Category Archives: Bottle Tree

My Journey of Re-evaluation

It's really strange how things, good and bad, always seem to happen for a reason. I've also noticed time and time again that God, Fate, Gaia, the Cosmos, or sheer, dumb coincidence, depending on your belief system, tends to remind us some things need to be addressed or taken care of at different times in our life.

If you're reading this post, then there's a 99% chance you already know I'm a writer and have been writing to some degree since I was in junior high school. I don't profess to be a great writer or a gifted writer, just a writer.

But there are a lot of writers out there and there are various levels to being a writer, not only levels of talent but also levels of willingness. These include a willingness to write about things which make us uncomfortable, a willingness to try and write a short story (because those are hard),  or the willingness to devote enough AIC (Ass in Chair) time to finish writing a book and then the willingness to either seek a publisher or spend extra time and effort self-publishing, which comes with its own challenges and rewards.

In another post I'll discuss a trip I took to Natchitoches on June 6, and finding a patch of low bush huckleberries with my Uncle Mike in Kisatchie National Forest. For those of you who read my book, The Bottle Tree, you'll remember huckleberries played a part in the story.

Not long after, I was writing at my desk when my Jack Russell Terrier 'Sup began barking and having a fit on my desk, his usual resting place when my wife isn't home. I looked out the window to see a raccoon in the front yard, calmly eating something she was picking from the ground. While I live in a small East Texas town, I do live in the city limits and  this is the first raccoon I have ever seen in the area but she has apparently taken up residence here now. Again, raccoons and 'coon hunting play a part in The Bottle Tree.

Other things kept happening to remind me of my book, the first one I published although not the first one I'd written but those are enough examples for me to share and, as I said, sometimes things happen to get our attention for a reason.  

On June 17, 2015, 21 year old Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, sat through a church service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and then, after discussing Scriptures,  pulled a Glock .45 caliber semi-automatic pistol from a fanny pack and shot ten African American members of the congregation, nine of whom died. While shooting them he is reported to have shouted racial epithets and said, "Y'all want something to pray about? I'll give you something to pray about." He also reloaded his pistol five times. The victims ranged in age from 26 to 87.

The book description of The Bottle Tree on Amazon and other sites is:

Deep within the piney forests of central Louisiana, three children learn that life amid the turpentine and lumber camps they call home is not what defines who they are, or who they will become as adults. In the early 1900s, Louisiana’s forests were home to hard working men who made turpentine from the piney lumber by day, and then went home to the clapboard houses in company camps set up around the sawmills. If they were lucky, they had families waiting for them when they got there. The Bottle Tree is a gripping account of life in a turpentine camp for 3 resilient families and their children, who must face this harsh environment in order to survive. Leesie, Johnny, and Caleb endure many of the same hardships as their parents, but once their bond is forged, the trio takes a stand against one of the camp’s most common problems: the struggle with racism. While the segregated camp feeds adult insecurities, Leesie and Caleb befriend Johnny and begin teaching each other that racial divides are fabricated by ignorance and fear; 2 qualities each child refuses to possess. The Bottle Tree will make you laugh and cry and leave you entertained.

At its core The Bottle Tree is about racism and hate for no reason other than the color of a person's skin.

Many of you know that the Johnny Robinson in the story  was named after a friend of mine I went to school with in Provencal, Louisiana. Although he was the first black person I knew, I never really thought of his or his family's skin color. He was always just a nice kid that I wish I'd kept in touch with when I'd moved away. I still saw him when I'd come back to the school to visit, just as I'd see the other people I'd known, but anytime I saw racial issues pop up wherever I was my mind would always snap back to Johnny and how race had never really been an issue in that small, Louisiana school way out in the country.

As I mentioned in the prior post, I had always been "proud of my southern heritage" based on oral family traditions and was surprised to learn from my research that my family had actually owned slaves. Not only slaves but teenaged slaves.

Once I learned that, all the crap about Southern Heritage goes out the window. While my forefathers may have believed in state's rights, etc., the simple fact is that if they owned a slave, even one, at the time of the Civil War then the presumption must be that they were fighting to preserve the right to own that human being and, I'm sorry, say what you will but only an uneducated fool can call that something of which to be proud.

Not only that, but the simple fact is that many of the black (or African American, whichever term you prefer) families that live in the rural south are direct descendants of the slaves who were freed in that area.

For me, what that means is the kids I went to school with, Johnny and others, could very well have been descended from or relatives of the very people my ancestors once owned.

