Part II of Outing the Mountain—the year ‘living dreams of visions and mystic crystal revelations’ didn’t dawn (above a pic of the family Zittle)
Hundreds of tales have been told about South Mountain—stories about war era ghosts, Snallygasters and Snarly Yows, avenging ‘injuns’ and mountain men, multiple wizards and witches, and perhaps most important, the mountain itself. This gap toothed mountain, plentiful in natural resources, was known to 1000s of indigenous people. It became part of the great wagon road, a route used by early settlers, particularly those from German Rhine regions and Scot-Irish immigrants. It was relatively easy to cross because of its accommodating gaps and modest height (~1,200 feet). Decades later, I’d take up residence at a plantation in the foothills of the Uwharrie Mountains in mid NC, a range so ancient it was worn to a rounded nub (peaking at 1,000+ feet).
People born in this part of the country, near the Mason Dixon Line, had strong attitudes and European leanings that molded into acceptable American forms. Neither Lewis & Clark nor Steinbeck & Charley stopped to assess the lay of the land. Meriwether Lewis might have had much to say about South Mountain had he not died (in 1809) under mysterious circumstances along the Natchez Trace in route to Washington DC. In 1803, Lewis did visit nearby Harpers Ferry, WV to obtain weapons and equipment for their expedition, including securing an ‘air gun.’ Steinbeck might have commented that folks on this mountain lacked imagination and not many were risk takers, had he paused to take stock.
Steinbeck might also have been perplexed about people that so enthusiastically displayed 100s of monuments and plaques to their war dead (Revolutionary, French & Indian, 1812, Civil, Spanish American, WWs I & II, Korea, Viet Nam…) and held annual parades of remembrance. Was there some sort of sacrificial impulse ingrained here? If so, I wanted no part. Besides, our family was eachtrannach, a gaelic word for alien/foreigner. The families of most of my classmates had lived here for a 100 or more years, surrounded by battlefield tentacles in all directions: Antietam, Gettysburg, South Mountain, Harper’s Ferry… There was also an assortment of Government facilities: Camp David at Catoctin Mountain (Cactus) with its underground tunnels; Fort Detrick (aka Anthrax Alley), a biological warfare & weapons site; Lamb’s Knoll (cold war facility), Ravens Rock, Creed, Fort Meade (and Forest Haven Asylum); underground bunkers; and the Appalachian Trail.
Dahlgren had mocked the wizard (born 1798), describing Zittle, his family, and the Zittlestown hamlet as rustic, poor, superstitious, and evil. She called him the ‘high priest of all evil practices.’ Admittedly, it was a ‘motley assortment of log homes (housing about 50 people) built along ravines, partly hidden by thick woods.’ He was a healer that took nothing for his cures. He spoke English and a German dialect, and his family donated ten acres of land towards the construction of George Washington’s first phallic shaped monument. The 1870 census lists his occupation as day laborer; earlier censuses said he was a shingler. Michael Zittle (Jr) was one of 10 children who settled on the mountain in the early 1800s by way of PA Dutch country and SW Germany.
Outside the Zittle home hung a pair of open scissors (see Zittle family pic, located mid page right side). If you looked closely, you might also find clumps of wild sage, rue, rosemary, and dill; thorn bushes; an earthenware toad; a broom wreath; wind chimes…Zittle descendants and other family on the mountain suffered from Harshman’s disease, a rare hereditary disorder involving a protein that attaches itself to nerves/muscles causing numbness, weakness, and pain. I wondered if Zittle had found a (temporary) cure, which was once part of his original black book? Dahlgren wrote that in his old age, Zittle (supposedly) asked for an occasional payment for services rendered, which, allegedly, brought him bad luck. It’s more likely a barter system was used. He died in 1877, age 79.
