Southerners, Snakes, and Me 

[an excerpt]

 

Men and women are not only themselves, Somerset Maugham writes in The Razor’s Edge (1944), “they are also the region in which they were born, the city or apartment or the farm in which they learnt to walk, the games they played as children, the old wives’ tales they overheard, the food they ate, the schools they attended, the sports they followed, the poets they read, and the God they believed in. It is all these things that have made them what they are, and these are the things that you can’t come to know by hearsay, you can only know them if you have lived them. You can only know if you are them.” 

“You are going to write about snakes?” Vicki said when I mentioned this review. “A shebang of snakes—long ones, short ones, fat ones, skinny ones, yellow, green, and red ones, snakes down your shirt and around your neck. Medicate yourself before you pick up a pencil. If you don’t, people in Connecticut will think you insane.” Vicki is from Princeton, New Jersey. At reunions, Princeton alumni wrap themselves in orange and black and parade down Elm Street looking like king snakes. Once the reunions end, the metaphoric snakes go to ground, and during the rest of the year Princeton is a snake-less place. For her part, Vicki has never held a snake. She is fluent in French and Italian, but she is too frank to speak with a forked tongue.

In The Sanity of Art (1895), George Bernard Shaw says, “the man who writes about himself and his own time is the only man who writes about all people and all time.” Shaw was both right and wrong. Vicki and I are from different regions. My comments about snakes don’t interest her. At best they are the stuff of humor, “Sammy’s Shebang.” What is true, however, is Shaw’s assertion that the person who writes about his own life also writes about the lives of others. 

“I believe that a large amount of unorganized time is valuable in life,” the great horticulturist David Fairchild writes, describing his boyhood. “My childhood was more casual than that of most children today, who are forced into some sort of regimented play,” he recounts. “I can see no advantage (particularly to a young naturalist) in this over-organization of childhood.” I was fortunate to be born with no athletic ability or any precocious gifts. My parents encouraged “boyhood’s painless play.” They allowed me to roam and grow weedy, trying this and that, and pulling books off library shelves at random. I caught snakes and lizards. I filled aquariums with cocoons and pupae. I stuck the shells of cicadas on flowers in the middle of the dining-room table and under the arms of chairs. I hid them in cookie tins and buried them beneath the icing on holiday cakes. To emend John Greenleaf Whittier, I saw “how the tortoise” bore “his shell” and discovered where the freshest berries grew. Whenever I saw a snake sunning on a road, I made my parents stop the car, and I chased it off the asphalt. I brought home bushels of box turtles and released them far from highways. 

Rarely do I see turtles on the roads today, but other people do, and they bring them to me and ask me to turn them loose. Snappers go to the Barrows Pond, spotted turtles to vernal pools, and wood turtles to the banks of the Fenton River. In the summer when Vicki and I rusticate in Nova Scotia, I pluck countless creatures off country roads: green frogs, dragonflies, garter and red-bellied snakes, woolly bears and white hickory tussock moth caterpillars, red efts, fledglings of all sorts, most recently a cedar waxwing, and even slugs—yes, slugs. To me, saving a slug is more important
than . . . I cannot finish the sentence, because almost everything in the public realm I once knew to be significant no longer matters to me. I am especially good at discouraging skunks from trundling along the shoulders of roads. I draw upon my elementary-school experience in the Safety Patrol. I lean over to get their attention, then I tell them to leave the roadside. When I suggest they dig a nest of yellow jackets out of a field, they obey. They glance at me for a moment, then shuffle off, thankful, I like to think, for the warning. 

I tell Vicki I save creatures to get right with God. “God,” I explain, “blessed me with the capacity to be a great and entertaining sinner.” Alas, I buried those gifts in the ground, disappointing God, who expected gossip about my doings to perk up pedestrian evenings around the Great White Throne. To atone for my dull, good behavior, I save creatures, and who knows, when I get to the Pearly Gates I may discover St. Peter to be a marbled salamander, a golden tortoise beetle, or maybe a relative of Thornton Burgess’s Jimmy Skunk.

