Foxfire, The Greatest Gift

by Amber Magnolia Hill on June 15, 2010

As I’ve written many times here before, the kindness and generosity that I have been shown from my online friends never ceases to open my heart ever wider and leave me feeling gratitude on a scale I have never experienced before, not just for the gifts but for the interconnected world I am a part of and the serendipitous and synchronous connections that I have been blessed to make.

A year or so ago I googled “Appalachian wisdom” or something like that. I have always felt an affinity with the lore of that land and the people who reside there. My kinfolk on my dad’s side come from North Carolina, and England some generations before that. They perfectly fit the profile of the emigrants who first settled the Appalachian region, and I am sure that somewhere deep down this is why I respond so primally to Appalachian music, herbal knowledge, and general folkways.

So anyway, what came up when I googled that was Foxfire. I perused their website and realized that all the old time learnin’ I sought had been ingeniously sought out, thoroughly recorded, and beautifully presented by this group, which was started as a magazine in 1966 by some high school English students who wished to record the old ways of their elderly Appalachian neighbors before they passed on.

Over the years the project expanded and it is going strong to this day. I very much recommend checking out their website. The magazine articles, composed by different students over the years, have all been gathered and made into a series of twelve books, containing all of the homesteading, earth centered, folkloric yet practical, do-it-yourself knowledge a body could ask for.

(The name Foxfire, speaking of synchronous connections [my daughter’s name is Mycelia], is “a name commonly applied to several species of bioluminescent fungi that grow on rotting wood in damp forests (like the Southern Appalachians) during the warmer months. These fungi typically produce a dim blue-green glow that can be seen only in dark, starlit areas, away from any artificial lights or moonlight. Other names associated with these glowing fungi include ‘faerie fire’ and ‘will o’ the wisp.’”)

My local library had some of the their books, so I checked one out and was totally fascinated by every word of it. Then for my birthday this year the lovely Milla sent me an original edition copy of one of the books.

(From Milla. The library’s copies looked much like this one. Making me even more blown away to see the beautiful new editions, complete with that rough sort of cover texture that I love so much on books!)

Then came my correspondence with Julie from The Cuckoo’s Nest (and BTW yes! I will post the second blog with photos from the inside of the boutique soon!). We discovered our mutual love of bluegrass music and natural living, and she asked me if I had seen the Foxfire books. I, of course, responded very enthusiastically that I had seen a few and loved them. Then after the blog was posted she asked me for my mailing address and let me know that the entire Foxfire set- all twelve books- would be arriving on my doorstep soon from Mountain City, Georgia.

Well, they arrived today. And I am blown away. Such an incredible resource. Such a wealth of knowledge. So many beautiful and inspiring stories and people. And SUCH a thoughtful and meaningful gift!

Thank you Julie. Thank you thank you thank you from the bottom of my heart.

And it gets even better. Today I received another package from Julie as well, this one coming from her home at Northwest Alpacas just outside of Portland. Nine gorgeous, luxurious, exquisitely hand made Pima cotton and alpaca fur dresses made twenty years ago based on The Cuckoo’s Nest designs from the 1970s. You guys are going to DIE. I hope to photograph them and get them into the shop in the next week or two.

Oh, and here are the topics covered in these books, since it’s hard to read here. I have put a * next to the chapters I have read and loved and a ^ next to the ones I am most looking forward to reading! And who knows which ones will capture my interest or be relevant to me in the future…

Hog Dressing

Log Cabin Building

Mountain Crafts and Food^

Planting By The Signs*

Snake Lore

Hunting Tales^

Faith Healing^


Ghost Stories^

Spring Wild Plant Foods*

Spinning and Weaving^


Burial Customs***

Corn Shuckin’s

Wagon Making

Animal Care^

Banjos and Dulcimers^

Hide Tanning

Summer and Fall Wild Plant Foods^

Butter Churns^


Fiddle Making***


Horse Trading

Sassafras Tea^ (<– the original root beer)

Berry Buckets^




Flintlock Rifles

Bear Hunting


100 Toys & Games^

Gourd Banjos and Song Bows^

Wooden Locks

A Water-Powered Sawmill

Ministers and Church Members

Revivals and Baptisms^

Shaped-Note and Gospel Singing^

Faith Healing and Camp Meetings^

Foot Washing^

Snake Handling*

Southern Folk Pottery From Pug Mills^

Ash Glazes^

Groundhog Kilns To Face Jugs (?)



Mule Swapping and Chicken Fighting

General Stores^

The Jud Nelson Wagon

A Praying Rock

A Catawban Indian Potter

Haint Tales (?)