Some folks thought Dahlgren was predisposed to belittle this man, and underestimate his talents and his influence. By age six, she was a person of privilege and an only child, educated at preparatory schools. Later, she was the widow of a distinguished admiral. Maddie Dadhgren would have been scandalized to learn in the 1920s the inn was owned by nuns and used as a home for wayward girls, who somehow managed to ply their trade there; and during Prohibition imbibers took advantage of the fact the building straddled two counties and switched sides to avoid revenue men. During the depression through WWII the inn again had a reputation as a bawdy house.
His conjuring book passed on to son in law Simon Summers, who died of consumption two years later. Zittle’s daughter continued his practices. The book then disappeared, though Zittle had translated and revised the original book (written in German). The original book is the one Dahlgren allegedly saw, though I have my doubts. She wrote the Wizard lent the book to an old woman to perform incantations to catch a thief. Dahlgren then borrowed it for a few days from the woman (who did not speak German according to George Wetzel, a researcher). Zittle had printed and sold English language excerpts around 1846, as did J. G. Hohman, a German immigrant/folk healer that wrote the lengthier, meatier Long Lost Friend pamphlet. Zittle’s and Hohman’s books shared many commonalities. Part of Hohman’s book was derived from a grimoire Petit Albert, a curious compilation of Euro folk magic and cabalistic magic. It’s most popular chapters were on sexual magic and how to make a hand of glory.
Hohman stated he lifted a few spells from a book by a Gypsy (Romani). In Grimoires: A History of Magic Books, historian Owen Davies names the book as Romanus-Büchlein, a 1788 German spell-book. It describes how to use the SATOR square as a mean to extinguish fire without water and protect cattle from witches. These adaptations of ancient rites and grey magical spells may have produced American’s earliest grimoires. Unfortunately, there was profuse Christianization and alteration of the text, rendering many of the hexes hoaxes. Similar books also contained beer making and vittles’ recipes and practical advice for dyeing cloth, concocting salves, and birthing calves and babies.
In the mid-50s, still 20+ years before the wizard’s conjuring book would be rediscovered, George Wetzel, a local aspiring sci-fi writer, Fortean, and serious Lovecraft fan, redeemed the wizard’s reputation. Perhaps his interest was stirred after a rumor circulated a few relatives had found the book and incinerated it via a bonfire. He created a 14 page pamphlet ‘The Wizard of South Mountain,’ which detailed his ongoing (since 1946) research and interviews with Zittle descendants, efforts to find the Black Conjure Book or later editions, and rebuttals regarding what others had written, including Dahlgren. He also wrote a short story The Saga of Mr. Cushwa, about hearsay regarding an eccentric villager and the inexplicable happenings that resulted when one pried into the odd feller’s magical cures. Wetzel wrote Zittle’s cures involved the laying on of hands, a knowledge of herbs and efficacy of basic hygiene and pure spring water, and whispered incantations.
Five years after I’d turned in my paper and fled the mountain, a local woman found a curled edge, faded copy of Zittle’s 1845 reprint. In the 80s, his original conjuring book was allegedly found (and rests today in the Boonsboro Museum of History). The wizard had the magic touch; he was a contact healer. The Jewish called it semikhah; ancients referred to it as thaumaturgy (wonder working). I suspect he also had a rare ability to diagnose illnesses and recommend local herbs and elixirs. He may even have been a sin eater (Sundenfresser), or a type of Reiki master.