On Valentine’s Day in 1951, “Mother and Daddy” gave me Snakes of the World (1931) by Raymond L. Ditmars, curator of mammals and reptiles at the New York Zoo and the country’s leading herpetologist. I still have the book. It sits in the middle of a shelf in my study, book-ended by a score of other field guides to reptiles—not so many as the litter of a fer-de-lance, which can number more than sixty, but nevertheless plenty. Dickens has long been the love of my reading life, but before I met Sairey Gamp, Pecksniff, the Artful Dodger, Wilkins Micawber, Mr. Toots, or any of the Smallweeds, I knew that the venom of a bushmaster was a hemotoxin, while that of a death adder was a neurotoxin. I  ’d watched black snakes wind glistening and ropy through stone walls. On Cold Comfort Farm, a mysterious something nasty lurked in the woodshed; on Cabin Hill, my grandfather’s farm, that something was plural: copperheads. I could once smell and “feel” the presence of snakes, skills that I have lost. Nowadays, I think searching for snakes to be better training for an aspiring literary critic than attending graduate school. The child who spends his boyhood lifting rocks and slabs of wood will find turning over words and sentences easy, natural, and less dangerous than looking for snakes, albeit more boring. 

In my house, snake talk was dinner-table talk. As a boy, I loved to root and rummage. I picked the locks of trunks and emptied closets. To discourage me from blowing through the attic like a typhoon, one morning Mother told me it was crawling with snakes and wild women. That afternoon, I explored the attic. I didn’t find any snakes or wild women. “It’s summer,” Mother explained. “They are outside.” I had caught many snakes, but never a wild woman. I was intrigued, and after Mother told me the gals lived in the woods below the dairy barn, I started digging traps—holes which I covered with a lattice of sticks and grass. Although my traps were disguised and well-laid, I didn’t catch a single wild woman—more good preparation for adulthood. Being free to roam made me comfortable in the world and led Mother occasionally to shout “Jesus” and absent herself from my presence. One afternoon, I caught a big rat snake. I put it down my shirt and walked into the house. “Momma, I’ve got a terrible stomach ache. Let me show you,” I said. “It’s probably something you ate,” Momma said, and bent over to look at my tummy. “Maybe,” I said, and unbuttoned my shirt. Out came Mr. Snake, and Momma left the room. Recalling that moment makes me laugh and weep at the same time. I miss that nice woman, and where, I wonder, did that really good boy go? 

There are many reasons why someone my age writes an essay-review. First, the subject interests him. Second, and this is closely related to the first, he writes for the same reason he reads: not to explain life, but to track his wanderings. Donne was right. No man is an island. He is an archipelago, not one person but a group of people, most of whom have faded, leaving behind hazy images. The autobiographer or the essay-reviewer gathers bits of the past and present, and often of expectations that he imagines he will have in the future. These he cobbles together, producing a being that has and has not existed and whose depiction is both accurate and inaccurate. Memory does not recall clearly. It also invents, and if the goal of writing is the impossible—that is, to produce marmoreal truth—it doesn’t serve the writer well. For me, snakes were as much sources of fun as they were of interest. One Thanksgiving, Mother and Father invited a crowd to dinner. There was much cooking to be done, and Mother enlisted the help of two old family servants. 

