Broadcast May 12, 2022
Featuring: Doug Elliott and Debbie Lienhart
Doug Elliott is a naturalist, herbalist, storyteller, basket maker, back-country guide, philosopher, and harmonica wizard. For many years made his living as a traveling herbalist, gathering and selling herbs, teas, and remedies. Doug currently lives in Rutherford County, near Earthaven Ecovillage.
Doug shares his early mentor experience while growing up in an estuary of the Chesapeake Bay. Later he moved to North Carolina as part of the back-to-the-land movement, learning from old timers. Along the way, he shares how shoestrings made from groundhog led to him meeting his wife and how important it is to help older people be who they are.
The best way to understand the creator is to study creation. And that’s kind of been my mission in life, is just looking for points of contact with nature. Is it catching a frog? Is it picking an apple? Is it picking wild Juneberries? Points of contact.
Hello, everyone. I’m Debbie Lienhart, and welcome to the Earthaven Ecovillage podcast. And today I am so excited to be here with one of our neighbors, Doug Elliott.
We’re a similar age and going from “we used to have mentors” to now “are we mentors” and what does that mean? So, we thought we might talk about that today. Would you like to tell us about one of your early mentors?
I guess there’s an early mentor. I was actually raised in Maryland, raised in an estuary of the Chesapeake Bay. I can remember there was some wilder, rougher kids that lived around in the area. And I can remember them showing me. I remember going out with my crab net, trying to catch crabs, and I can remember taking a dip with the crab net, dipping it forward and getting it stuck in the mud. And this guy is a little bit older than me. He said, just turn around and pull it towards you. And I learned that’s the way to work a dip net.
I think in some ways I of learned at an early age that some of those people that are more closely connected to the Earth have a little more experience, and I could learn a lot from them. Since that time, I’ve always been a nature kid. I’ve always been interested in the natural world. And I’ve always found that people that have a deeper connection with nature can often teach me a lot.
As I moved down to the Southern Appalachians, I found myself really interested in talking to old timers. At the time, I’ve been pretty interested in herbs and medicinal plants. I can remember just talking to the old timers about that. So many people have so many insights and experiences that it’s always been great. I ended up in Yancey County, ended up kind of actually living right next door to an old fellow, my old friend Theron Edwards. He was raised right there in the holler and he knew a lot of medicinal plants. He would make medicines and things like that. I remember going off with him and we’d hike around in the woods and stuff.
Eventually I was traveling with kind of an herb mobile, I guess you’d call it. And I go to old time music festivals and the traditional music festivals. I’d set up a booth with old time remedies, herbs, teas, and old time remedies. And what was nice about that is that any time anybody had anything to say about herbs or wild plants, they’d come and talk to me. In some ways, that was my classical education. And so somebody who knew 100 banjo tunes, they also were probably country enough to know about a number of different kinds of herbs and plants. I met a lot of different people that way.
Theron would say, well, you come around here a lot, and why don’t you just move into that old cabin of mine? He had an improved cabin and he had an old cabin. So I stayed with him for a while. I stayed there and eventually ended up buying land there and built a little house there. And although I don’t live there now… we moved down to Rutherford County just because the situation has got even better down here.
What was really fun about going around with Theron is that I had names for plants, and he had names for plants, and we had different names for the same plant. I’d ask him, what do you call that? I call that rattleweed, he said, what do you call it? I said, well, the books call it black cohosh. Oh, yeah, I heard of that. And next thing we talk about it. And so we had a lot of adventures like that, just gathering wild foods, gathering apples up in the mountains, and showing me about different kinds of plants and birds.