I was intrigued by the PA-Dutch hex signs on local barns, and chuckled at the old wives tales: in the spring fruit trees must be whipped; water collected from the first snowfall cured eye ailments and drove witches away; and those who removed stones from a boundary wall would be punished by the old gods. One should point an index finger at a rainbow and to remove freckles gather dew from flora facing eastward on May 1st. I can confirm—it doesn’t work. I should have paid more attention to the signs of the time—the reasons behind Charlie Manson’s ordered slaughter of pregnant Sharon Tate and others; the Zodiac’s killing spree, the southern Michigan Ypsilanti Ripper murders, and to SRI’s and UCLA’s beginnings of the STARGATE program…
Cultural geographers, anthropologists, sociologists, stewards of nature, and certain esoteric groups study why certain places hold special meaning or are haunted or damned. Others invent words like solastalgia to describe the psychic distress felt when an environment is threatened. While my parents were happy to be living on acres of land they owned in a house my father had largely built himself, I felt trapped. I began to suspect there were other entities trapped here as well. While on horseback rides, I felt presences I couldn’t explain. As I always did when I moved to a new location, I researched my surroundings. I wondered if the landscape was indifferent, hostile to, or in need of human help. Had the natural balance been upset because the blood spilled here and violent deaths attracted negative energy? Sages say violent deaths generate 2-4 times the energy produced by a good death. It took only five horrific deaths, perpetrated by a person the press referred to as Jack the Ripper, to make London’s East End resonate with negative energy that’s still attracting the curious.
Since the 1930s, the Appalachian Trail has snaked through this mountain. Over a dozen murders have occurred along its backbone; hundreds more of the estimated millions that hike the 2,000+ miles long trail yearly have gone missing. Many of these folks were fit, experienced hikers. Organizations that manage the trail admit they don’t keep comprehensive records of all the deaths and serious injuries.
What was it about South Mountain, which lies at the western end of the Blue Ridge Mountains? It’s composed of carbonate (dolomite), lime/sandstone, blue granite, and shale, and serves as a border between Frederick and Washington Counties. The area has several caves, including Crystal Grottoes, Snively, and Hogmaw. A high school amateur spelunker boyfriend intimated there were additional caves on South Mountain, which remained a close guarded secret. It was rumored there were caves in the hillside ravines off Zittlestown Road, which had been used as a root cellar, storage for gun powder and moonshine, and perhaps as a wizard’s lab.
I married, divorced, changed jobs, earned multiple degrees, and traveled widely. Yet, each time I returned to visit, I struggled to maintain my bearings. I even moved back in the 80s to a house within sightline of South and Braddock mountains. I lingered too long before departing once again for the bright, garish lights of elsewhere. Like a magic portal, trains and airports would take me to all the faraway places I had to visit. Still, I resisted finishing my research, finding answers about the mountain.
If you gave directions 100 years ago to the land my dad bought in the 1960s, you might say turn right at Turner’s Gap—Dahlgren Chapel is to your right. Follow Monument Road to the entrance to Washington Monument State Park. Hang a right before entering the park (don’t hit the stone wall). Make another right at the crest of the hill onto Michael Road. Follow the grassy, gravel worn path to the spring fed pond, to the place where bones of a civil war soldier were discovered lodged in branches of an old growth tree, where arrowheads and the dust of warriors and soldiers killed in the early 1700s reside. The first time I was directed there, the mountain exuded a palatable, creepy vibe I couldn’t articulate. I scrunched my face–Dad had found us another haunted habitat. My mistake then was not standing still long enough to allow the mountain to talk to me, not reaching out to touch it, hear its story.
Beyond the smattering of history found on roadside plaques and in old books, the explanation for the unsettling feelings I couldn’t shake kept tracing back to blood spilled and curses cast here—as men lay dying and Native Americans were forced to move westward. Alice Cooper got it wrong when he sang ‘only women bleed.’ Mountains bleed as well; and just as our blood contains vital info about us (level of nutrients, if we have a sexually transmitted disease, cholesterol, glucose, and blood sugar levels…) a mountains’ blood reveals its former and present health. In Georgia, its highest mountain peak is called Blood Mountain, named perhaps for the red lichen that grows there or for ancient fights between warring tribes. It’s odd we refer to the original people of this country as Indians, rather than fellow Americans or first people. A rejuvenating herb (Shilajit pitch) from the Altai Mountains in Siberia, used in Ayurvedic medicine, is also called Mountain Blood.