Early in the evening, Mother and Father went to a cocktail party, entrusting me and the final preparations for dinner to Mealy and Bertha. “Mr. Sammy,” Bertha asked after Mother and Father left, “do you catch as many snakes as you used to?” “Oh, yes,” I replied. “In the basement I’ve got the biggest copperhead you’ve ever seen. Let me go get it for you.” Steps to the basement spiraled down from the kitchen. “Don’t you bring any snake up here,” Mealy said. “No,” I replied, racing down the stairs, “I just want to show it to you.” Once in the basement, I grabbed a dishpan and a piece of firewood. I crumpled paper and, putting it in the dishpan, started back to the kitchen. The basement was dark, and when Mealy and Bertha looked down the stairs they couldn’t see much. When I reached the first step at the bottom of the stairs, I made a hullabaloo. I whacked the pan and stirring the paper with the stick, screamed, “Oh, Lord, help us! Run! This snake is getting loose! It’s going to jump!” And run Mealy and Bertha did, right out of the house into the back yard. Not only that, they refused to come back inside and prepare dinner. Only much later, when Mother and Father returned home and assured them I didn’t have “the world’s biggest copperhead,” did they return to the kitchen. Did I get into trouble? No—Mother and Father were sensible people. “Oh, Sammy,” Mother said, “you are the god-damnedest little boy.” Dinner was late, but the delay brightened the night by making people laugh and giving them time for an extra drink or two.

Snakes may be serpentine, but my pranks were always straightforward. People outgrow shoes and shirts, but I don’t think they outgrow the hankering for tomfoolery. Some people repress it, which is too bad: high seriousness builds battleships and bombs, drollery does nothing and means nothing. When my daughter Eliza was a small, impressionable girl, I caught a brown snake. I lowered my soft palate, closed my throat, and put the snake in my mouth. In defense, the snake pooped. The flavor wasn’t appealing, but I’ve eaten hundreds of things that tasted worse. “Eliza, honey,” I mumbled, “come here. Your daddy wants to give you a kiss.” When Eliza turned her head up for the kiss, I leaned down and, opening my mouth, pushed the snake out with my tongue. Eliza shrieked, hopped back, then said, “Oh, Daddy, give me the snake. I’ll put it in my mouth and surprise Mommy. I bet she’ll scream.” I made Eliza promise not to put a snake in her mouth. “It will crawl down your throat into your stomach. It will have lots of babies; they’ll eat all the food you swallow, and you will get so thin you won’t be able to walk. You’ll collapse and be unable to get up. The only way you’ll be able to move is by slithering. Your arms and legs will wither and drop off. You will sprout a tail, and eventually you’ll become a snake.”

Good writing requires the discipline and muscular work of thought. Before writing this essay-review, I trained. One afternoon, I roamed the fractured land above the Fenton River and caught an armful of black racers. Storrs is fangless, and I have caught every variety of snake in the area: milk, ring-necked, brown, green, garter, hog-nosed, ribbon, Eastern water, and black racer. The snakes are not aggressive, and usually they settle quietly against my chest. Occasionally one bites and breaks my skin. The bites cause trickles of blood, but they are almost unnoticeable. 

Although people interested in snakes lack immediately recognizable features such as the absence of eyelids, they somehow recognize one another. My acquaintances have been bitten by copperheads, northern adders, fer-de-lances, death adders, and dugites. Another person was sprayed by a spitting cobra. Only one bite was fatal. I’ve never had a close call. Once, off Fiji, I snorkeled through ribbons of banded sea snakes. They are deadly but docile. . . .

. . . . . 

 

Julia C. Duin’s In the House of the Serpent Handler was published in 2017 by the University of Tennessee Press. Subtitled “A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media,” Duin’s book brings serpent handling into the digital age. Much remains unchanged. Handlers are bitten. They refuse all medical help except that offered by the Lord, and they die. Last inspired words startle but quickly slip from memory and concern: “God’s still God, no matter what comes,” a dying man says. “No matter what else, God’s still God.” Being on stage doesn’t cure depression, but for a moment it still banishes the melancholy awareness of insignificance. “The Lord said it was time,” a woman says after handling a copperhead for the first time. “There is no way to explain the high you feel.” In contrast, men my age from my comfortable background don’t chaff at our insignificance. The Lord has never and will never speak to us. We distrust highs, and because our hearing has deteriorated, we are alone most of the time—not a condition that foments unhappiness, but which instead frees us to indulge in the few bourgeois pleasures that persist. (Reading, for example.)

