In a way, it began with snakes Home to the hills: After writing about a Christian sect that handles rattlesnakes as part of its rites, Dennis Covington returned to Appalachia to seek his roots.

October 26, 1995|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Brother Carl Porter lugged a thick, melancholy, yellow-phase timber rattlesnake as big as they come into the homecoming meeting at the Old Rock House Holiness Church on Sand Mountain in Alabama.

"He's never been in church before," said Brother Carl, who smelled of the sweet savor of the Holy Ghost, I just got him today.

Brother Carl shoved his serpent box into Dennis Covington's face. "Got your name on it," he said.

Mr. Covington realized the time had come for him to take up the serpent: the big timber rattler would be his snake.

In his book, "Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia," Mr. Covington writes about snakes, snake handlers and the congregations of snake- handling Christians.

Yesterday, a week after "Salvation on Sand Mountain" was nominated for a prestigious National Book Award, he read excerpts from the book at Johns Hopkins University.

'They say we've gone crazy,' Brother Carl shouted above the chaos. He was pacing in front of the pulpit, the enormous rattlesnake balanced now across his shoulder.

'Well, they're right,' he cried. 'I've gone crazy! I've gone Bible Crazy! I've got the papers to prove it.'

And he waved his worn Bible in the air.

Dennis Covington reads well, with the accents and rhythms of his Southern homeland, and something of the fervor of the Holiness preacher. He's a rangy, loose-limbed guy with a craggy profile, deep-set eyes and a mole on his right cheek. He grew up in a nice, modest neighborhood in Birmingham, Ala., where people aspired to the middle-class values and virtues all Americans are supposed to share.

His people had come down from Sand Mountain, a high plateau at the southern end of the Appalachians that pokes into northwest Alabama like an accusing finger from the past.

His exploration of snake handlers and their faith led him into a journey to his own roots among the people of the Appalachian hills and his own spirituality, his own deepest beliefs.

"I found my great-grandparents listed as illiterate in the 1870 census," he says. "The census taker had also checked the boxes for deaf, dumb, blind, insane and idiotic.

"I'm proud of them," he says defiantly. "It's poignant to me that I didn't have any idea who they were or where they came from."

"I felt an immediate affinity with snake handlers," Mr. Covington says. "Now it seems obvious to me that my people were hillbillies. They had the same clannishness, belligerency toward authority, suspicion of outsiders. That's who I look like."

He's now a college professor who directs the creative writing program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, a novelist and a free-lance journalist. He spent most of the 1980s covering war in Central America. He started on his snake-handling odyssey stringing for the New York Times, covering the trial of a Holiness preacher accused and convicted of attempting to murder his wife by rattlesnake bite.

Mr. Covington is also a born-again Christian, baptized in the Southern Baptist Church.

"Personally," he says, "I feel like somebody who believes Jesus was the son of God. I believe I'm born of the spirit in addition to being born of the flesh."

Snake handlers take their authority from the 16th chapter of the Gospel of St. Mark, where the resurrected Jesus tells his Apostles: "In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt them . . ."

Snake handlers do, indeed, preach ecstatically, speak in tongues, cast out devils, take up serpents and routinely drink strychnine, somewhat diluted.

"They do it to confirm the work Jesus said believers had to do," Mr. Covington says. " 'We're the ones,' they say. 'Somebody's got to do it.' "

Brother Carl brought his snake to him at the Old Rock House Holiness Church.

It was the big timber rattler. The one with my name on it, acrid-smelling, carnal, alive . . . But as low as it was, as repulsive, if I took it, I'd be possessing something sacred. . . . I stepped forward and took the snake with both hands.

He felt no fear. The room started disappearing, fading into white.

I knew then why the handlers took up serpents. There is power in the act of disappearing, in loss of self. It must be close to our conception of paradise, what it's like before you're born or after you die.

He came back in stages from wherever he was.

I realized I was holding a rattlesnake. It was an enormous animal, heavy and firm. The scales on its side were as rough as calluses. I could feel its muscles rippling beneath the skin.

But by the end of his book, he's decided not to take up serpents anymore.

"It's an abhorrent thought to me that somebody might die in a church service," he says.

Snake handlers get bitten frequently; many die.

"Mark doesn't say what happens when they take up serpents," Mr. Covington says. "Mark doesn't say they won't get bitten."

At least 74 handlers have died of snake bites, including George Went Hensley, who first got the notion to take up a serpent about 1910 near Sale Creek, Tenn.

"Since my book came out, there have been deaths among handlers," Mr. Covington says. "Punkin Brown's wife, Melinda, died of rattlesnake bites in a service in Kentucky, and two others not mentioned in my book."

Brother Punkin, a "legendary" snake handler, told Mr. Covington that the first time he saw Melinda: "She was speaking in tongues and handling a big rattlesnake. I told Daddy, 'I'm going to marry that girl.' " They had four children.

Some handlers say that when somebody gets bitten, it's because something isn't right in their lives.

"Others say that at least he died in the Lord," Mr. Covington says. "It was just his time to go."

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