Dahlgren’s Stone Chapel was built over ground where blood was spilled during the Revolutionary and Civil War. Its crypts were broken into so many times, the remaining bones were finally moved to another location. It puzzled me how some people claim affiliation to one place against all others, despite its dubious reputation. Do those people pick up on the positive energy, form a nurturing association, embrace accumulated select memories, or ascribe a high aesthetic quality/value to a familiar landscape? Do they unconsciously detect traces of past interactions, its adaptability, boundaries—or a recognition of something indescribable that resides at the subliminal level? Do you feel intrinsically linked to a place, or to where you live now? Does it make you feel grounded or restless?
There are theories about indelible memories of events that transpired in a particular place being embedded sonically and encoded literally into the empty centers of the rocks. If so, it would be a divine record keeping system to rival any super computer. For my 1970 report on the Wizard, I had to rely on old books, gossip, yellowed newspaper articles, and my intuition there was still much about him to be learned. Zittle, in turn, had relied on his own intuition, arcane knowledge passed down, and books.
There was a surprising amount of magical information accessible, brought from Europe and the Middle East by immigrants. In nearby Quaker communities, astrology, geomancy, alchemy, and chiromancy were well known. Popular almanacs contained all manners of occult material—horoscopes, dates of eclipses and full moons, local lore and herbal cures… Folk medicine didn’t differ much from actual medicine and Mormon founder Joseph Smith used magical texts and seer stones in the early 1800s to find hidden treasure and talk to angelic beings (or daimons). When Zittle published an English language, annotated version of his black book, the table tapping spiritualist movement was in full swing.
We had previously dowsed our land for underground water sources for a well and found several. I’d also dowsed for paths of charged energy and was concerned the power lines that ran along the edge of our property interfered with the tributaries of natural positive energy I sensed but hadn’t the skills then to tap into it. I recalled reading Michael Zittle’s father helped choose where the South Mountain Washington Monument would be built, atop a ridge of blue granite tuned in to earth and air energy. At a friend’s house at the bottom of the mountain, I conducted séance’s to summon Zittle’s shade. I had more success hypnotizing schoolmates and planting autosuggest commands.
My flashbulb moment happened accidently—but not until the 21st century. I’d had an exasperating visit with my mother, and hours of idle time before my next appointment. Years earlier, she’d sold the second house my father built and all the remaining acres and moved to a town 20 miles away. Something drew me back to Michael Road that day. It had been paved and widened. Other people lived in the wooded lot houses my father had built. The pond, fed by an underground spring, was still there; it was someone else’s private property. I parked my car in the gravel and weeds that passed for a shoulder and walked down the incline to where Michael and Frostown Roads intersected. I’d ridden horseback many times amongst tangled trees and remnants of stone and wooden fences. Frostown Road wound serpentine through thick wooded spaces and emptied, higher up, into the back of the stone chapel Madeleine Dahlgren built in the late 1800s.
We had owned an odd shaped piece of land across Michael Road; the exact location wasn’t clear. I stepped over a rotted piece of wood and walked uphill until I could go no further without hacking at dense undergrowth. Nearly 50 years earlier, I’d hunted for morel mushrooms in these woods. Today I searched for answers. I intended to get closure and never return. Sages say sacred journeys start with a firm intention. Half a mile away, people hiked the Appalachian Trail, for exercise, amusement, or as mindful meditation. Others picnicked below the path that wound upwards to Washington’s Monument.
As I turned to untangle myself and retrace steps, I stumbled over a curious protrusion. It wasn’t a civil war soldier’s femur, bones of the Snallygaster, or the cache of buried jewels stolen from a French duchess in the early 1800s or gold coins (missing since 1755) intended for Braddock’s soldier’s. Nor was it the right time of year to find morel mushrooms. With my trusty Opinel knife, I hacked at twisted vines and branches.
I soon realized the bulge was a moss covered pyramid of stacked stones and pebbles, 6-7 inches tall. Perhaps it was a boundary marker created by a farmer. I poked the ground nearby and found another half crumbled pyramid about 15 feet away, closer to the road. Both piles felt very old. For the next ½ hour I searched for other signs—carvings on trees, odd shaped rocks. Though I didn’t find anything, I sensed there once had been a long string of mini pyramids. I’d read indigenous people practiced a form of geomancy; they knew about ley lines of energy and sometimes marked sacred paths using stacked mounds of pebbles or a single large stone.