Handlers remain poor and uneducated, and typically the church is in a sad place like Jolo, West Virginia, abandoned by hope and jobs, now inhabited, Duin writes, by “mostly the drugged-out, the unemployed, the retired.” Some things startle: Duin sees his-and-her snake boxes, the girl’s box “smaller, white, and decidedly feminine”; one learns that “Putting out a fleece” is asking God for a visible sign. Duin is intelligent and hard-working, but she is a journalist—a good one, by the by—and occasionally her prose slips into bait for pages that follow. “Alabama,” she writes at the beginning of a chapter describing a church at Sand Mountain, “was chock-full of great religious stories; I realized then and there that a colorful character stood behind every kudzu-covered bush.” 

I’m tempted to say, “Welcome to Mystic, Alabama, and the Mystic Copperheads.” Behind the kudzu lurk feral cats, armadillos, and, yes, people—very few of whose stories are colorful except in the distortions wrought by selecting and telling. Prose fabricates tales, not actual living.

Snake handling is carnivalesque. No longer, however, does it resemble a show tucked out of sight in a tent on the edge of fairgrounds. Television and increased newspaper coverage have transformed its church services into reality programs belonging to the same sappy and sad genre as Hoarders, Forty-Eight Hours, and My 600 Pound Life. Duin functions well as barker-announcer in charting the lives of a handful of handlers. Most are unable to manage family and lack the mental and emotional tools to cope with the complications inflicted upon them by anyone’s attention. As I followed their lives, I imagined Roy Acuff singing “Wreck on the Highway”: in this version, snakes replaced whiskey, and the sound of people praying swept away the wash of blood. Still, the ending of the song did not change; it remained a “sad story.” On the back of a car outside a church in Middlesboro, Kentucky, Duin spots a bumper sticker reading, “My Rattlesnake Is Smarter Than Your Honor Student.” The sticker reflects town come to country as well as awareness shaped by television and print rather than by the Spirit. 

For the record, I am not on Facebook. I don’t own a cell phone, and I usually ignore the landline when it rings. Duin’s handlers live nakedly on Facebook, “broadcasting” the minutiae of their emotional lives, publicizing church meetings, soliciting money, and eliciting scores of responses. Duin interviews “her” people many times, and because they live, and pray, in “the Age of Social Media,” she records pages of their posts, which dishearten. In them appear the real wrecks on the highway. Grammar and thought are unhinged; chances to reach audiences of strangers do not brook the restraint of manners. 

Occasionally a post provokes a reaction. Attempts to outlaw snake handling in churches are never-ending, the legislation usually balking at the rail of “religious freedom.” During one case, a woman “posts” from Hazard, Kentucky, saying, “It’s your snakes today, our Guns tomorrow.” If God were real—that is, Episcopalian, decent, responsible, and rational—He ’d sweep guns away in a whirlwind. Snakes can stay; as my friend Josh remarked, “they don’t bite enough people to affect evolution.” 

At the end of In the House of the Serpent Handler, Duin attaches an appendix describing “where to find serpent-handling churches mentioned in the book,” with photographs of six churches accompanied by extensive directions to their locations. The churches are modest and resemble what a listener imagines Hank Williams’s “Old Country Church” looks like. In the song, Williams laments the passing of time and says he longs to be with childhood friends at the church. Memories of friends are precious, to quote the lyrics, but I wouldn’t malinger at any of the churches described by Duin. Once snake boxes were opened, I ’d abandon friends and, leaving country roads behind, be on the interstate, safely sandwiched between tractor-trailers. I wonder how many tourists set out on Duin’s Trail of Rattlers. Maybe after visiting the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, Easter Island, Machu Picchu, the Louvre, and the Grand Ole Opry, a person might consider embarking on the trail. That is, if he can keep dozy dementia at bay long enough to set out.