I'm all for learning about your ancestors. Studying history, good or bad, is important because as philosopher George Santayana said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it".

I'm not getting into a discussion of the Confederate Flag here, this isn't a political website, although I'll be glad to discuss my views one on one if anyone wants to talk to me about it but what I will say is that between 1900 and the segregation years of 1950s-1960s the flag wasn't being used or flown anywhere on a regular basis and the talk of it representing "Southern Heritage" simply didn't exist in any resources I've been able to find other than those dedicated to the history of the confederacy.

As I said at the beginning, this is my journey of re-evaluation, so make of it what you will and choose to stand pat on your own views or re-examine them as your conscience sees fit. It's not my duty to judge you.

It is, however, the duty of history and future generations to judge us.

A Big Thanks to Scott Ainslie – Bluesman


 

The video above is Scott Ainslie telling a little blues history and then playing a blues classic.

Although I grew up during what I feel were the best years for rock and roll music (he 70s), I've always had a particular affinity for true blues music.

Unfortunately, many artists who now classify themselves in the blues genre are not (at least in my opinion). Their songs are autotuned and don't sound like they come from the soul or that the artist actually walked that hard road and lived the hard life necessary to not only sing the blues but also to feel the blues deep within them.

Scott Ainslie is an exception.

I've never actually met Scott, although we've emailed each other a number of times, but I've listened to his music so much I feel like he is a long lost brother.

A few years ago I heard his song You Better Lie Down while I was finishing the research and completing my book The Bottle Tree. The deep tone of his voice and the blues riffs on the acoustic guitar instantly brought to mind the picture I had been trying to paint with words. You Better Lie Down tells all about how rough life was in turpentine camps like the one in the bottle tree, where you may work all day for a dime but had to pay the company store fifteen cents for the necessities of life.

Scott was gracious enough to allow me to use his song, You Better Lie Down, on a PowerPoint presentation I have done at a couple of seminars as well as on the video trailer(s) we have completed for The Bottle Tree.

If you're a blues fan, or even if you're not, I'd highly recommend you go to Scott's website and see if he is appearing in your area soon. If you want to be especially nice, and reward both him and you, click on one of the links below to order one or more of his albums (do they still call them that?).

A big thanks to Scott Ainslie, an artist willing to help out another artist (or at least someone trying to be an artist)!

The Book Trailer for The Bottle Tree is Now Live – Please Share!

 

After much work by my darling wife and a lot of pestering by me the long version of the book trailer for The Bottle Tree is now live on YouTube.

We're going to do a much shorter version later for those whose attention span is limited (like me) but the one that is online now has a great song in it, a little history, and then a short reading of some pages from the book.

If you have a chance take a look at it and then share it as much as you can.

This is our first attempt at a trailer and I'm sure we'll get better at it as we go.

Video of Kisatchie Falls, Kisatchie National Forest, Louisiana

 

Most of you know that my book, The Bottle Tree, is set in a turpentine camp which really existed just south of Bellwood, Louisiana in what is know the Kisatchie National Forest.

Many people believe that all of Lousiana looks like the area where Swamp People is filmed, but actually the northern part of the state is filled with hills and pine forests with just an occasional swamp thrown in.

This is a video I shot on my Droid smartphone of one part of Kistachie National Forest. This section of the creek is called Kisatchie Falls and consists of a sand and rock bottom with trees arching over the creek.

Unfortunately, many people who go there have still not learned that you should leave the place better than when you found it and so on this trip I picked pieces of broken beer bottles from the creek bottom and next time I'm going to take a trash bag to pick up some of the beer cans and cigarette butts that the asses leave there.

However, the place is still beautiful and here is a short video to enjoy.

Johnny Robinson and The Bottle Tree

Many of those who are reading this post have read The Bottle Tree and may already know the story of Johnny Robinson but I'm going to repeat it here anyway and then discuss what the post is really about.

Johnny was a young man I went to school with at Provencal School in Louisiana. I went there from Kindergarten through Second Grade and then went back to visit anytime I was in Louisiana and school was in session. 

Johnny was my first African American friend and I'm pretty sure that the friendship with him when I was young made race much less of an issue with me than it was with many of my peers.

I hadn't seen him in years but when I started writing The Bottle Tree I named one of the main characters after Johnny. Last year when the book was published I started looking for him so I could let him know what I'd done and just to reconnect.

Unfortunately, another childhood friend of mine let me know that Johnny had passed away from cancer the year before.