Some speculate the erection of megaliths, cairns, and dolmans was a way to tap into or subdue natural forces. Standing stones and circles were carefully placed above geological faults to collect and transmit thousands of vertical waves, streams of natural energy, through places of power—specific buildings, castles, churches, and burial grounds. Ley lines, in theory, work a bit like a computerized telegraph line; it’s an invisible Rosetta stone for the psychically attuned, which store and record/repeat events. Memories captured by ley lines can be retrieved if we have the right tools and are receptive—and if the ley lines aren’t kinked or blocked. They often are linked to Radon and other tuleric emissions. If I sat down, what might I tune into or experience—besides a possible case of chiggers? What day was it? Yes, it was an auspicious quarter day on the wheel. How fortuitous.
I extended an imaginary line past the two piles of stones; it stretched across the road through the edge of the pond and the second house my father built—to his workshop where he painstakingly created intricate artisan knives, furniture, and hand carved lamps and gun stocks. This was also where a radon detector he’d bought sometimes picked up radon spikes around his workshop.
I noted the natural archway of vines and slightly bent tree limbs about halfway between the two pyramids. Instinctively, I jammed a sturdy fallen tree branch upright into the soft ground ½ way between the two markers. I sat down and repeated maneuvers I’d learned and honed decades ago. As an offering, I laid the sterling silver necklace I was wearing on the ground and poured water from my bottle. My arms rose like antennas and quivered; my left arm pointed to one pile, my right arm to the other. I faced toward the place where I’d once lived.
What happened next was a strange convergence of many things. Curiosity, per Daniel Boone, second cousin to nearby town of Boonsboro founders, ‘is natural to the soul; for interesting objects have a powerful influence on our affections.’ My need to know had lured me to South Mountain again. My father died here, as did 100s of others that fought in previous skirmishes or fell prey to illness, exposure… This land was a graveyard of sorts—of flailing souls that both mingled and clashed with tutelary forces I was sure inhabited the mountain and kept it bounded to and in touch with the universe.
Some think the exact place where a person (abruptly) dies emits a peculiar negative and positive energy. The negative energy gets absorbed back into the earth, or into quartz, granite, or water sources. The positive energy usually dissipates quickly, though it can linger and generate a high pitched humming noise. That was what I heard as I attempted to enter a lucid dream state. Was I sitting beneath a hornet’s nest? Actually, the sound was rather pleasant. I could also smell the decay of vegetation and a hint of fragrance—honeysuckle perhaps and pine resin.
Time has a temporal density that can be felt somatically in the body. My insides began to tingle and I’m guessing that was when my hands clutched the branch in front of me tightly. During those rare times I was able to enter a deep lucid state, my being felt suffused with a sense of wonder, and a touch of trepidation. There were many questions for which I wanted answers, however, pared down, it reduced to just two. I sought a bridge between reality and time, a way to be unconsciously conscious to ensure I’d remember. I discharged energies I’d carried within me for many decades: sadness, anger, remorse, panic, and frustration.
It’s difficult to describe what I experienced, suspended in a state of consciousness that was part self-hypnosis, part remote viewing/regression, part inexpressible. Who knows, the recurring eerie encounters I’ve had throughout my life could be part of a slow growth temporal lobe disorder… In the phenomenology of this state of being, mind and body are in a heightened state of harmony and agitation—susceptible to sensory overload. You become an electro magnet of sorts, attracting all manners of high weirdness unless you’ve been taught—and practice ad naseum—to circumnavigate it. Through diligent practice, you become attuned to synchronicities and subtle cues. I felt the passage of time; it was a bit like being in an oscillating, flickering, H. G.Wells time machine. There was no hologram or movie reel of events. It was a jumbled burst of impressions, sounds, textures, smells as the sunny material world receded. . . and the chthonic emerged.
