As a kid growing up in the South, I heard stories of haints and ghosts told with great enthusiasm and frequency by our elders. These are some of the roots of Southern Gothic literature, and I enjoyed those stories in those days as I do now.
Small children were admonished to be careful of beings they could not see, of noises in the night. Blue bottle trees were a favorite yard decoration to ward off haints that might float into a house and cause trouble. I’ve included several bottle tree references in my novel, If You Walk Long Enough, for readers that enjoy having goosebumps creep up their arms.
For the uninitiated, bottle trees are dead trees with bottles stuck on the ends of the limbs. They are a quaint tradition thought to be brought to the South by descendants of African slaves who lived along the Carolina barrier islands as far south as Florida. In folk tradition, haints, unable to cross water, were tricked when they encountered blue on windows, doors, and ceilings of houses. Despite their aversion to water, they were deeply attracted to blue bottles which represented the crossroads between sky and earth, between the living and the dead. Haints, somewhat like ghosts but different, could be impish with annoying problems, but they could also be malicious, creating havoc among living souls.
The haints, attracted to the bottles glistening in the sunlight, would climb inside. Once in, they are unable to get out. They can be heard moaning, especially when the wind blew, as they evaporated in the intense daylight. Some trees are made only with blue bottles, while others used various colored containers, often referred to as poor man’s stained glass.
Angela, Reid’s sister in my novel, suggests Ellie, her sister-in-law, place a blue bottle tree in the front yard of her house while Reid is in Vietnam. In addition, she tells Ellie to paint the doors and windows with haint blue for additional protection against unwanted spirits entering the house.
As an artist living in rural South Carolina, Angela knew the benefits of color and the value of capturing quiet moments on the farm. Most frequently she used her watercolor images to depict the old mule, Pansy the milk cow, the ubiquitous cats, and Bugle, her dog.
Bottle trees are a fine tribute to folklore and a fun modern recycling endeavor as colorful yard ornaments. In today’s color lexicon, haint blue is most often recognized as cobalt blue.
I still notice these delightful pieces of folk sculpture in small towns and in the countryside of the Deep South. They take me back to my childhood. Do you have memories of haints, blue bottle trees, and things that moan unexpectedly? I’d love to hear your tales.