This trip in for the Natchitoches-NSU Folk Festival, I came in early so I'd have a chance to go by and take a copy of the book to his mother. Doris Robinson.

Ms. Doris still lives in the same house where Johnny was raised and I made the trip today to visit with her for a little while. She told me all about Johnny's life since he'd graduated and about his last days. I also learned it was her birthday today. I was happy to present her a copy of The Bottle Tree and will make it a point to go back and see her when I come back "home" to Natchitoches.

Below is a picture of Ms. Doris Robinson and me, sitting on her front porch and she has her copy of The Bottle Tree in her hand. The other picture is the memorial handout from Johnny's funeral.

This comes the week after the verdict in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case and I can't help but think maybe things would have been different if Mr. Zimmerman and/or Mr. Martin would have had the chance to get to know each other in a situation like Johnny and I did.

 

Doris Robinson and Robert D. Bennett johnny robinson‚Äč

The Bottle Tree – Where I Got the Name

Bottle Tree

Each time I do a book signing or have a table at an event I always spend a little time talking to someone about bottle trees. Invariably a person walking by will stop to look at the books and then we'll discuss how bottle trees used to be prevalent in the rural south, how you rarely see them now, and how they are making a come back as a kind of art form made by local artisans.

I thought I'd share a few of my thoughts on the topic here on my author website so my fans and readers know a little about the subject and the way I work.

I remember when I was a little kid and we would go to my great grandparent's house in Bellwood, La. On the way there, on one of the back roads, was an old house with a bottle tree in the front yard. I didn't know the story about them but I always thought it was neat and would look for it on each trip.

Some years later I saw one and jotted the name down in a notebook I kept with ideas for stories, names, titles, etc. The name sat there for years and suddenly, one day, an idea popped into my head that was almost the complete story that I eventually published as  The Bottle Tree. Literally, the idea was not there one minute and the next it was there in my mind, almost in the final form that was published.

Bottle trees were a unique part of the culture of the rural South. Several sources that I looked through state that the concept dates as far back as the 9th century in the African Congo.  Originally, the people would lay plates around the graves of deceased family members. The practice changed to hanging bottles on a tree when the practice came to America with the slaves. The bottles were supposed to scare off bad spirits due to the sound that they made when the wind whistled across their open mouths and it was also thought that spirits would be curious about the bottles and get caught in them when they came to investigate.

In my book, The Bottle Tree, the characters discuss the bottle tree which plays a part in the book and that one of them has in his yard:

            “What is it?” Leesie asked, walking around the tree and examining it from all angles. Caleb and Johnny did the same.

            Ukiah had decorated a tree with bottles. Some were tied on with string, some were stuck on the end of cut off branches. The bottles were a mixture of sizes, shapes, and colors. Some blue, some clear, some brown. On one side of the small tree sitting on the ground was a solitary, bright red one.

            “Y’all ain’t never seen one of these?”

            “I have,” Johnny volunteered, surprising both Caleb and Leesie.

            “You have? Where at?” Ukiah asked.

            “My Uncle Franklin used to have one in his yard. Not as big or pretty as yours though. He called it his ‘bottle tree’”.

            “And that’s exactly what it is. Did he tell you what it was for?”

            “He said it kept the spirits away.”

            “It does that, plus more. You see these bottles here?” Ukiah pointed to the clear, blue, and brown ones on the tree. “The bad spirits hear the wind whistling through these and it scares them off. If’n they do come around, the wind pushes them into the bottles and they’re trapped there and can’t bother you.”

            “What about that one? It’s pretty,” Leesie pointed to the red one on the ground.

            “Oooo, you got a good eye, Leesie. That’s the one that makes my bottle tree special. Most of them are just to take care of bad spirits but that red one is the cat’s meow. It’s for good spirits.”

            “Good spirits?” Johnny asked. “I ain’t never heerd of no good spirits.”

            “That old voodoo woman who taught me how to make that peanut candy told me a real bottle tree has to have a special red bottle. According to her, and I ‘spect she’s right, sometimes people die and their bodies can’t be given a proper church burial so they can’t go straight to heaven. Their spirit wanders around until it finds the red bottle and it stays inside it until somebody they love dies and their spirit comes looking for them and helps them get to heaven. Don’t that sound nice?”

            “Yes sir. It’d sure be lonely just to wander around by your lonesome,” Caleb said.

            “It sure would. That’s why everyone ought to know where there’s a bottle tree like mine. Just in case.”