What I was impressed with him is he had a deep knowledge of so much more than just herbs and wild plants. I remember one time we were up on the mountainside gathering some wild catnip that grew up there and I hear a yellow breasted chat. Now, the yellow breasted chat has this whole variation of calls, buzzes and twitters, and it’s the largest warbler, and it kind of whistles and sings and does the different collections. I said, Theron what kind of bird is that? And he said, that’s a Mockingbird. And I was kind of disappointed because I thought, well, he didn’t know his birds. But I, of course, would never argue with a traditional person like that. I said, what does he look like? He said, oh, he’s a little… got a big yellow breast and kind of greenish on the top. And there’s a Texas Mockingbird. That’s the one that’s gray with the white on the wings. You find them down around town. And he knew exactly what that bird looked like. He had a different name for it. But to me, that deep knowledge was what really intrigued me. And he called wood thrushes chitterling. That’s kind of what they sing like “chitterling,” and then catbirds were called corn planters. When he showed up, it’s time to plant your corn. And he did different things by the signs and had lots of different things.
The whole topic of eldering, elders and eldering, has really been up in the primitive skills movement, and at Earthaven too. What makes someone an elder?
Well, I guess you have to define that for yourself. I remember one time being called by another old friend of mine up in Yancy County when I moved down to Rutherford County, an old man I used to go out and hunt ramps with, and we’d do a few different things, and he’d call me every now and then. “You ought to come up here and help me do something.” Well, I live two hours away, so it was a big deal to come up there, so I didn’t go up there very often. But one time he says, I got some… my bees are building up. I need some help with them bees. So, I went up there with a friend of mine. And he was really very tottery, but he wanted to go get the honey off his bees. I remember my buddy and I got on each side of him and taking him up the hill to his beehives, and then literally almost carrying him, just helping him. And he kind of stood there and just talked to us about it all and supervised, and we took the honey off his hives and took him back down the hill, took him to his house, and we cut the honey out of the combs and did all that.
I realized that I wasn’t really there as a neighbor, like to help him go to the doctor or whatever like that. But what I was there for was to help him be who he was. He was an old mountain farmer beekeeper, and that’s what he did. And I realized then, right then, even with my own family, that’s the best thing you can do for an older person is to help them be who they are. And I realize that my mother liked art, so I could take her to an art gallery and just help her be who she was. And I realized, I’ve got the beginning of Parkinson’s disease, so I’m not as able as I used to be. And when people helped me come to these gatherings, things like that, I realized they’re doing just that for me. They’re helping me be who I am. That’s an incredible gift that you can give to an older person.
Well, and letting someone do that for you is an incredible gift you can give to them, too. Well, I guess that’s a nice way to look at it. I hope so. Part of the making life wonderful game. We try, don’t we?
Sometimes people ask me how I ended up in the Carolinas and why I ended up being here. I often say it’s for the biodiversity and the cultural integrity. So biodiversity, like where we’re sitting right now, we’re about 40 miles from cottonfields like you’d see in Mississippi. We’re also 40 miles from spruce fir forest, like you’d see in Maine and Canada. And so, talk about diversity. We’ve got a whole lot going on here as the altitude changes and the cultural integrity. Just like I was talking about with the old timers, the area has been less touched by civilization in many areas. And so, there’s more of a cultural appreciation for the environment and a cultural connection to the environment.
And that’s what I live off of, exploring that human connection to nature, since we’re all part of this miracle of creation, to realize that sometimes… I say that the best way to understand the creator is to study creation. And that’s kind of been my mission in life. It’s just learning more ways that I can connect with. Looking for points of contact with nature. Is it catching a frog? Is it picking an apple? Is it picking wild Juneberries? Is it chasing a snake, sneaking up on a deer? Points of contact.
One of the funny things the old timers sitting around the store, they often hang around the old country store. They hang around. One day they’re saying… there was sort of like this whole movement in the late 60s, early 70s, this back-to-the-land movement, where after the Vietnam War, a lot of us said something is not right with the way the society is going. Let’s see if we can be a little more connected to this miracle creation that we’re all a part of. And so a lot of people move back and to seek out the wisdom of the old timers and people who learn how to live there. The old timer’s sitting on the bench saying, “yeah, saw ol’ Zeke, he’s out there plowing with his mule. Yes. Had his hippie with him.” I think I know who they’re talking about.
