). The centuries-old trade in American ginseng began with the 17th century recognition that America harbored a cousin of Panax panax, Asian ginseng, which has been all but extirpated in the wild. American wild ginseng, found within the Appalachian region, is now highly prized in markets around the world, routed along complex supply chains stretching from diggers to end-users.
Women are involved with ginseng along the entire chain of production and distribution, as diggers, as buyers, as healers, marketers, conservationists, and researchers. How do women’s perspectives complicate, expand upon, and reframe the story of ginseng?
Addressing a silence on women in popular representations of the ginseng trade, the Women and Ginseng project explored women’s perspectives on ginseng, its significance and its conservation. Mary Hufford has just finished the fieldwork and some of the profiles of these women are already up on LiKEN’s website here[BT1] . These profiles, and more to follow, will be linked to “American Ginseng: Local Knowledge, Global Roots,” an interactive website, curated by Betty Belanus and Arlene Reineger of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Featuring women whose stories are entwined with ginseng, the Women and Ginseng project showcases ginseng’s entanglements with diverse knowledges and ways of being that open onto remarkable ecologies of care and reproduction.
Ruby Daniels. Photo by Mary Hufford
Consultant herbalist and Forest Farmer
Herbalist Ruby Daniels is an Afrilachian forest farmer, living on her family homeplace in the former African American coal town of Stanaford, WV. As an Afrilachian Forest Farmer, Ruby Daniels is foregrounding African American history in a region where it has long been invisible.
“Now, for me, ginseng is, like, I do not use it, I do not offer it to anybody. Because it is endangered. It has a high demand all over the world, especially in China. And people come here to West Virginia, North Carolina, to the Appalachian Mountains, and they dig it. And then it takes 10 years for this plant to grow. . . just to even to be usable. But imagine if it was a plant, it’s been sitting for 40-60 years. Could you imagine the amount of medicine in that?”
|Janet Hamric Hodge
Ginseng Buyer, Proprietor of Hawk Mountain Trading and WV Wildlife Resources Commissioner
Janet Hodge’s family has lived in Central West Virginia since the late l700s. Growing up in the farming communities of Gilmer and Braxton Counties, Janet learned to hunt, trap, fish, and forage for wild roots and herbs. Through her trade in roots and fur, and her work with the WV Wildlife Resources Commission, Janet encourages interactions of children and youth with forest species that are vital for human and environmental well-being.
“The people that actually live here, we look at everything on the thirds: you take a third, because you have to leave some for seed, and that goes with everything. Anything that’s in the woods, when you’re digging in the woods, fishing in the river, you never take everything, because you’re biting the hand that feeds you.”
Janet Hodge, proprietor of Hawk Mountain Trading. Photo by Mary Hufford.
Photo by Mary Hufford
Member of the Monacan Indian Nation Historic Resource Committee and
Program Coordinator, Historic Fraction Family House at Solitude, Virginia Tech
As an enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation, Victoria Persinger Ferguson, of Roanoke, Virginia, has spent nearly three decades researching and developing programs around the Eastern Siouan of the central portion of what is now Virginia. Learning from their father to hunt, trap, and forage for food and medicine in the surrounding woods, Victoria and her six siblings knew themselves to be Native American with a worldview sharply at odds with the extractive, profiteering worldview of European colonizers and industrialists.
“The one thing that I wanted to point out about the ginseng from the perspective that I understand, the Native perspective, is that colonization turned ginseng into a commodity. It was not a commodity for us. It was a medicine but there are other medicines that you could use to do the same thing.”
|Amy Cimarolli and Barbara Breshock
WV Foresters, Co-leaders of WV Women Owning Woodlands
As co-founders of the West Virginia chapter of Women Owning Woodlands (WOW) in 2018, Barbara Breshock and Amy Cimarolli are career foresters blazing a trail for women in the traditionally male-dominated world of forest management. Throughout the Central Appalachian region WOW members like Barb and Amy are stewarding woodlands for many purposes, including the enhancement of habitats for forest botanicals such as cohosh, goldenseal, bloodroot, mayapple, wild orchids, and, of course, ginseng.
