The Swamp Road Chronicles


"Snowy Owl"


My story begins a hundred years ago or so, when my grandma was a little girl. She was born and raised in the mountains of eastern Kentucky near a little settlement called 'Tomahawk'. Her daddy was a coal miner and logger. They were true mountain people. They couldn't read or write, but they had great wisdom and knowledge concerning things that folks today know nothing about.


My grandma knew where to find ginseng for tea that could heal the dead. She knew when to pick it and how to prepare it and what to mix with it to multiply its benefits. She could find bloodroot, beewort, maidenhair, or Dutchman's Britches or whatever was needed for whatever ailed you. She knew which mushrooms could be eaten for medicine or just good eating.


Grandma could predict rain by the turning of tree leaves. She understood something about ghosts, spirits of the forest and other "elementals." She knew signs too. Like signs someone would die soon, or bad trouble was on the way. Signs like a ring around the moon late after midnight, and the clicking of deathwatch beetles in the walls. She could tell you the meaning of a dream about losing a tooth or a cow dying or lightning striking a gravestone, and what to do about it. She passed all of this knowledge and wisdom along to their daughter, my mother Nell.


My parents moved to Ohio in the 1950s to seek a better life. Unfortunately, my father was killed in an accident where he worked at Buckeye Steel in Columbus. They had been married just 1 year and I was just 3 months old when Daddy died. Mother received some money from Buckeye Steel and Daddy had a small life insurance policy. Mama took those funds and bought a small farm in Licking County near Swamp Road.


When I was six I became deathly ill, my mother used her knowledge of roots and herbs and the doctor was called in, he said it was hopeless; the Minister from the Baptist church said "God's will be done." My mother prayed with all of her might and nursed me tirelessly. But I only got worse. Sometimes Death wins. One evening Mama heard the hooting of an owl outside of our little farmhouse.


For three nights in a row that owl sat on a limb outside of my bedroom and called out in a piteous way. Mama went out to the larch tree beside our house and she could see the owl sitting high up in the branches. She said it was a Snowy Owl, It was way south of where they are normally found; Mama told me, when I was older, the owl had been sent on a mission of mercy to warn us that Death was coming. Someone once wrote that an owl, late at night, when it calls out can sound like an old ghost mourning for something sad and long ago forgotten. That's a romantic thought, but, Mama knew it was an omen of impending death, mine.


Finally, when all hope was lost, my mother returned to the knowledge passed down by her parents and she turned to darker forces to try to save my life. She had learned all about Swamp Road Sally from her friends among the neighbor ladies and decided to seek Sally's help.


As she was taught, she gathered a basket of several items that included Black Gum Honey, biddy eggs, and mandrake root. There were other items included that she knew had strong spiritual influences. At three in the morning she stood in the middle of Pigeon Swamp Road and called out to Sally or whatever spirits might be listening. She told them of her basket of offering and she pleaded for their help in saving the life of her daughter - me. She left the basket and returned home; she placed me beside her in bed and then she watched over me throughout the night, wiping my face with a cool, damp cloth.


Mama told me that as the sun was coming up and the roosters began to crow, my fever broke. I was soaking wet, but I was going to live. I rapidly improved and in two weeks I was back in school. Mama rarely mentioned these events. She shared with me her knowledge of plants and herbs, but never the signs. But, she did say she believed that Swamp Road Sally had heard her plea and felt pity for her and me and stepped in between me and Death.


Submitted by Billie Warren, 5-28-2023