Now it seems like you’ve turned a lot of this wisdom and touching of nature into stories. Well, there you go. More points of contact. You can go out there, take pictures. You can go out there and gather things, also go out there and collect stories. A lot of my stories end up being basically an incident, an encounter, a problem or a question. I go out and I see something and then explore it, and the narrative becomes what I learned about this thing from talking to different people.
Here’s a story. We can maybe talk about one time I was up in my little cabin up there in Sang Branch up here in Yancey County, and I always loved talking to my neighbors. They’re mostly traditional folks, and they often had lots to say about life. And one day I look over and I see my neighbor Lije, an old mountain man with gray hair and bib overalls, coming up the trail to my cabin. The cabin was perched up on the edge of the hill. So he had to come around the back to get into the cabin. It looked like he was carrying something, but my lawn was about waist high and I couldn’t tell what he was carrying. And I come over there. “Lije, what brings you here?” I often was down there talking to him. I was surprised to see him come to my house.
“Doug, I brung you something. Something you’ve been wanting.” And he flops the dead groundhog on my doormat. I’ve been wanting a groundhog?
“Well, thank you Lije, I appreciate that.”
“Well, Doug, you said you was wantin’ one of these things.” And I remembered that I’ve been up to his house talking a few weeks before, asking about the old days and how they got along. He said, “well, time is tough around here sometimes Doug. We didn’t have a whole lot to eat. Sometimes we just have cornbread, some greens. That would be about what we’d have, a glass of water. Now and then somebody shoot him a groundhog buddy. And everybody come around to get some. Oh, yeah.”
His wife, she’s saying, “that’s right, Doug, them groundhogs, they good.”
I said, “well, I’d like to try that sometimes.” I thought I’d get invited to dinner. It looks like dinner just come to me. Now, I’ve cleaned and skinned and cleaned animals before, prepared while game. But of course, you never learn anything by telling what you know. You never learn near as much as you do by just asking questions. “Lije, anything I need to know about how to prepare this thing?”
“Well, Doug ya skin ’em clean like anything else.” He says “now up one of them front legs these little scent kernels, buddy. And you cut them out of there and under them armpits cut them out of there. And it’ll keep them from tasting so gamey. I mean, you thought you had gamey pits. Let me tell you, a groundhog’s got you beat.”
“Well, thank you, Lije. I’ll do that.” And I was looking for a place to hang it up.
“Doug, you’d be sure you save the grease.”
“Save the grease?”
“Yeah, buddy, that’s a fat groundhog. He’s been in my corn patch the whole summer, buddy, he’s corn fed. He’ll be fat.”
“Okay Lige. What would I do with the grease?”
“Son, there’s 1001 things you can do with groundhog grease.”
I said, “like what?”
He said, “make medicine out of it.”
He said, “yeah.” He said, “I’ve cooked many a spoonful. I’ve been coming up and it’ll help you,” he said. “Doug, be sure you save the hide.”
“Save the hide?” Groundhog doesn’t really have a lush fur because they hibernate all winter. They don’t really need a big… Not like a mink or a raccoon or something like that. And I said, “Lije, what I do with the groundhog hide?”
“Lord, there’s 1001 things you can do with groundhog hide, Doug.”
He said, “take it and you tan it and you make shoestrings out of it.”
I said, “shoestrings?”
He said, “yeah.” He said, “in the old days, we couldn’t go to town and just buy what stuff we wanted. We had to make what stuff we had. We need good shoe strings, buddy. We get ’em a groundhog hide. We tan it.”
“How do you tan it, Lije?”
“Well, you take it and get your dish pan with some ashes and some water. And soak it in there and the hair will slip. And then you work it over the back of a chair from the time it’s wet ’till the time it’s dry, buddy, and you have you a tanned groundhog hide. You cut your shoestrings out of that.”
