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A Georgia man was arrested about two weeks ago for shooting mistletoe out of trees. Before you start drawing conclusions, this was not just some crazy Southerner who decided he was going to remove obligate hemi-parasitic plants from his trees with the only tool he had at his disposal – a double barrel shotgun. The man was following an old Southern tradition of shooting mistletoe out of trees for Christmas decoration and the only reason he was arrested was because he was doing it behind a mall parking lot.
When I was a teen, my cousin and I would go out into the deep woods north of Atlanta before Christmas and gather mistletoe in exactly the same way our hopefully now out-on-bond friend did. We would sell most our bounty to Christmas tree lots and make a tidy sum that we used to buy presents and more shotgun shells. It seemed like a no-lose endeavor: There was no season or limit on mistletoe, we didn’t need a hunting license, and we made a respectable wage from doing something we liked to do anyway – go out into nature and shoot things.
Two simultaneous events one year changed all that and I have not gone on a mistletoe hunt since. The first event was a result of my cousin’s morbid curiosity with gravity, physics and bird shot. The second involved our discovery of one of the most closely-held, tightly-guarded secrets one can find in the North Georgia woods.
The hunt was going well. The elusive mistletoe was plentiful, the weather was mild and overcast, and we had just filled up on a lunch of canned Vienna sausage and saltines. Out of nowhere, my cousin asked if I had any idea what would happen if he fired his shotgun straight up. Before I could open my mouth, that big Browning 12 gauge roared to life and a full load of shot was launched into the heavens.
A condition called tachypsychia alters one perception of time when faced with a fight-or flight situation. I suddenly got a bad case of tachypsychia. As I watched those pellets slowly rise into the clouds, I remember thinking to myself about the distinct possibility that those pellets, given the force of gravity, could very well return to their point of origin at about the same speed they left the barrel. I quickly internalized that hypothesis, rejected the concept of getting shot in the head with a shotgun, and yelled a single word to my cousin: “RUN!”
As we scattered into the trees, we heard the ominous sound of lead shot raining down on the spot where we had just stood. My cousin laughed at what had happened, but I secretly vowed to never hunt mistletoe with my relatives again.
Within 30 minutes of our little metallic rain shower, we encountered the only thing in the woods more terrifying than a bear – a moonshiner’s still. In itself, a still is nothing to fear. It just sits there in all its copper glory, waiting for someone to feed it fire and fermented corn mash so it can produce that elixir of the gods – White Lightning. The problem is, moonshine production is illegal and the owners are very protective of their capital investment.
The fact that a member of the distillation staff could be lurking nearby was not lost on us, and in a moment of true clarity, we turned our backs on what we had seen and ran with all speed back to the truck. Several dollars worth of Christmas decoration product was lost in the retreat, but we learned the lesson that day that all reward carries a risk and the mistletoe industry is no exception.