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Spooks Branch, a human history story

Spooks Branch was a singular place in settlers’ loreby Rob NeufeldImportant editorial note:This is a significant historical story that is also, in parts, personal and controversial.  It is about a few families who settled a particular cove and played out their heroic and complex legacies in ways that interacted with place and time.  You don't read this kind of story much because people don't like to expose themselves or stir up trouble, even a little.  This caution makes history classes boring…See More
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The Rise of Asheville by Marilyn Ball

History of the "Asheville 1000" and the 1970s renaissance                       Let’s not miss the history of Asheville’s renaissance, Marilyn Ball’s new book, “The Rise of Asheville,” advocates.            She’d come here in 1977, making her one of the advance guard of “artists, entrepreneurs, and off-the-grid…See More
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Century-ago woman's apple cake recipe

Mmm, them apples in Beaverdam coveIn 1972, Helen Nelon wrote about the traditions of old-time Spooks Branch, off Beaverdam Road.  Here's what she said about her use of apples in a cake.(The full story of Spooks Branch will appear soon.)There were apples for delicious cider cooled in the spring "dreem" (drain), apples for frying for cold winter days, and for special days there were dried apple sauce fruit cakes.These cakes were made of very thin, sweet dough with dried apple sauce spread between…See More
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Dignity is the key to Richard Russo's inspiration

So funny, and yet so exposing--Richard Russo's geniusSnakes on the lane            In Richard Russo's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Empire Falls, the protagonist, Miles recalls the time his father, driving, had accelerated into a box on a highway.  “What if that box had been full of rocks?” Miles asks.  Unfazed, Max quizzes his son about what he would do about the box.  Max says he'd stop and look in it,  “What if it was full of rattlesnakes? “ his father asks.            The verbal match…See More
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Nov 12
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Humanize the history--especially with Civil War--writes acclaimed author

Writer illuminates tangled web of Civil Warby Rob Neufeld             David Madden has written a book, “The Tangled Web of the Civil War and Reconstruction,” that deserves special attention.            First, there’s Madden’s background.  In 1992, he founded the U.S. Civil War Center in New…See More
Nov 12
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Coming attraction--Singleton at Malaprop's & City Lights for Calloustown

George Singleton's latest collection of stories, Calloustown...features the folk who try to survive in a place that has little to offer besides a Finger Museum and a taxidermy petting zoo,It's funny, but also tragic and angry.  The review, "Love-hate humor cries in Calloustown," appears in the Asheville Citizen-Times, Sunday, 11/15/2015.  Singleton's at Malaprop’s Bookstore, 7 p.m., Wed., Nov. 18; and at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva, 3 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 21.Here's an excerpt from the…See More
Nov 10
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Juniper Bends Quarterly Reading at DownTown Books & News

November 13, 2015 from 7pm to 8pm
Our very special Autumnal edition starts at 7PM and is sure to be a lively and vibrant set, with featured writers Randi Janelle, Tina FireWolf, Logan Parker, and Annabelle Crowe. Two of our readers have new books out, and as always there is wine flowing by donation. Hosts Lockie Hunter and Caroline Wilson look forward to seeing you there----remember, your wellbeing depends upon it.See More
Nov 9
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Love and Mercy ~ Up On Roan Mountain

My family lived and loved up on Roan Mountain and in the surrounding mountain areas, and this is their story. It's woven into a tapestry that weaves down through the years, before the days of the Civil War and up to present day. They were…
Nov 9
Rob Neufeld posted a discussion

It's All Relative--50 WNC women write about family

Family life as perceived by 50 WNC authorsby Rob Neufeld             If you have biases against small press books or anthologies of local writers’ work, I recommend you lay them aside and take a look at “It’s All Relative” (Stone Ivy Press), 52 stories and poems by 50 WNC women authors writing about family.           …See More
Nov 6

There's this mountain legend--is it a legend?--about belled buzzards appearing and tolling a bell preceding the death of a notable person. Gary Carden writes about it in his book, Belled Buzzards, Hucksters, and Grieving Specters: Appalachian Tales: Strange, True & Legendary.Robert Henry, the pioneer Buncombe County lawyer and educator, heard the bell three times--twice for two of his sons, and once for himself. He died at age 98. Gary makes a reference to a sighting and hearing in Leicester on Aug. 13, 1926. I'm going to track that down. Plus, he also tells me about a man in Greer, S.C. who witnessed the phenomenon in 1936. I'm trying to reach him by phone. Meantime, I'm collecting all references, and adding on other omens of death.