“Okay. Now, what about the grease, Lige?” I said, “how do I deal with that?”
He said, “you render it out like you would lard.”
I said, “how do you render out lard?”
He said, “son, how can I tell you anything if you don’t know nothing to start with?”
“So, like bacon grease?”
“Yeah. Put it in frying pan. Just put on a low heat and it’ll render out.” So, I did that and I skinned that hide. And I actually made some groundhog hide shoelaces.
Actually, I was at the 10th anniversary of the National Storytelling Festival 30 some years ago, and I was telling a little bit of this story, and I said, by the way, I’m wearing my groundhog hide shoelaces. If anybody wants to come and see me, see the shoelaces they can come up after the program.
After the program, this dark-haired woman with sparkly eyes and long, dark hair came up and said, “let me see those shoestrings.” She looked at the shoestrings and she disappeared in the crowd. Later on, I went to visit some friends who were camping near there and she was there with them. And actually, she’s not a dark-haired woman anymore. She’s got what I call a possum blonde. And we’ve been together for 30-some years, and our son is almost 30 years old. So that’s kind of a sweet story.
And anyhow, I cooked that groundhog up and it was delicious. And I realized, I thought about who there’s this animal. If you have ever had one in your garden, you know what a pest they are. They’ll go down the row, they’ll eat up everything in your garden, they completely destroy your garden. And they’re considered to be a real pest. But in the traditional context, it’s not only food, but also medicine, also clothing, or at least shoestrings. And also they use groundhog hide for a banjo head. You make music with a groundhog — music, medicine, food, clothing, and there’s even songs “shoulder up your gun and whistle up your dog, shoulder up your gun and whistle up your dog, we’re going to hunt for the old groundhog.”
So anyhow that’s out of the beginning of kind of a journey of investigation. And when I get into groundhogs and I’ll probably be talking about it some more groundhogs. There’s Groundhog Day that marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. And there’s groundhogs and dogs. It goes on and on.
We’re here in the Southern Appalachians, and we always hear about, Punxsatawney Phil, but is there a local equivalent? Like, is groundhogs related to Groundhog Day? Traditionally?
I think it’s more of a German custom leftover from the time of the totem animals, of hibernating animals seen as a metaphor for the human spiritual journey, that the groundhog goes into the ground in the fall of the year. And it’s like he’s buried, he doesn’t come up till spring when the times ready to be reborn. Now we’re all followed by our shadow. We all have our dark side. When they put us in the ground, that shadow, that symbol of the soul, is set free. When the hibernating animal goes in the ground, the soul of the animal is set free, and then it sleeps the sleep of death. And when it comes out in the spring, if some of the old soul, that old shadow is still there, the process isn’t complete. So, we say if Mr. Groundhog saw his shadow, we get six more weeks of winter. And that’s where that all came from, from ancient bear and badger cults.
That was an amazing thing to learn about that. Yeah.
Looks like on your calendar you have a busy summer. I get to come to Earthaven at the end of May (2022). Then I got invited to go out to Utah to the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival, which is one of the biggest ones in the country. I’m hoping I can get that together. So, thank goodness I can still mouth off. I got a little bit of Parkinson’s disease so a lot of my skills are… I realize that being able bodied is a temporary condition no matter who you are. And all we can do is enjoy it as long as we have it.
I have about ten recordings out there. A lot of them are on Band Camp. Some of them you can get from CDs. And I have a bunch of books out, about five books, if you call them all books. Some of them are hardcover, some of them are soft cover. And I guess my website, dougelliott.com two t’s in Elliott.
Mary Oliver has a great quote which I think sort of embodies a whole lot of instructions for living a life. “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”
That just says it all, doesn’t it.
Thank you for listening. Please visit our website at earthaven.org and sign up for our newsletter. This podcast is produced by Earthaven Ecovillage School of Integrated Living in Western North Carolina. Have a great day.