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.”