Book review: “Ginseng Digger” traces the history of the Appalachian root and herbal trade

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“GINSENG DIGGERS: A History of Roots and Herbs Gathering in APPALACHIA” by Luke Manget (University of Kentucky Press, 304 pages, $28).

In the 19th century, large numbers of people living in southern and central Appalachians supported themselves to varying degrees by harvesting herbs, roots, and other medicinal plants that grew wild in the mountainous forests around them. These “singing diggers”, as they were colloquially known, and the story of their importance in the global plant medicine trade is the focus of Luke Manget’s book “Ginseng Diggers: A History of Root and Herb Gathering in Appalachia.”

These root and weed prospectors, simultaneously diabolical and romantic, became a flashpoint in an ongoing dispute over the use of what are known as the mountain “commons”. Mangit writes that digging has become “an aspect of mountain life that should be ridiculed or ignored”. So telling this story requires overcoming this bias in the historical record.


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University of Kentucky Press / “Ginseng Diggers”

Historian planting his “family of root-diggers and weed-gathers” in Kentucky in appreciation of the importance and joy of the trade, Mangit faithfully comes from his subject. His book presents crucial missing parts from this previously misunderstood and underestimated aspect of the region’s history and economy.

Much of the “ginseng borer” hinges on the concept of the “commons.” Manst defines plant commodities that forage prospects are “public goods,” and identifies precisely the Appalachian iteration of this idea, setting out a number of arguments about their economic development. It offers a comprehensive and nuanced discussion of this particular form of capitalism, providing a unique lens through which to understand how controversial diggers’ work became.

Published around the same time that Tennessee became the first state to make camping on both state and local public lands a crime, Mangate’s examination of earlier eras’ debates about the use of communal spaces–and the evolution of laws surrounding that debate–feels particularly timely.

In the early chapters, Manget traces the general history of the botanical medicine trade, both global and domestic, but with a particular focus on Chinese markets. Mangit goes on to chart the rise and eventual decline of the Appalachian drug trade, focusing on the profound impact of the Civil War on many aspects of the region’s economic realities and attitudes toward land use.

Subsequent decades saw dramatic changes in the vegetable trade, and Mangit’s discussions of the implications of these crucial shifts were clear and instructive. After the boom in these markets—which included a large selection of plants, with ginseng being the most lucrative—the business began to subside.

Deforestation, population growth, and concerns about over-harvesting have all contributed to increasing skepticism in the region about the legitimacy of the commons goods. Once the power swung toward the demands and agendas of the landowners, larger swaths of communal land were closed off and penalties for foraging were installed. As a result of these changes, ginseng was privatized as a commodity. The area’s history of collective foraging has been minimized or completely erased, with the diggers describing themselves as “zoo animals”.

The book’s final chapter explores the cultural image and myths of the “singer-digger,” a favorite of nineteenth-century journalists and novelists whose accounts had something to say about the “division between savagery and civilisation.” Such writers played a role in stereotypes of race and gender, and the legend of the singing rig “sprang from ignorance, cognitive dissonance, and capitalist aims until it grew to the point of pure imagination.”

It has been labeled “unchanged and lazy”, hostile to cultural institutions such as marriage, threatening modernization and the rule of law, and – in newspapers’ most surreal accounts – even cannibals, like the digger singing a “cautionary tale” that has proven useful to many (sometimes competing) Cultural and economic movements.

Like Jesica Wilkerson’s study of Appalachian Women Dedicated to Social Justice and Labor Activism, “To Live Here You Have to Fight” and the indispensable and wide-ranging anthology “Appalachian Calculation,” Luke Mangate’s study joins a number of books in recent years that challenge reductionist narratives about cultural history. The Economist for Appalachians. “Ginseng Diggers” belongs to any library of books dedicated to the necessary course correction.

For more local book coverage, visit Chapter16.org, an online publication from Humanities Tennessee.

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