Image from the University of South Florida.

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I think this is part of the mountain superstition. Ray Hicks talked about the appearance of a dove...the Holy Ghost Dove. When it appeared, it was only three days before the person would die. I never heard him talk about a buzzard. He did comment that his mother and her sisters had seen the Holy Ghost Dove. It was like a streak of light.

OK, the interesting part of the buzzard came to me from my grandmother who was born near Edgefield, SC about 1885. Then, my mother was born in 1915. They used to refer to belled buzzards all the time when they thought someone was not smart or if one of the children did something stupid. My grandmother would say, "You're acting like you don't have sense enough to bell a buzzard." Or, she said, "He doesn't have sense enough to belle a buzzard."

However, as I grew up, I realized that it would take a smart person to bell a buzzard. Imagine trying to catch it before belling it. Now I'm thinking what devout Presbyterians they were. I am sure that in the early 1900s preachers were preaching against holding to superstitions. I'm wondering if that was their way of proving to themselves and others that they were moving away from the superstitions.

I collect superstitions. Most people who have heard them all their lives might comment how funny they think the superstition(s) is; however, they rarely break a superstition if they don't have to. One of my friends told me how she did not believe that any harm would come to her if she did not leave by the same door she entered; however, she still avoided leaving by a different door, especially when visiting her mother.
Well, I have never heard of Ray Hick's "white dove" that comes three days before a death, but I have certainly heard of "the belled buzzard." In fact, there is an old fiddle tune called "The Belled Buzzard" in which the fiddler plucked a string to imitate the ringing of the bell throughout the tune. I even ran into accounts of the belled buzzard down in Georgia where there was one that roosted on the courthouse steeple during murder trials. There is a wonderful old tale about a man who drowned his wife in the river and claimed that she ran away with a peddler. However, the belled buzzard showed up and began following the man everywhere. It also roosted in a tree above the place where the man had drowned his wife. Finally, the man went to the river and shot the belled buzzard ... which fell into the river. When he returned home, he heard the bell ringing and rushed from the house. The ringing bell followed him because his dog had jumped into the river and retrieved the bell and was bringing it to his master. Meanwhile, the man had confessed to everyone who would listen. Only then did the dog appear with the bell and a little leather loop that had hung around the buzzard's neck.

There are belled buzzard stories in Arkansas and Alabama, too.

Speaking of heavenly doves, Lynn, have you or anyone heard of "feather crowns"???
Feather crowns are, in part, the subject of Bobbie Ann mason's 1993 novel, Feather Crowns. It's a good one. /R
Did we not run into a lady in Alarka who talked about feather crowns? I b'lieve that's where I heard it first. And also from you, Gary. Yes, there have been old folks around here (Pickens Co. SC) who referred to finding the crown inside the pillow tick from the dead person's bed.
Now, it was not the belled buzzard that brought us the bad news, around here. It was the screech owl. If it lit on a tree and hollered, close to the house, that was a warning. But Lordy, if it hollered on the comb of the roof, or on the chimney, well, make sure the will was signed!
I've only heard of the "feather crowns" in the Singer story. However, Ray Hicks believed in the "Holy Ghost Dove" and the bright streak of light that marked its appearance. Sometimes he said that it would "hit against a pane of glass." He never saw it. He believed because his mother Rena told him that she saw it.

In one sense, it is a pity that few of the old superstitions are left for us to write about and discuss. They are part of the mythology, tradition, and heritage of people of a certain time and place. However, I found that I would have to get to know people really well for them to open up and admit their family's kept to the superstitions. Therefore, if there are any writers out there who have the opportunities to learn about old superstitions, I hope they are taking notes.

Miss Nettie Murrill of Morehead City used to say if the rooster crowed three times it meant someone was about to die. I cannot recall the entire story. I need to refer to my notes. However, it might be notable that people on the coast of North Carolina thought roosters marked death and people in the mountains referred to doves and buzzards. I wonder if that has something to do with heritage. Does anyone know about the particular superstitions of the British, Irish, Scotch-Irish, and Germans? By the late 1800s, these would all be mixed together.
Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Jewish writer who wrote so much from Jewish myth, wrote one of my favorite ghost stories of all time: "The Crown of Feathers."

You can read the story here:

The last sentence is: "Because if there is such a thing as truth, it is as intricate and hidden as a crown of feathers."

