I first met Byron Ballard in March 2012, when I visited Asheville, North Carolina, to cover the story of the Buncombe County School District and their religious materials policy. She’s one of those people who makes everyone feel comfy and welcomed, with her earth-mother vibe and say-what-you-mean-mean-what-you-say personality. When I heard she was writing a book about mountain magic, I was thrilled. As someone whose ancestry is deeply rooted in the hills of western Kentucky, I’ve always been fascinated by the concepts of magic as found in Appalachia, borrowing much of its roots from the folk magic of the British Isles and other far flung places.
Staubs and Ditchwater: A Friendly and Useful Introduction to Hillfolks’ Hoodoo is a perfect primer for those practitioners who are interested in looking at magic from a practical and traditional standpoint. The book is divided into six chapters, each focusing on a different aspect of mountain magic, and accompanied by brilliant essays detailing Ballard’s own experiences, both as a practitioner of magic and as an Appalachian woman. She makes the important distinction, early on, that the witches in her own family never saw witchcraft as a religion - it was a practice, and a skill set to be cherished.
Chapter One delves into the tools of the trade - tools which include imagination, intuition, and the ability to read and interpret the signs that the natural world is sending you. Chapter Two takes things a step further and looks at the material tools that some folks like to use - a basket of herbs, upcycled Mason jars, and poppets, to name a few. Here’s where the chapter really grabbed me, though - the mention of working with Allies.
By Allies, Ballard is referring to assistance from both the spirit world and the mundane. Whether it’s your ancestors, the spirits of the land, or other people in your community who practice folk magic, it’s good to have some backup on hand. I’ve always thought of this as a sort of magical wolfpack - if you’ve got allies, as Ballard points out, you’re never really alone. She points out the importance of teamwork: You are there to share what you know, to compare notes, to learn in a way that is humble and respectful... Don’t be a jerk.
In Chapter Three, the notion of stockpiling supplies is addressed. If you have the land and the wherewithal, grow your own herbs, and store grease and oils and other bits of useful material. Learn how to use them in a way that is practical and reasonable, and you can’t go wrong. In the absence of the opportunity to grow your own, Ballard encourages you to barter or buy from other practitioners - after all, if you need a particular candle, and the only place that has it is the local Spanish marketa where the brujas shop, then hie thee to the marketa. This chapter also includes a valuable compendium of different types of water and its magical uses. Did you know that stump water holds the magical essence of the tree in which it steeped? Me either!
Chapter Four explores divination and omen-reading - and points out the difference between the two. An omen, specifically, is something natural that you’ve observed - a trio of crows sitting in your tree, perhaps, or a swarm of insects landing on your window. Divination, on the other hand, is the art of looking at the future to see what’s around the corner - and there are a number of different methods. Ballard reminds us that if you’re going to read omens, it’s crucial that you learn about the natural world where you live. Because snakes in the driveway in April might be perfectly normal in your neck of the woods, but a very odd occurrence indeed three states away.
Ballard shares some of her own home-grown recipes and goodies in Chapter Five - be sure to read this part, because she takes time to explain the symbolism behind the methods. In other words, not just “do this,” but “if you do this, here’s WHY.” Good stuff indeed.
Chapter Six wraps things all up, in Ballard’s folksy, come-sit-by-the-fire-and-have-some-tea way of storytelling. Staubs and Ditchwater: A Friendly and Useful Introduction to Hillfolks’ Hoodoo is more than just a book on magic - it’s a conversation with a wise old friend, like chatting with someone you’ve known all your life. Well worth reading, and more importantly, worth reading again.