I caught a glimpse of the spiritual/tutelary face of this place, a face I’d distained and ignored when I lived here. It conveyed only the indigenous people had lived in harmony with the land. Most of the rest, before and since, felt a sense of entitlement, wanted to leave their mark. All manners of creatures had roamed here, and enjoyed a bounty of food: berries, pine nuts, grasses, sassafras, bee hives, wild grapes, fish, edible fungi, ripe carcasses…
This wasn’t virgin land; it hadn’t been a nomadic camping or meeting place long ago. It was a sacred burial spot, selected 1000s of years ago. This was also the mountain’s navel. Multiple tribes knew of it and it’s also what drew my father here. They would bring their dead and dying here and erect scaffolding. After the dead were reduced to little more than bones, a symbolically tattooed or painted bonepicker removed the last traces of flesh and painted the skull a ruddy red. A hole was dug and lined with bark; the remains were interred. It takes local soil acids at least 20-25 years to dissolve bones.
If I had the right equipment and permission, I could verify there was evidence here from people that left no visible traces. Indigenous people had also created the pond on our former property, widening the natural spring to allow more of them to access its mineral waters and clean and refresh themselves. There was a lingering sadness surrounding the mountain after its stewards were driven away and couldn’t connect with spirit sparks of their ancestors. Others whose blood was spilled here 150-250 years ago shimmered on and off like will of the wisps or neon signs whose gas was nearly gone.
Zittle, a sensitive and naturally gifted mage, had done what he could to appease the spectres and ghosts that uneasily inhabited South Mountain. The Wizard, like my father (nearly 120 years later), both chose to divide their essence (soul and spirit, for lack of better names). Part of their divine spark willingly remained here as stewards; part sought the absolute elsewhere and all that implied. Though I never saw their faces, I identified Zittle by a particular scent I knew well, used by practicing mages, Abramelin oil. I recognized my father’s presence via the scent of cherry scented tobacco.
The lightening flash/impression of a deerskin clad being—with a face painted in vivid black, red, and tan, startled me. Was it a guide or guardian, a chthonic wraith, or perhaps the spirit of the last bonepicker? My indistinct blob form shivered. It pointed a gloved phantom limb, which was composed of woven straw or hemp and sharp, stained bear claw fingers—and conveyed a message I’ve paraphrased and annotated as best I recall. “Good leave mountain (which it called Ctocamukecthot?) unwise come back. You take (chose) crooked path early. No leave path. Man blood free barter—swift end. Long death much pain. Man stay.” I tried to speak, to ask what I could do to help, to restore the balance, appease the forces here.
The humming stopped; the tingling and dust mot image flashes dissipated. My hands slipped from the stick I’d been gripping. I felt disoriented, emotionally raw—on the verge of laughing, crying, or screaming. I knew that was it—the psychic telegraph line was drained. I was beyond grateful. I closed the link officially and sat there, muddled, throat dry for 5-15 minutes. The stick was pitched and the pebble pyramids covered with loose ground debris. I gazed one last time at the land my father had loved. There was a rustling in the woods above and behind me. I turned and caught a hint of the backend of a whitetail deer, my father’s totem, as it scaled the hill.
Patricia Monaghan, an evocative Irish American writer and scholar once said “To experience the divinity of a place is to experience the divinity of the world…Wake all the sacred places.” Had I woke the spirit forces of South Mountain; if so to what end? Did I have a weird albeit drug free trip, or stir a figurative hornet’s nest? The message from the painted wraith, I surmised, was I wasn’t supposed to do anything, nor would it be wise to return or stray from my crooked path. Getting a glimpse of the backend of the creature was a further message—to remind me this wasn’t my dad anymore.