Home Cures^

The Log Cabin Revisited

Railroad Lore^


Depression Era Appalachia^



Snake Canes

Gourd Art

The Old Homeplace^

Wild Plant Uses^

Preserving And Cooking Food^

Hunting Stories


Square Dancing^


Cherokee Traditions^

Summer Camps^

World War Veterans^


Intriguing, yes? And remember, these are all based on interviews with old timers who still practice these crafts, and who remember their place in Appalachian culture before mainstream American life infiltrated their families and ways of living. Fascinating.

(PS- Some of my favorite Appalachian media include the documentary The True Meaning of Pictures, the Smithsonian Folkways Classic Mountain Songs, The Yo-Yo Ma Appalachian Journey CD (especially the song “Hard Times Come Again No More” with James Taylor and the lullaby sung by Alison Krauss), the Appalachian Folklore, Stories, and Info website, and the incredible novel Cold Mountain. Aaaand pretty much all bluegrass music and all that it has inspired. Do you have any resources to share with me?)

Suzanne June 15, 2010 at 10:53 pm

I am obsessed with this book!! I got it for my birthday this year. And I absolutely love The True Meaning of Pictures it is such a great doc!! I did all my planting in my little plot by the Signs Amber!
I so love this post, big time :)

Kiva Rose June 15, 2010 at 11:15 pm

Great post, Amber, I loved this!
.-= Kiva Rose´s last blog ..The Medicine Woman Mobile Clinic =-.

heather June 15, 2010 at 11:43 pm

i love the foxfire books so much. i remember sitting on the floor at powell books in portland devouring them, the old editions, and wishing i had the money to get them all! we have collected a few of them and i too loved the section on midwifing, among so many others. unfortunately we lent a couple out to people and have never seen them since. i bought my brother one of the new copies for his birthday…i feel like everyone should read them and learn from them.

i too am drawn to that region and especially the folk tales and songs from there. do you remember a movie called Songcatcher? it just occurred to me; darin and i saw it years ago but i think i liked it and i seem to recall a related documentary on the same topic but the name isn’t coming to me. i’ll let you know if i think of it.

we spent a lot of time along the blue ridge parkway and going through smoky mountain national park (too crowded!) and surrounding areas during our big road trip in 2002. we bought crafts and fell in love with tiny mountain towns. do you know specifically where you ancestors are from? you should do a road trip tracing out their lands and journeys, how rad would that be?! sorry to go on and on…you just write about subjects i love so much!

Gretchen June 16, 2010 at 6:57 am

We have that original first edition too.
My favorite stories are from the folk healers.

Missa June 16, 2010 at 1:19 pm

WOW. What an INCREDIBLE gift, you must have been so totally blown away by Julie’s thoughtful generosity! I imagine she knew that she was sending the books to someone who would truly appreciate and put them to very good use :)

Oh, and yes! If you’ve never seen the movie Songcatcher you definitely definitely should, it’s lovely!!!

Also, I’m sorry to hear that your arm has been hurting, I hope time away from the computer is helping :)
.-= Missa´s last blog ..Mission Blogger Meetup Accomplished! =-.

Mona June 16, 2010 at 8:38 pm

Who would’ve thought that all that knowledge would be captured and remembered in one set of books! They look fantastic, I will be googling them right away!

Jody June 17, 2010 at 2:25 pm

Great post Amber, my Dad and brother have some of the Foxfire books, and I have thumbed through them, but now I am inspired to read them! Have you seen the movie “Songcatcher” It’s about a female musicologist who visits her sister in Appalachia and records all of the wonderful local music there that has been handed down for generations! You would love it.
Here is the link:

Let me know if you watch it, the music is wonderful, it gave me chills!

Alicyn June 17, 2010 at 9:09 pm

I happened to stumble-upon this and I’m very glad I did. I grew up (and still live) in the foothills of North Carolina where my family settled in the mid 1700′s, and am very familiar with Foxfire. My grandmother was very interested in genealogy and traditions of our past and heritage and had an original set of the series. I’m pleased to see that people are still interested in and are enjoying the traditions of Appalachia.

I’m assuming that the topics you have question marks by are ones that you are unsure of what they are. Just wanted to tell you that face jugs are a style of pottery that have faces on them that are popular in this area, and haint is a southern word for haunt, or in other words haint tales are ghost stories.

Again, I hope you continue to enjoy the series and I’m glad I stumbled upon this!

Bella Q June 20, 2010 at 10:54 am

What an enticing and incredible gift. This sound like such good reading.

I am sooooo looking forward in seeing those dresses too. What a fortunate correspondence. I’d would be interested in hearing and seeing more bits of Cuckoo’s Nest history.
.-= Bella Q´s last blog ..How to Use BUTT UGLY =-.

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