This year to celebrated my birthday and the publication of my novel I bought myself a fancy bottle tree off eBay. I planted the spiky pole in the black cast iron washing and cooking pot my dad hauled back from his mother's farm after her death. I always loved this sturdy pot because it reminds me of the few precious memories I have of my Grandmother Simpson. After many years of planting flowers in the pot I decided to erect a elegant bottle tree to celebrated her memory. I'm not a big wine drinkers so I only have a few bottles to hang on it for now. May have to ask friends for their empties.
Bottle trees are prominently featured in my novel. I've always been fascinated by their deep connections to Africa.
The best explanation about about the tradition, history and function of bottle trees is in a wonderful book by Stephanie Rose Bird called Stick, Stone, Roots and Bones: hoodoo, mojo and conjuring with herbs. Bird writes:"Bottle trees stem from the Bantu tradition of tying bottles and other objects to trees to protect a residence or vacant land from thieves. The bottles draw and then trap wayward spirits inside the bottles. Our ancestors can safely be used to scare off wrongdoing. Bottle trees are also considered a new home for departed love one where we visit and be close to them
There is little doubt the custom of guarding yards and household for all evil with branches decked with glass vessels came form Kongo and culturally related territory in Central Africa. It arrived in memories of blacks from the Kongo via New Orleans, Charleston and the West Indies."
In my novel my protagonist Grace learns that her eccentric, but spiritually powerful aunts Casmil and Peaches have erected a whole forest of bottle trees to protect her. Below is that scene from the novel :"We also put up a grove of bottle trees at the back of the property,” said Casmil.
“Bottle trees?” That turned me around to see if they were kidding, but the calm expressions on their faces told me that kidding lived in a whole different universe of thought.
“You know what a bottle tree is,” Casmil asserted.
She was right. I had seen pictures of the trees from the 1930s in a book. Their upward growing limbs were stripped of leaves, and each branch ended in an empty blue or green bottle. These trees were thought to protect a person’s home, the gleam of the glass capturing and disempowering evil forces and troubled spirits. When out of curiosity I had checked out bottle trees on the Internet, I found that most people used artificial versions of them only as yard art. I had never seen bottle trees erected as a “visual prayer for protection.”
“Ok, what are you protecting yourselves from?” I put the question out like bread and waited for the meat that would make it a meaningful sandwich.
“You,” Peaches corrected. “We’re protecting you.”
Bottles trees as yard art are now extremely popular. Even when shorn of there original spiritual meaning they are for me a beautiful additions to the landscape. At one time I had hoped to built a bottle tree and maybe when I have more time I still will. Maybe I'll build myself a whole forest of them to honor the ancestors.