In building his houses, digging fence posts, and walking the perimeter of his property, I suspect he found trace evidence of people who’d been here long ago. Through his art and burgeoning environmental and spiritual awareness, his attachment to the land grew strong. It had taught him many things hard to articulate. Perhaps he even found the pebble pyramids. This man, a lover of westerns, who’d drawn a scene for one of his artisan knives of a pioneer settler stalked by a lone Indian, had always routed for the cowboy. Now in his final years, per several talks we had, he wasn’t so sure he’d been right. Always the giver of wisdom, he asked me countless questions the year before he died. He also pondered why only one of his offspring had, from necessity, built a home on the acres he’d bought. I had no simple answers to give him.
Was my altered state lucid dream accurate or merely the fanciful imagining’s of a persistent seeker of knowledge? There’s always been an invisible world—of microbes/bacteria, audio waves, atoms; things heard, felt, smelt but not seen; waves that fan out from broadcast stations silently carrying invisible electrical signals. Theories abound about early people building primitive ‘power plants’ along sacred paths that seasonally animated and enriched the land. Mages recorded when (time/date) energy was at its strongest or weakest. They noted anomalies—energy spikes near certain bodies of water, rocks, crossroads; weather disturbances; sensitivity to locations where blood was spilled or sacrifices offered. They tapped into this energy, used it to communicate and predict.
Though I’ve searched, I found no record of what native people might have called South Mountain. My dad died atop the mountain of sudden heart failure, and was a habitual smoker. Radom is known to cause cancer, especially among those who smoke. Was the being with the bear claw hand trying to tell me my dad chose to die suddenly, from a heart attack, rather than later, from something worse? Or was it referring to the Wizard Zittle? Nor have I found a way to prove Zittle had performed ceremonial magic rituals to calm, pacify, or remove roving, unsettled phantom spirits. I did find an old article about a Zittle relative that lapsed into catatonic states. The author wondered if she were verhext (bewitched)? In the margin I wrote ‘did she have sexual narcolepsy and fall into bed easily?’ What was I thinking? My brother recently mentioned we might have a distant, familiar link, through marriage, to the Zittle’s?
The messages I received (or hallucinated) said I should carry within me the image of the mountain, and seek my own sacred place in seven directions (4 compass directions, above, below, & within). It sounds like good advice as I never sensed a fairy old world presence there, no telltale red and white, no faint giggling in the tall grass, no gathering of ravens or crows. My dad, somewhat a homophobe, must be amused to know South Mountain is androgynous.
Author Carson McCullers wrote, ‘to know who you are, you have to have a place to come from.’ I didn’t come from South Mountain, nor do I have an affinity for the town, a suburb of Philadelphia, where I was born. Childhood environments where bonds are sown are primal landscapes. I didn’t find that in any of the many states I lived during formative years. My genius loci came from books and stories told by elders, from movies and travel itches I had to satisfy, and a bit of conjuring.
I live in a cull de sac in a community in TN that was once native Cherokee hunting grounds. All the streets have Cherokee names and my street ends in the word place. But is this my sacred place? My brother found his place in the wild west hills of Colorado and Wyoming. One sister gravitated to the glitter of Lost Wages, er Las Vegas. My other sister won a medical malpractice suit and promptly exited the mountain and acres my father gave her. She later left the area, built another house and declared a bankruptcy, then returned and rented several properties in the vicinity of the shadow cast by South Mountain.
The practice of magic is an ancient, subjective endeavor. Dahlgren reluctantly admitted, in her opening chapter of South Mountain Magic, that magic books were used successfully (and diabolically) by occultists like Agrippa and Fludd to uncover ancient secrets and intangible links that connect physical and spiritual worlds. She said ‘even among average minds there flickers a vague instinct of the mysterious, like some faint ray from an inner light of consciousness.’
