Monday, August 31, 2009

Bottle tree

We were driving through the small town of Hillsborough, North Carolina this August when we saw this blue-glass bottle tree in the front yard of a small bungalow.

Bottle trees are an African-American folk tradition in the South, that evolved from West and Central African belief that malevolant spirits can be trapped inside empty bottles. People put empty bottles on the branches of trees or even dead branches propped up to resemble trees. The bottle tree is kept in the yard near the house, to draw the spirits away from the dwelling place.

The spirits enter the bottles at night, the belief goes, and then, trappped, they are burned up by the heat of the morning sun.

It's so much the better if the bottles are pretty colored glass, to be more attractive to those wicked and mischievous spirits. Milk of magnesia bottles in deep cobalt blue were prized for bottle trees. Sometimes other pretty, shiny objects like pie tins, ribbons and bits of glass also decorate the bottle tree.

Mississippian Eudora Welty worked as a publicity agent for the Works Progress Administration between 1933 and 1936. In her travels around the state, she took photos of rural life. Those images led to her storytelling, and her career as one of Mississippi's best known fiction writers. She wrote "Livvie," a short story published in 1943 in the collection "The Wide Net," where a young black woman marries an older man who keeps her isolated from the rest of the world, for fear she will be drawn away from him. He keeps a bottle tree in the yard, which Livvie recognizes because she
"...knew that there could be a spell put in trees, and she was familiar from the time she was born with the way bottle trees kept evil spirits from coming into the house - by luring them inside the colored bottles, where they cannot get out again."
Welty wrote about the real bottle tree that inspired the story, in her book "One Writer's Beginnings":
"Along Mississippi roads you'd now and then see bottle trees; you'd see them alone or in crowds in the front yards of remote farmhouses. I photographed one - a bare crape myrtle with every branch of it ending in the mouth of a colored glass bottle - a blue Milk of Magnesia or and orange or green pop bottle; reflecting the light, flashing its colors in the sun, it stood as the centerpiece in a little thicket of peach trees in bloom."
Art historian/anthropologist Robert Farris Thompson says the tradition comes from Central African Bakongo people, who attached broken pots and containers called nkisi to the trees around their homes, to drive away evil spirits and thieves. "Bottle trees are an important element of African-American visual culture," Thompson wrote in his 1983 book "Flash of the Spirit - African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy" - "They will always be with us, like okra, hominy and black-eyed peas."

While I was looking for information about bottle trees, I found Felder Rushing's website, with a page devoted to bottle trees. Go visit and view his wonderful photos of all the creative variations of this folk tradition.


mo.stoneskin said...

Where we have recently moved from there was a front garden that was entirely bottle trees, bottle bushes and an bottles on sticks. Pretty? Kind of. Tempting for stone throwing? Very.

Vallen said...

Wow! What a lovely trip that was.

KBeau said...

I have a friend who has a blue bottle tree in her front yard. Thanks for relaying the history of those beautiful trees.

Crystal said...

Very cool info! I had never heard of bottle trees before. :)

shrink on the couch said...

When I glanced at this in my reader, I thought it was a blue salvia! That bottle tree is soo cool. Thanks for the southern culture lesson, G.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for opening my eyes to a new kind of beauty. (I'm pretty sure it would be frowned upon where I now live.)

Briget said...

I love the way you teach me stuff! Now I needs me a bottle tree!!