Recently I traveled home to my mother’s lake front property in the middle of nowhere deep in the piney woods of Texas. The town that she retired to has fewer than 600 people. Most towns neighboring her for a good long while are equally sparse. To put it into perspective, the grocery store is 30 minutes away traveling 60 miles per hour on a long lonesome winding stretch of two lane highway. The thought that I was struck with this morning as I walked the 14 acres was this: how is it, in so remote an area, that there is this bottle tree, and, more specifically, why have I seen these bottle trees all of my life in all of the small southern towns I have visited or driven through? How can such a decorative item be so widespread and what is its real meaning?
As a society we decorate our homes in fairly predictable ways with regional variation. These preferences have meaning though we don’t think on them often or question their origins. Having lived so long away from home I am newly impressed by the bottle tree. By way of orientation they are most often placed outside of bedroom windows or entryways. For those of you who are not familiar with what one looks like, here is the one that sits in the garden outside of the bunkhouse:
As a child, frightened by the noise of the clink and clank outside the window of my grandmother’s back bedroom, I was told that they kept the “boogie-man” away. We didn’t have one but both of my grandmother’s did. Two things worked against me then to help me fall asleep fast while away from home. One, there existed a “boogie man” and two, such a contraption was necessary to keep “him” away. When the wind picked up so did the noise. Blue was the favored color but other trees I saw had other colors of glass. I could recognize the green of a Sprite bottle and the shape of a clear Coca-Cola glass bottle. Nowadays I imagine one has to go to great lengths to scrape together enough glass to provide sufficient protection.
Never one to leave a good superstition unchecked I delved into the meaning of the bottle tree. It seems that this southern tradition was brought to the United States in the 1700’s by way of West African captured as slaves who held animistic spiritual beliefs. Simply put, this religious worldview holds that all things, animate and inanimate possess a spirit and that spirit can act upon the world. Individuals or societies enact rituals to create a better alignment or balance to the spirit world for the protection or procreation of life– be that crops, livestock, or people. The idea behind the bottle tree is that malevolent spirits, attracted to the color and sound of the bottles, would go inside them, and once inside would be trapped. The sunlight of the next day would destroy them. Thus, the home was protected.
Some argue that this tradition was brought to Africa by Arabic travelers who held this superstition. The phrase “genie in the bottle” is held as evidence that “spirits” good or bad were held inside of a bottle once they entered it. Horticulturalist, Radio Show Host, and noted scholar of bottle trees, Felder Rushing.
By guest blogger & SDOD staff member, Joanna Leigh Wheeler