“We’ve come upon a piece of the old field that’s been left open. We’re standing under an old butternut, so it’s cooler and shady. You can tell it’s an old field, like Barb said, there’s the musclewood, and there is a small yellow poplar and spice bush… I fenced this place to get a stand of ginseng going. They’re going to be my mother plants to produce seed. And I’ll take that seed up into the forest.” – Amy Cimarolli
Amy Cimarolli and Barbara Breshock, stopping to verify goldenseal along the bank of an intermittent stream. Photo by Mary Hufford
Mary Lawson, Gross Recycling Center. Photo by Clara Haizlett.
“I love ginseng season. I love the customers. They’re just a different grain of people, you know. Every day on my way to work, I say a prayer. And I thank the Lord for blessing us, for giving us this day….And I say a prayer for all my customers and their families. And I pray for all my workers and their families. I do that every day. And there’s a lot of them come in here just to pray. Because they said that you can feel the spirit of the Lord when you’re in here with me.. . . And no, I don’t see men doing that. Helping them out as far as caring about them. And wanting to be there for them. . . if they need food or something.”
Root and Herb Buyer and Proprietor, Gross Recycling Center
Growing up in the coal camp of Red Ash in Tazewell County, VA, Mary Lawson accompanied her brothers on forays for ginseng and other commercially valuable roots in the hollows surrounding their home. “I was a tomboy,” she recalled. “I said it was more fun doing what my brothers were doing than doing dishes. So they took me out and taught me how to rabbit hunt and how to fish and how to seng hunt and how to dig herbs and all kinds of stuff.” She now buys and sells ginseng as a recycler of scrap metals, in a role that is largely occupied by men. “It is a man’s world when it comes to this kind of stuff in recycling you know. But when I first opened in 2002, the guys would start coming in here. And when they saw that I was willing to work this hard, it earned a lot of em’s respect.” Reflecting on what she brings to this work as a woman, she spoke of her affection for her clients, and her attentiveness to both the spiritual and material well-being of her community.
|Carol Judy (1949-2017)
Herbalist, Root Digger, Rural Development Leadership Networker, and Forest Granny
Carol Judy (1949-2017) wove ginseng into a dense and vibrant meshwork connecting human and more-than-human, deep past with deep future, and local with global (some would say intergalactic). Born in Florida, and raised in Georgia, Carol made her way at the age of 19 to her grandfather’s home state of Tennessee. It was there that she raised her children, co-founding, with Marie Cirillo and others in the community, the Clearfork Community Institute, and there that she learned from fellow woods walkers to identify and harvest roots and herbs of the forest. Ginseng and other roots of the Central Appalachian forest became foundational to her advocacy for women, children, the mountains, and the forest commons. Over decades of participation in regional rural development initiatives, Carol was celebrated in the coalfields of Tennessee, Virginia, and Eastern Kentucky as “forest granny.”
“She was a root whisperer.” — Deborah Bahr, Director, Clean Water Expected in East Tennessee (CWEET)
“She always had like a gaggle of young people with her, that she was toting around,” recalled William Isom, who directs community outreach for Tennessee Public Broadcasting, as well as “Black in Appalachia.” “She would come and set up a crock pot, and cook sassafrass for hours and hours and hours, she’d cook it down to make a sassafrass tonic out of that.”
Carol Judy (l) in ginseng patch with Michelle Mockbee, a co-founder of Fair Trade Appalachia, in 2011. Photo by Audrey Lankford Barnes
Gabby Gillespie, a community organizer in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, recalled Carol’s rule of thumb for harvesting ginseng: “She always taught me: ‘Make sure you see, in a small area, at least seven other plants before you harvest one.”
But her environmentalism did not stop at the earth. “Frankly,” as she told Felix Bivens, “It is about saving humanity, not just the mountains.”
Carol Judy, walking Amelia Taylor’s woods. Photo by Amelia Taylor.
|For more on the story of ginseng in Appalachia, together with photos of three generations of women who ginsenged together at the headwaters of southern West Virginia’s Big Coal River in the 1990s, see American Ginseng and the Idea of the Commons.