Outside of the Avery Research Center on Bull Street, between Gadsden St. and Ashley Ave., stands a small wired frame tree. Bright sapphire colored bottles adorn the ends of each of its metallic branches. Light reflecting from the bottles easily draws the attention of passersby, but the bottle tree is said to be just as charming to wandering evil spirits.
The colorful display turns into a vibrant prison for the spirits who enter one of the bottle’s neck. They await their inevitable demise from the sunlight of the coming morning, the whistling of the bottles acting as their finals moans. Though just as this is only one of the various bottle trees found in Charleston, this is only one interpretation of the function behind the spiritual symbol brought with the peoples of West Africa.
The practice continued the Kongolese belief of using bottles protect one’s home from malicious spirits, but also of importance was how it resignified a people’s identity in a new, hostile environment of enslavement. Dave Tabler of Appalachian History ties the specific placement of bottles on myrtle trees to biblical symbology, and said, “The image of myrtle trees recurs in the Old Testament, aligned with the Hebrews’ escape from slavery, their diaspora and the promise of the redemption of their homeland.” This message reflects the open-ended orientation that early African American religions embodied as well as the synthesis that occurred between the emergence of African American Christianity and African rooted traditions.
Without the knowledge of its origins or purpose, locals and tourists alike may be inclined to think of the presence of this particular peculiarity as a distinctly Charlestonian or southern decoration. This false narrative seems to be driven by the commodification of the bottle tree, as sellers on Etsy and other craft stores attribute it as a mark of southern culture.
Though there is some credence to the role America played in the evolution of this practice, as it is where physically bottles were put on trees, it was the early bonds people brought by their compelled voyage who truly gave the symbol its significance.The bottle tree is but only a catalyst to grasping a much larger question on whether or not it is important to distinguish the culture origins of practices, symbols, art, or even cuisine. I argue that it is of great importance, specially for historically marginalized groups who have been subject to the presence of dominant cultures, in order to stave off the loss of identity of future generations and disconnect that is social death. Institutions of colonization have shown the grievous consequences of intergenerational cultural erasure, one specific exampling being the Centre of Suicide Prevention’s study finding that an indigenous group in Canada, the Inuits, face the highest suicide rates in the world and eclipse the national average by being 11 times higher. This appropriation, and even the simple failure to recognize the cultural value, meaning, or origin behind specific symbols, such as a bottle tree, all contribute to this type of cultural erasure. Living in a city where the fingerprints of its bound bricklayers imprint of the foundations of its buildings, cultural memory is not just of importance, but it is owed.