When you live in the southern Appalachian mountains, you don’t buy mistletoe in a store. You go out in the woods and blast it out of the treetops with a shotgun.
“Seriously?!” I asked Tom when he told me.
“Yes,” he said, seriously. “It’s called harvesting.”
Mistletoe is a lazy and opportunistic plant. It’s capable of creating its own food through photosynthesis, but it much prefers to wriggle its roots down into the bark of a host tree and freeload nutrients, often harming or killing the tree in the process.
Once I learned this, I didn’t feel so badly to hear that it sometimes gets shot out of the sky.
Mistletoe is most often found in the top branches of apple and oak trees. And while it tends to be more common in the Piedmont and low-country of the Carolinas,
Tom says he sees it from time to time up in the mountains.
“Oh, please take me with you to find some!” I begged him.
This is exactly the kind of Appalachian adventure I am always looking to capture in photographs. Tom wanted an excuse for kissing and so the hunt for mistletoe was on.
By now I have lived here long enough to know that life in Appalachia can be a tease – any time you assume you are in control of your own adventures, you may quickly find out how very wrong you can be.
You may discover, for example, that the search for a seemingly innocent plant leads you down a trail that instead reveals a romantic encounter from your boyfriend’s past. (This should hardly come as a surprise, though, considering Celtic Druids thought mistletoe represented the oak tree’s heart or soul and Greeks considered it a symbol of sexuality and fertility.) But to get back to the story –
Tom began looking for mistletoe each day as he drove around for work. On the weekends, he scanned the trees in the mountains surrounding his parents’ farm.
Nothing. No luck. The upper branches held nothing but the occasional squirrel’s nest.
So the Sunday before Christmas, I decided to drive out through the countryside myself.
Rural areas surround Asheville and it takes only a few moments to find yourself in a completely different world.
A world where you still see mailboxes piled up alongside the road, like baby birds waiting to be fed.
A world where you might have to be a little careful if you are an outsider who happens to wander onto someone’s property….
Just as I was rounding a curve, a bundle of green hanging on a nearly porch caught my eye. Was that a bunch of mistletoe, I wondered?
I pulled the car over and got out to take a closer look.
(Upon closer inspection, as you can see, it turned out to be a fuchsia plant.)
But it was a pretty scene and I had already taken a quick photograph when I heard the front door open and a gruff voice say, “Can I help you, ma’am?”
The man attached to the voice was perhaps in his early 70s. His piercing grey eyes looked at me from underneath his cap, sizing me up.
Trying to think fast, I introduced myself, then asked if he knew where I might be able to find any mistletoe.
“Charlie might have some up the road,” he said at last. His house was near the mailboxes and the intersection of several rural roads. I had no idea where he was suggesting I go, much less who Charlie was.
“Up Bear Creek Road,” he added helpfully.
I was still in the dark, but somehow we got to talking. We talked about life. We talked about raising kids. He told me about his grown son and daughter. I told him I lived in the old Giezentanner house, hoping it would help him to see me as someone interested in local people and history. In turn, I heard stories from the old days in Asheville (stories about his life that I can’t even repeat here.) After an hour or so, I got up to leave.
“About that mistletoe,” he said, remembering. “Take a left up Bear Creek and look for the end of the fence. See if there’s any up around there.”
I found Bear Creek Road and I found many fences. I didn’t, however, find any mistletoe.
That night, I told Tom about my adventures “out in the counties,” as they sometimes say around here,
miles and miles away from home. And I mentioned the name of the gentleman whose stories I had listened to for an hour.
Tom looked at me.
“Old brick house on the right?” he asked after a moment.
“Yes!” I said, incredulously. “How did you know?”
He laughed, then told me, “I used to date his daughter!”
“Many years ago,” he added, thoughtfully.
I tried to calculate the odds of Tom knowing the one person I had randomly encountered that day, let alone having dated that person’s daughter.
One out of the 16,000 possible residents I could have run into.
A man living in the only house I stopped at in the 66.8 square miles area once known as Turkey Creek (that is, until a frontiersman by the name of Leicester Chapman renamed it in 1859 for the Earl of Leicester, for whom he himself was named.)
I decided to give up on the math, the search for mistletoe, and the opportunity to see Tom “harvest” it.
Who needs a excuse to kiss, anyway?
The day after Christmas, we decided to work off our holiday excesses
by hiking ten miles through a national forest with a group of friends.
About an hour into our climb, Tom turned around and said to me,
And there, high up in the trees, was a lovely lacing of green leaves.
These Appalachian mountains have a lot of personality and sometimes it seems as if they are messing with us just for the sheer fun of it.
We couldn’t find mistletoe in time for Christmas, but its location was revealed – on mountain time – the day after.
I could almost hear the mountains laughing at us….