Hills, Hollers, and Haints

by Mark Blackwell

Spring has once again limped into Brown County. The peepers are peeping, the daffodils are daffling, and the crocuses are… blooming. And the ghosts are waking up after a long winter’s hibernation. I know that most folks don’t normally associate springtime with the spirits of the departed—but I do. Come this time of year the hills and hollers are rife with what my granny used to call “haints.”

A “haint” can be either malevolent or benign. There are stories about spirits of a malevolent bent like the one about Booger Holler, up in the north end of the county. The story goes that a traveling shoe salesman vanished in the holler and nothing was found of him save for a heap of smoldering shoes at the bottom of the dark ravine.

The apparitions I encounter seem to be disinterested in confronting those of us in the mortal realm. They continue to inhabit their earthly abodes as they did in life—quietly, not deigning to call attention. The phantasms are the remnants of the pioneers who came to these hills to make a home and a life for their families. They weren’t the kind of people who were out to get rich or move up in society. They were homesteaders just wanting to own a piece of ground and have the freedom to carve out a living on their terms—to sleep under a roof that they erected; to nourish themselves from gardens and hunted game; and to secure an existence by their skills, talent, and hard work.

I don’t think most outsiders who came to gawk at the hill folk of Brown County back at the turn of the 20th Century understood the homesteaders’ way of life. How could they? The flatlanders had enthusiastically invested in the future that consisted of paved roads, automobiles, consumer goods, and 50 hour work-weeks. Some city people most likely visited Brown County with an acknowledgement of the high cost that modernity demanded to their souls. For others a tour of the hills was a validation that the price they were paying put them ahead and above the simple people.

A plain and simple life is what you’ll get working with your hands and the raw materials the land provides. But while you may have to give up on the latest diversions that modern life affords, there are intangible benefits. There is the freedom to arrange the day as you see fit, to work at a pace that will get a job done without stress and injury, and to be able to take time to notice the subtle and profound changes of nature. Best of all is the nowadays-scarcely-known feeling of pride in being self sufficient.

Perhaps that is the substance of the phantoms I encounter deep in the woods when I come across daffodils gone feral in the dooryard of a cabin long since decomposed. Sometimes, when I stand still between two ancient chestnut oaks—their spreading limbs flanking the faint trace of a forgotten wagon path—I can hear the laughter of the children who swung on a rope suspended from one of the limbs. Those oak trees were planted there for their beauty and the shade they provided on hot summer days.

There is a freedom to owning a piece of ground—not just by a legal deed, but by the enduring creative deeds of the family that possessed the plot. The flowers they planted still bloom wild in the woods. The rail fences they built rest decomposing, feeding fungi and ferns. The ponds dug by hand to water livestock now water wildlife. The hand quarried stones laid out four-square on the ground to support the timbers of cabins are now moss covered markers of the lives and hopes of the settlers.

Spring is a good time to hike the woods of Brown County. When you’re back in the hills and spot a little clearing with crocuses or daffodils or a stand of yuccas get off the trail, go investigate. You might spot the handle of a china teacup or the rusty blade of an old knife sticking up out of the ground. Take a little time to imagine the hands that held that cup. Think about the work done with that knife. Remember that where you’re standing people lived, loved, and worked.

It’s not difficult to meet up with “haints” out in the woods. All it takes is a little imagination and some reverence for the folks who made a home in the hills. When we stop to think about them they smile a little and go about their “haintly” business. Their names can be found in little cemeteries here and there. Their bodies rest but their spirits still roam the hills. I live in the hills of Brown County and I don’t blame the “haints” for not wanting to move on. I don’t want to either.