Secular snake handlers abound. They are especially common at flea markets, craft fairs, and on university campuses. Pet stores cater to them and sell pythons and boas. In Florida, Burmese pythons have become an invasive species; in spring or summer, the females lay hatcheries of eggs, almost ninety at one count. I associate people who buy pythons with beer cans, “burgers,” French fries entombed in salt and ketchup, tattoos, dropping out, the use of questionable medicinals, cars missing one or more hubcaps, and pickup trucks festooned with bumper stickers, none of which refer to honor students. Most purchasers seem to be young men with rattletrap minds who hope to shift attention away from their prosaic characters and by appearing eccentric attract admirers. In truth, the person with a python slung over his shoulders is a visual soporific, less interesting even than someone who seasons talk with “Have a great day.” 

Parallel to the “legitimate” market is underground traffic in venomous snakes. Last month in Meriden, Connecticut, police arrested a man for attempting to sell snakes online. In the man’s possession were nine illegal snakes, seven of which were alive. The dead were a “tree viper” and a king cobra. Among the alive were a Gaboon viper, a forest cobra, two Egyptian banded cobras, and two monocled cobras. “Praise the Lord and pass the rattlesnakes” is another handler’s post in Duin’s House of the Serpent Handlers. Certainly, praise the Lord—but for “God’s sake” do it after calling the police, after the rattlesnakes have been removed from the suburb, and after their owner has bolted a super-size cup of strychnine and shifted his domicile to “that better place.” 

_____

Books furnish life, and the best books for appointing days with beauty and knowledge are field guides. Guides “let there be light.” They expand vision and determine thought and imagination. They awaken curiosity and vivify place. Ignorance destroys both the self and things outside the self, while appreciation invigorates and creates life. In a sense, not until something in the natural world is seen does it live. I noticed but really didn’t see dragonflies until Princeton published Dennis Paulson’s Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East in 2011. Three years later, Arthur Evans’s Beetles of Eastern North America sweetened the fragrance of dung and inspired me to spend fall raking through leaf litter and shredding stumps and rotten logs. In 2005, David Wagner’s Caterpillars of Eastern North America filled the fields and brush around Vicki’s and my old farm in Nova Scotia with living doubloons, creatures more colorful and enriching than gold. Barren fields and hours bloomed. As I learned names and studied caterpillars, I learned more about plants and, of course, about moths and butterflies, but also about sundry other insects I had noticed only in passing. Days that were noiselessly drifting into the silence of old age suddenly bustled with observation and conversation. 

Appreciation of snakes depends upon seeing them only as snakes. They are among the “works of this visible world,” as John Ray wrote in 1691, but they are not, as Ray asserts of all God’s works, “a demonstrative Proof of the unlimited extent of the Creator’s Skill, and Fecundity of his Wisdom and Power.” To endow serpents with meaning and think them demons or symbols bastardizes both the animal and the sight of the viewer himself. Medusa’s hairdo of writhing dreadlocks has, for example, nothing to do with real snakes, but is instead a cautionary emblem. Life, not snakes, hardens hearts. Many volumes celebrate the beauty of snakes, but to do so they frequently pose and distort. When Hermes found Lamia in Keats’s poem of the latter name, “She was a Gordian shape of dazzling hue, / Vermillion-spotted, golden green, and blue; / Striped like a zebra, freckled like a pard, / Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr ’d.” In comparison to the snakes depicted in Guido Mocafico’s stunning coffee table book Serpens (2007), Lamia seems washed out. The photographs in Serpens are at their best, in Keats’s words, “like new flowers at the morning song of bees.” Eliza purchased the book in Berlin shortly after it was printed in Germany, explaining presciently that the luxurious pictures evoked the sensuality of Keats’s poetry. Nevertheless, although the snakes coil through Gordian stanzas of color and mesmerize, they are framed for the page. In fact, their radiance is so unnatural that looking at more than three or four pages at a sitting causes vertigo.