A dove as an omen of death is very common. Or was. The dove flies through an open window and alights on the bedpost--someone in the house will die. (Same with a crow alighting on the roof.) Two doves visited my great-grandmother and she lost two people in the house. So the story goes. I used that idea in one of the stories in my first book, though I set the story in Flat Rock. The dove represented death and the spirit of the comfortor, i.e. the Holy Spirit. And then there's Noah's dove, sent as a comforter of sorts.

I grew up hearing that a bird flying into your windshield meant death, too.

I've always loved the idea of birds as emissaries from another world. I've read some speculation from scholars of such things that the idea of angels evolved from the earlier concept of birds as messengers from heavenly realms. That, in other words, is why angels have wings.
The first time I heard of a feather crown or heavenly crown was in a folklore book by Vance Randolph. Since I have learned that if a myth or superstition exists in Arkansas or Alabama, it probably exists in western North Carolina, I put a few ads in local papers asking for information on feather crowns and got a half-dozen responses. The best one was down in Bryson City and this probably the one that Dot is talking about. The lady was reluctant to show it to me since she has had some bad experiences with curious folk, but she finally got it out. She had kept it for 70 years in a big plastic box. I was not expecting it to look the way it did. It looked very much like one of those Jewish skull caps, but consisted of colored feathers. Brown, blue and white. It was beautiful and the colors blended in such a way it didn't seem possible that it was not painstakingly created. It belonged to her sister who had died 70 years ago of T.B. She said that her mother came home from the funeral and opened the pillow on her sister's death bed and there it was. Of course, I have had it explained to be now. The feathers had woven themselves together as a result of the dying person's restless head movements on the pillow. Yeah, well maybe. I saw a dozen more after that and recently received a photo of one from a guy who said it had been in his family for almost a century.
Gary Carden
The story you describe sounds very similar to "Crown of Feathers" as I remember it, Gary. An interesting phenomenon, for sure.
I just read "The Crown of Feathers" by Singer. I didn't know this story. What fascinates me is the fact that it hints at at the same idea that I found in an old book of African folklore that also describes crowns of feathers that may be found in pillows, but treats them as evil omens. There is a note that states that Afro-Americans in Ohio had a superstition about the crown of feathers that advised the families to take the pillows from beneath the heads of people who were seriously ill, rip the pillow apart and remove the crown of feathers. the sick person could survive if the crowns were destroyed. However, you could not shred them by hand. They had to be placed on a chopping block and beaten with a piece of frayed rope until they were destroyed. Now, that is fascinating! From Jewish folklore to Afro-Ameraican to Appalachian, and from a heavenly proof of heaven to a demonic threat. Well, things are getting interesting!
Gary Carden
The subject is deep and wide, deep and wide!
Back to belled buzzards. I once read a newspaper story about two boys finding a buzzard trapped in an old tree stump. The buzzard had gone in to get a dead rabbit and then became trapped. The boys put the buzzard in a sack and took it home. They soon discovered that it wasn't a "fun" pet, so they put a little sheep bell around its neck (they had heard about the belled buzzard) and turned it loose. As luck would have it, the buzzard took up residence in a grove of trees next to the nursing home. Within a matter of days, the residents of the nursing home became anxious and/or hysterical. All night long, they heard,ding, ding, ding. The buzzard finally left, flying west towards Arkansas and maybe Texas.
Ding, ding. Ding, ding.
I think reality is incredibly supernatural; and that folklore suggests that, and that folklore interpretations sometimes jump too quickly to the face values of supernatural happenings. I'm a fan of all of you all who are writing here--plus of Rick Russell, who has updated his profile, but not yet commented here.

The belled buzzard, dove, and owl phenomena have to do with a time when birds were a much bigger part of people's lives. I have some history stories about birds in people's lives that I may enter as discussion prompts. Birds' activities evoked, intensified, and corresponded to things going on people's worlds and--I believe--created a butterfly effect. A change in mood effects a change in behavior which affects mood which affects behavior.

The bell part of the buzzard tale puzzles me, still. What accounts for the sensation of the bell?

Regarding the rest, I submit the following verse, from the widow's lament, "The Lonesome Dove":

One day while in a lonesome grove
Sat o'er my head a little dove;
For her lost mate began to coo.
It made me think of my love, too...

Consumption seized my love so dear...

But death, grim death, did not stop here.
I had one child, to me most dear.
Death like a vulture, came again
And took from me my little Jane....


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