Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake-Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia - Dennis Covington What was originally intended to be a meditation on the trial of a Holiness pastor, Glenn Summerford, who was convicted of using snakes to kill his wife morphed into a rather bizarre memoir that follows the spiritual development (?) or devolution of an erstwhile Methodist to snake-handling Holiness followers in Scottsboro (yes, *that* Scottsboro**) Alabama. He traces his ancestors back to earlier generations of snake-handlers assuming in a rather Lamarckian fantasy that their fascination with holy rolling is genetic. He's clearly fascinated by his (and his daughter's) intense physical reaction to the music. A risk-taker himself, having been a journalist in war-torn Central America, where he had been under fire several times, one cannot help but wonder if putting oneself in danger doesn't have an exceptional appeal to some people.

His original idea was to write a book about these people. The result of is a very interesting cultural essay filled with delightful little tidbits of irrationality:

"She explained what they were, bare trees in rural yards adorned with colored glass bottles. Then I remembered I’d seen them before. I thought they were only decorative. But my neighbor told me spirit trees had a purpose. If you happen to have evil spirits, you put bottles on the branches of a tree in your yard. The more colorful the glass, the better, I suppose. The evil spirits get trapped in the bottles and won’t do you any harm. This is what Southerners in the country do with evil. But this nonsense -- in the literal sense -- is no different from the recent Pope Benedict's resurrection of the Office of the Exorcist. (

His discussion of the origins of snake handling reinforces what I have learned elsewhere, i.e. that it represents a rejection and fear of encroaching industrialization with its concomitant societal upheaval.

"Snake handling, for instance, didn’t originate back in the hills somewhere. [A debatable point, I believe.] It started when people came down from the hills to discover they were surrounded by a hostile and spiritually dead culture. All along their border with the modern world — in places like Newport, Tennessee, and Sand Mountain, Alabama — they recoiled. They threw up defenses. When their own resources failed, they called down the Holy Ghost. They put their hands through fire. They drank poison. They took up serpents. They still do. The South hasn’t disappeared. If anything, it’s become more Southern in a last-ditch effort to save itself....Enter the snake handlers, spiritual nomads from the high country that surrounded Scottsboro, from isolated pockets on Sand Mountain and the hollows along South Sauty Creek. They were refugees from a culture on the ropes. They spoke in tongues, anointed one another with oil in order to be healed, and when instructed by the Holy Ghost, drank poison, held fire, and took up poisonous snakes. For them, Scottsboro itself was the wicked, wider world, a place where one might be tempted to “back up on the Lord.” They’d taken the risk, though, out of economic desperation. They had been drawn to Scottsboro by the promise of jobs in the mills that made clothes, carpets, rugs, and tires. Some of them had found work. All of them had found prejudice."

The author finds himself drawn to the emotional excess of the handler "services" and his description of becoming part of the experience, handling a huge timber rattler, is, for him, quite exotic and unsettling. But his rational side also admits to being drawn to danger. He describes the experience this way: "It occurred to me then that seeing a handler in the ecstasy of an anointing is not like seeing religious ecstasy at all. The expression seems to have more to do with Eros than with God, in the same way that sex often seems to have more to do with death than with pleasure. The similarity is more than coincidence, I thought. In both sexual and religious ecstasy, the first thing that goes is self. The entrance into ecstasy is surrender. Handlers talk about receiving the Holy Ghost. But when the Holy Ghost is fully come upon someone like Gracie McAllister, the expression on her face reads exactly the opposite — as though someone, or something, were being violently taken away from her. The paradox of Christianity, one of many of which Jesus speaks, is that only in losing ourselves do we find ourselves, and perhaps that’s why photos of the handlers so often seem to be portraits of loss."

One is tempted to look for a rational reason why the snakes don't bite more often, but the fact remains they bite all the time and deaths from snakebite are disproportionately large compared to those in the general population. Handling is clearly stressful for the snakes who rarely live out a season whereas they can survive for several decades in the wild. Often the snakes will die while being handled. They are certainly untameable and contrary to popular opinion one does not attain a certain immunity to snake venom after multiple bites. To the contrary, one is more likely to develop an allergic sensitivity.

My rational side recoils from the unfathomable need of these people to lose themselves in what is clearly something very precious and moving. Having read three different accounts of snake handling (not to mention strychnine-drinking), I remain baffled but fascinated.