December 21, 2013 11:41:19 PM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
"Mistletoe," said Luna dreamily, pointing at a large clump of white berries placed almost over Harry's head. He jumped out from under it.
"Good thinking," said Luna seriously. "It's often infested with nargles."
J.K. Rowling, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix"
The week after Thanksgiving Perry Griggs, The Dispatch's pressroom supervisor, asked me if I knew somewhere he could go to shoot mistletoe. Say that again?
Apparently I was one of three people in Lowndes County who didn't know that the way you "pick" mistletoe is to shoot it out of trees. With a rifle, says Perry. A shotgun tears up the tree and the mistletoe.
When I mentioned to others what I thought was a strange and obscure practice, they looked at me as though I'd just told them how good peanut butter tastes with jelly. Everyone, it seems, has either shot mistletoe or has a brother who has done so.
Friday afternoon the two of us set out for the Prairie with a .22 rifle and two boxes of shells. Ammunition is difficult to find in local big-box stores, Perry says. The mom-and-pops that carry it limit the amount you can buy to one per customer. Griggs bought one box; his wife Jeannie bought another.
Griggs grew up with a foster family in Palmetto, Ga. Each year after Thanksgiving, his foster father would load up the kids and head for a back road where they would chop a cedar tree and shoot down mistletoe.
"Back then if you lived in the country you could go anywhere," says Griggs. "Now days it's all 'no trespassing.'"
Someone said trees along Highway 69 are full of mistletoe. Same for downtown. We were in the Prairie and the pickings looked slim. I phoned my brother Stephen and explained our plight.
"Where are y'all?" he boomed.
"About 100 yards from your driveway," I said.
"Well, come on; I'm looking at a bunch of it right now," he said.
With most trees bare of their leaves, greenish-yellow clumps of mistletoe are easy to spot this time of year.
The mistletoe in Stephen's sights was in the top of a bois d'arc, a tree dense with thorny branches known for its hard, yellow wood. The tree did not want to let go. It took Perry a box and a half of .22 longs.
We inspected our harvest; the mistletoe had merged with a limb on its host plant as though someone had grafted it there. Not many berries were left.
"We've had a lot of birds this fall," Stephen explained.
"Yeah, you need to do it right after Thanksgiving," Perry added.
Birds eat the mistletoe's white berries and then regurgitate, excrete or wipe them onto the limb of a host tree. The seed germinates on the tree limb, attaches and from its host tree takes moisture and nutrients.
While mistletoe appears in Greek and Norse mythology, the Celts were among the first to attach spiritual significance to the plant. The ancient Celts lived in Gaul (central Europe), Britain and Ireland during the Iron Age (1200 B.C. to 400 A.D.) That mistletoe grew and flourished on the bare branches of the sacred oak was evidence to them of the plant's magical properties.
The Druids, who served as priests for the Celts, gathered mistletoe in an elaborate ceremony on the sixth night of the first new moon after the winter solstice. The chief priest would climb the tree and cut the mistletoe with a golden sickle. Priests below held a cloth to catch the sprigs as they fell, preventing them from touching the ground and losing their power. The priests prayed, sacrificed two white bulls and distributed the harvested mistletoe among the people, who hung it over their doorways to ward off evil for the coming year.
The Druids believed the white berries represented the sperm of the gods from which they concocted an aphrodisiac. Modern herbalists have used mistletoe to treat hypertension, insomnia and in the prevention of cancer. It was used to treat epilepsy and chewed to heal ulcers.
"When Christianity became widespread in Europe after the 3rd century AD, mistletoe was incorporated into the new religion," writes Frank Trainer of Clemson University. "This may have led to the widespread custom of kissing under the mistletoe plant during the Christmas season, possibly relating to the belief in the effects on fertility and conception. The earliest documented case of kissing under the mistletoe dates from 16th century England, a custom that was apparently very popular at that time."
"Here, take some of this," Perry said. We were back in town.
The mistletoe now sits on the corner of my desk, a cluster of yellow-green foliage with a dozen or so pearl-like berries. As I write this on the winter solstice, these sprigs of green offer a connection, tenuous perhaps, to an ancient and distant time. To the lore associated with this curious plant future historians will have to add the quaint ritual of rural Southerners in North America: the decidedly non-spiritual practice of shooting it out of trees.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.