Southern Art

A few years ago a mansion stood on Lake Murray over here. Some 20,000 square feet, it featured a Roman bath and several corridors away a dining room overlooked by a 1600’s platform from which the Pope once blessed the masses.

Beyond the platform, suspended from a 60-foot ceiling, hung a huge frame of stained glass from England. Someone, somehow, had spirited it out of the country. It was said to be on England’s Register of Historic Artifacts. But there it was, hanging just so, in front of a huge southern-facing window catching light as it had in ancient days, light that now falls on empty 21st Century space. Brantley Manor, you see, is no more, a grandiose white elephant razed to make way for condos. And its stained glass? Sold I suppose, and hanging in an opulent home not to be disclosed. Stained glass all right …

Think churches, think palatial states, and you see stained glass windows. Poor folks, however, are not to be denied their version of stained glass: a row of indigo, amber, green, and red bottles, shoulder to shoulder, on a windowsill. Filtering light, they shoot rainbows into dim, little homes, brightening the day, brightening lives. And why not. Rather than being jettisoned with the trash, windowsill bottles fill with light and serve another purpose: folk art, though some will disagree.

Bottle Tree In Jackson Mississippi. Courtesy of Felder Rushing

Like beauty, art lies in the eye of the beholder. I see yard art everywhere come spring: banners, flags, fountains, gazing balls, and statues. And yes I’ve seen buried half tires painted white, tree trunks painted white, pink flamingoes, and emerald topiaries that evoke memories of Disneyland. But in a neighbor’s yard stands a piece of yard art I’ve never seen. And then, I discover, it belongs to the old South. No, it is, in fact, the Old South.

My neighbor stuck a dozen blue bottles upside down on pegs at a 45-degree tilt in a wooden post. The contraption just makes me stare. It’s chaotic but hangs together. Then I learned it has a simple name: bottle tree. And a simple purpose: trapping evil spirits.

Generally bottle tree bottles are deep blue, and they combat scary things … plateyes (shapeshifters), haints, and furies that would make you sick if nothing else. Yes, strange things, these plateyes and furies that would play havoc with your well-being.

No matter how long you live in the South, I’ve learned, some of its rich heritage manages to escape you. According to folklore, these colorful contraptions are spirit catchers with roots that go back to Africa. Once man discovered how to make glass, it didn’t take long to make bottles, and soon tales began to circulate that spirits liked to go inside bottles.

This belief may have arisen when people heard the wind cooing and moaning as it blew past bottle openings. Having problems around your home? Put up a bottle tree. A beautiful bottle will lure a roaming spirit of the night inside, and come morning, light will destroy it. Blue bottles, for sure will cure your evil spirits problem … if you believe.

Do you? I found a fascinating source of information researching bottle trees. I came across one Felder Rushing, a fellow down Mississippi way who travels the South and elsewhere photographing bottle trees. Check out his website, www.felderrushing.net … you’ll be glad you did.

The day I found Felder’s site, I sent him an email asking permission to use the photo running with this column. I didn’t hear from him for a few days. “Shoot,” I thought, “he’s probably off traveling.”

And that he was. Several days later he emailed me. He had been in Columbia the very day I found his website speaking to a garden club right here in my back yard. I’ve never met Felder but I like him. He’s an unsung hero who documents and preserves overlooked aspects of our great Southern gardening ways. He has this to say about himself.

“I am a Southern gardener with way too much book learning and travel experiences to suit my laid-back style, so when I am in my little cottage home in Mississippi with my brown dog named Rusty, or gardening part of the year with my friends on a cottage farm in rural Shropshire (western midlands of England), I work hard at relaxing and having as much fun as possible, with as little effort as practical.”

Consider Felder Rushing your bottle tree expert. From him I learned that bottle trees have their roots in Congo culture. The practice was brought over by slaves who hung blue bottles from trees and huts as talismans to ward off evil spirits. The bottle’s sun-struck colors mesmerize the spirits who just can’t resist entering the bottle. Once inside, they can’t find their way out. Like those infamous roach motels, they check in but never check out.

Bottle trees are Southern as can be. Another Mississippian was enamored of bottle trees as well. You know her. Consider this excerpt from Eudora Welty’s story, “Livvie.”

“Out front was a clean dirt yard with every vestige of grass patiently uprooted and the ground scarred in deep whorls from the strike of Livvie’s broom. Rose bushes with tiny blood-red roses blooming every month grew in threes on either side of the steps. On one side was a peach tree, on the other a pomegranate.

Then coming around up the path from the deep cut of the Natchez Trace below was a line of bare crape-myrtle trees with every branch of them ending in a colored bottle, green or blue.

There was no word that fell from Solomon’s lips to say what they were for, but Livvie knew that there could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house—by luring them inside the colored bottles, where they cannot get out again.

Solomon had made the bottle trees with his own hands over the nine years, in labor amounting to about a tree a year, and without a sign that he had any uneasiness in his heart, for he took as much pride in his precautions against spirits coming in the house as he took in the house, and sometimes in the sun the bottle trees looked prettier than the house did.”

Pretty indeed I am sure. After looking at many of Felder’s and others’ photographs the vast majority of bottle trees consist of bottles very much like wine bottles. That means, of course, that these bottles are more accustomed to holding wines, not spirits as adult beverage classes go. I did, however, see a fellow a bit rough around the edges turning up an amber bottle filled with spirits of another kind, but that’s a story for another day.

Maybe you have a Solomon nearby whose bottle trees snare plateyes and furies. Or maybe your neighbor puts up a bottle tree to add whimsy to her yard. Oh, I’m sure some view bottle trees as tacky, but it beats tossing them into the garbage with the ultimate destination being a landfill.

Do you like the idea of a bottle tree in your yard? If you do, go for it. Go green and flash a bit of blue in your yard. If you do, you’ll help preserve a Southern tradition that’s fading away. Fading perhaps because more and more bottles are plastic and people love to turn their back on the old ways. Being progressive is just so “with it” isn’t it.

As to whether bottles capture evil spirits, well, the answer is blowing in the wind. The bottles sigh and moan and maybe trap an evil spirit or two and all we can do is wonder if this old Southern belief is true. Maybe, just maybe, though, Brantley Manor would have been better off after all with a blue bottle tree by its massive front doors and letting England keep her historic stained glass.


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Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at www.tompoland.net Email me at [email protected]