For people interested in snakes in and for themselves, no type of book is more informative and inspirational than the field guide. Photographs in present-day field guides are excellent. Unlike Mocafico’s pictures that mold beauty into an abstraction, guides depict the natural. The success of Emerson’s “Nature,” Leslie Stephen writes in Historians and Essayists (1899), lies in Emerson’s ability to translate arguments “into concrete shapes of witchery and beauty.” At their best, field guides capture everyday beauty, leaving witchery to be imposed by the eye of the reader. Of course, simple sentences and the straight and narrow inevitably meander into curves and complexity. The human being is an “imposing animal,” transforming the unseen into the seen, no matter whether he is in Greasy Ridge, Hazel Green, or Sand Gap handling snakes and singing about “that beautiful shore,” or is at home dozing in an armchair, watching Bosch and waiting for dinner. “The beauty of nature reforms itself in the mind,” Emerson writes, “for new creation.” “To the quietest human being, seated in the quietest house,” G. K. Chesterton writes less exaltedly, “there will sometimes come a sudden and unmeaning hunger for the possibilities or impossibilities of things; he will abruptly wonder whether the teapot may not suddenly begin to pour out honey or sea water, the clock to point to all hours of the day at once, the candle to burn green or crimson, the door to open upon a lake or a potato field instead of a London street.”

Almost every university press in the South has published excellent guides to reptiles and snakes. Often, but not always, the guides concentrate on the regional. For this essay-review, I selected four guides. Admiration for the books themselves and personal experience determined my choices. 

The University of Virginia Press published Snakes of Virginia by Donald Linzey and Michael Clifford in 1981. In 2002 a paperback edition appeared. If the book had been available when I was a boy, I would have overturned every stone and rolled over every log in Hanover Country. For each snake in Virginia, the book contains a signature of pages providing the snake’s other names, a clear description of its appearance, its habits, habitats, range, food, longevity, and enemies. The hognose snake, I learned, is also known as the possum snake, and the black rat snake is sometimes called a chicken snake. This last snake occasionally strayed from the chicken coop into the main house at Cabin Hill. One day a rat snake burrowed into a basket of laundry in the yard and, curling up amid the sheets, traveled upstairs. That night, Grandmother stepped on it when she went into her bedroom. The ensuing hubbub was all that an eight-year-old boy could wish for. Later that boy caught the snake, took it outside, and turned it loose frightened but unharmed. 

An additional category in the book describes how each snake fares in captivity. The hognose snake, for example, does well if “toads are available for food.” I am not a herpetoculturist or a terrarium hobbyist. I collect books and anecdotes. If a hobbyist invited me to view his exotic collection of Wagner’s vipers and Mexican lance-headed rattlesnakes, I ’d refuse. But to be polite I ’d do as Romans 16:16 advises, and after saluting him with “a holy kiss” suggest he visit a couple of the country churches mentioned by Duin, perhaps the Edwina Church of God in Jesus Christ’s Name in Newport, Tennessee, or the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’s Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky. “Imported snakes are all well and venomous,” I ’d say, “but you should see America at its snake-handling native best.”[. . .]

 

______

*An essay-review of:

In the House of the Serpent Handler: A Story of Faith and Fleeting Fame in the Age of Social Media. By Julia C. Duin. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2017. 227 pp. Illustrated. $24.95, paper.

Reptiles and Amphibians of the Southern Pine Woods. By Steven B. Reichling. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008. 252 pp. Illustrated. $29.95, paper.

Snakes of the Eastern United States. By Whit Gibbons. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2017. 416 pp. Illustrated. $32.95, paper.

Snakes of the Southeast. By Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015. 280 pp. Illustrated. $28.95, paper.

Snakes of Virginia. By Donald W. Linzey and Michael J. Clifford. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002. 176 pp. Illustrated. $21.95, paper.

Taking Up Serpents: Snake Handlers of Eastern Kentucky. By David Kimbrough. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2002. 232 pp. Illustrated. $19.00, paper.

 

Samuel Pickering, the author of more thirty books, which span several genres, was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. He taught English for forty-five years, thirty-five of them at the University of Connecticut. His most recent book is Parade’s End, published by Mercer University Press in 2018. “Reading Pickering,” a reviewer wrote in the Smithsonian decades ago, “is like taking a walk with your oldest, wittiest friend.”