One of the things that drew me to the folk healing traditions is this notion of simplicity, the idea that it’s a knowledge that’s passed down rather than a necessary set of objects or rituals. In the Ozarks any folk healing can be seen as an extension of daily activity not as a separate time that is set aside. That is to say that activities such as gathering medicinal plants becomes an extension of hunting and foraging, that the making of herbal preparations becomes an extension of cooking, and that the recitation of healing charms and prayers becomes an extension of the religious life of the family.

There is a great temptation when reviving or participating in folk traditions to become a sort of museum curator, gathering up old objects that don’t really have a place in today’s society. Not that there’s anything wrong with this kind of collecting, there are many who enjoy it and it does a great deal of good for the preservation of folk traditions. The problem arises when you step into becoming more than just a collector or researcher and actually start to practice the traditions you’re researching. The beauty of folk healing traditions like that found in the Ozarks is that they were born from necessity. The plants you used in healing were plants you could grow or gather off the land, and any non-plant based healing encompassed either verbal charms (which could be memorized and did not require any physical objects or that the person be literate) or the use of physical objects that were common in the home e.g. string, scissors, axes, etc. If you talk to the old people who lived these traditions they’ll all tell you that they were hardly ever able to buy anything for healing, other than the occasional bottle of “black draught” which was common in my family. That is why you see the use of coal oil, turpentine, or kerosene in many folk remedies; they were readily available antiseptics.

The simplicity of these traditions insured their survival. The knowledge could be passed down orally through the family or to those interested, and didn’t require the protection of certain cultural objects. You tend to see this notion a great deal with folk traditions that are born out of predominantly poor folks. The objects and items that were protected or passed through a family were utilitarian things like oil lamps, sewing machines, spinning wheels, knives, axes, tools, etc. Everything in the home potentially held dual usages between the practical and the symbolic. I’ve mentioned this in other posts before. Some examples include tying off illness with string, cutting off sickness with scissors or a knife, chopping illness or evil with an axe, etc.

For me all of this realization has meant trying to be more mindful of why I collect certain objects. Do I need that third sickle because it’s an important piece of the past? Or am I buying it to use in cutting off illness, and will a knife work just as well? In my day-to-day life I have no use for a sickle, therefore it becomes more of a collectors object than anything else. People trying to revive certain healing traditions should also be mindful of this. I think there’s often the temptation to spend a lot of money on the look of your healing work rather than the work itself.