I used to think my great grandmother was a witch. I never knew her, but my great granddad used to tell me stories. With just the contents of her tiny garden and the woods up the hill nearby, my great grandmother, he said, could cure the sick, mend a twisted ankle, feed a family of six and survive the deaths of two infant sons, and serve as the emotional anchor of a vast extended family and neighborhood on the outskirts of a coal mining and steel town in western Pennsylvania.
One day their oldest son, my great uncle Elmer, got poison ivy, and she made it disappear under a poultice of nettles, sorghum, and baking soda. Another time my mother came down with a 102 fever, and she soothed it away with lavender tea and lullabies. This same woman could take one of her own chickens from backyard to frying pan literally with the flick of her wrist; and she could silence a bunch of rambunctious children with a single stern glance.
Even if she wasn’t a witch, she had some kind of magic, and it’s the kind you want on your side in hard times – say, during a Great Depression, or a World War, or Idunno, a zombie apocalypse.
Or when climate change threatens to extinct us all.
Armed with her pantry and a deep ancestral knowledge of her land and the cycles of the seasons, Anna Burkhardt Ribblett used her magic to do the right and loving thing, not the easy thing, and to nourish and strengthen her people and Mother Earth herself - even during times when it may have felt to her like it was falling apart.
Hers was the magic of the kitchen table and the Farmer’s Almanac. The kind of magic that knows a tea of fennel seed, bee balm, and birch syrup staves off a cold and eases an upset stomach. The kind of magic that yields abundant crops by planting seeds at the new moon. The kind of magic that happens when we simply follow the natural rhythms of life.
In fact, planting, harvesting, and working with the local flora is quite practical, and much of its apparent magic has been verified by Science. Dandelion greens are high in vitamins A, C, and K as well as magnesium, potassium, zinc, iron, calcium, and choline and the roots are a natural diuretic. Bee balm, as the name suggests, has antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties. Penn State Hershey Medical Center reports research finding that lemon balm has antimicrobial activity high enough to treat staph infections; one study even suggests it may be useful in treating Alzheimer’s disease. The Journal of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society published a study of betulinic acid – made from birch bark – finding that it inhibits the growth of prostate cancer cells without any effect on the surrounding healthy cells.
The ability to create healing teas, tinctures, and salves from nature only seems magical to us because we’ve come to overvalue the wisdom of western medicine and forgotten how much we depend on nature for our survival.
In ancient traditions across Europe, in the spring tribes would take their cattle from the barns where they wintered, march them ceremonially before a huge signal fire while praying for their blessing and protection, and put them out to pasture. Some folks would then cull birch trees for making canoes, baskets, and medicines. Meanwhile, householders would be sweeping out the hearth and shaking out all the textiles, clearing the living spaces of all the soot and dust that had collected through the winter. The Celts called these and related traditions Beltane; we just called it Spring Cleaning.
Because after the heathen – those are the people of the heath in ancient Celtic lands, so named as an epithet used by the people of the towns to set themselves apart… – after the heathen, came the hillbilly.
When I was a kid, decades after Anna was gone, Spring Cleaning was still a pretty big deal. Curtains came down for cleaning and pressing. Ovens were scrubbed. Items everywhere, from attic to basement, were considered, deemed still useful or not, and either spruced up and kept, repurposed, donated, or thrown out. My cousins and I would go out with my grandfather and pick piles of dandelions and watercress for salad and wine that only he could drink.
Traditions like these – whether they come from immediate family, Appalachia, the ancient Celts, or any of the multitude of mythologies and practices around the world – are not merely a way to take care of the business of living, or even to reaffirm a cultural or family identity.
They are a way to acknowledge that we are not alone. When we allow space for other-ness, then we cannot but release, recycle, and reuse the stuff of life that is choking out growth and make room for all that needs to be seen and heard. This applies not just to stuff but to all that attaches itself to us and at which we grasp. Habits. People. Places. Ideologies, beliefs. Thoughts. Not to trade them out, like swapping the perfectly good shoes or phone we’re just bored with for the shiny new ones that have captivated us for a moment. But a deliberate consideration: Does it help me? Will it make me a stronger, kinder person? Does it serve those I care for?
Was my great grandmother a witch? Insofar as she repeatedly made something out of apparently nothing… in her masterful way with herbs and tinctures and in how she couldn’t be bothered with most modern conveniences – sure. Chances are you have an Anna Burkhardt, who may or may not have been a witch, somewhere in your family history. And we need their magic – their awakeness to the earth and their fierce love – now more than ever.