I’ve accepted South Mountain wasn’t an awful place to spend my senior school year. I left my mark: petitioned to have invocation removed from graduation ceremony (lost battle) and to use the song Aquarius as our class song (won). I gave lectures before the entire school body on the art of hypnosis and on theories regarding reincarnation, and revived the legend of the Wizard of Zittlestown. I protested the forcing of school spirit activities and girls not being allowed to wear pants. At parties, I was the resident weirdo, hypnotist, tarot card reader, and spooky story teller. This is despite knowing that after watching a Jane Fonda movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, my classmates asked me repeatedly They Shoot Witches, Don’t They?
In my senior year, we sat in cars and waited till the car rolled forward and uphill near where the Burkittsville Blair Witch would be rumored to have lived. We hunted for snarks and snallygasters. A decade or so later, I visited Ft. Meade, where conspiracy theories became fact, and worked on the STARGATE project, but steered clear of the germ warfare, CIA haunt, and mind control HQ: Fort Detrick. I never lost interest in stories about the Wizard of Zittlestown. He was my first wizard encounter.
I’ve been introduced to or stumbled across other mages in ensuing decades, including several word wizards (Roy Williams, Craig Conley) & poets, critics, lyricists, and evocative writers (Tom Robbins, Pat Conroy…and literary witches (W Cather, T Morrison, E Dickinson, R Solnit, A Ninn)… The séance ceremony for one beneath tangled undergrowth was important, as are certain words, arranged in certain orders. It helped me make sense of old uncertainties and gain a respect for the place where my father died. It feels at times as if words are what forms my authentic home. In an age abundant with scientific certainties, it’s spectacular to have knowledge of those who’ve done the impossible by using unexplainable natural talents, charged words, and sheer willpower. The mountain remains in excellent hands—and spirits. My place search continues, my Zittle notes expand, and my own little black book fills. I’ve had a few mystic crystal revelations, however, I’m still waiting for Jupiter to align with Mars!
And here we have the kind of detail that seemed to escape Branagh, although he made a choice to focus on the industrial memories of his past. I suspect his grandparents knew far more than they said. I doubt it’s possible to seperate a feeling about a place from the place itself; what is a place but how we think of it? And why shouldn’t it give us deja vu all over again? So I see no hallucinations here, just someone who looks for a bigger, wider picture than the likes of Branagh. Hats off for getting a song from Hair used in a public forum. And I think Burroughs noted that there was no mind-trip you could get from drugs that you couldn’t home-brew from your own throughts; traveling and experiencing such sacred places does the same job, quite possible better than any physical intoxicant. Or at least that’s my excuse for seeking out the local angels and demons. The local minister here was kidnapped by the fairies; one wonders where he ended up…a wonderful read as always, Jo, I’ll be back for more sustenance…
PS ; Robert Kirk (9 December 1644 – 14 May 1692) was a minister, Gaelic scholar and folklorist, best known for The Secret Commonwealth, a treatise on fairy folklore, witchcraft, ghosts, and second sight, a type of extrasensory perception described as a phenomenon by the people of the Scottish Highlands.
I adore the Burroughs quote. Goes hand in hand with his comment “Language is a virus from outer space” And in Naked Lunch I think he said, ‘woke up startled, something was holding my hand. It was my other hand. Only vaguely aware of Kirk, will look up his book. It took a month to finish Part 2, to try to describe what I experienced without appearing utterly bonkers. I was near Derry in 98 during Omagh bombing (also a movie about it). I suspect if Branagh had gone deeper, or chose to see that time thru different eyes, the movie would have lost its lilt, its sense of the preciousness of filtered memory. Until next time…
I had to look up Hand of Glory Jo. Interesting. What a fantastic, well-researched and ‘lived’ account of the Mountain.
I wonder if you would enjoy one of my favourite blog/podcasts. Rune Soup by Gordon White. A lover and student of magic and, like yourself, a polymath.
Ah yes, Gordon at Rune Soup; I’ve read his posts for several years, some interesting stuff. However, I’m not a podcast fan and some I would have liked to read were hard to slog thru via podcast. At times, he reminds me of an ex-Nuc Chemist and math whiz… Thanks much; glad you enjoyed reading about the mountain I outed.