September 7, 2009

Snakes alive #2

Just back from the jaunt down south with the serpent handlers. I left on Friday morning, driving straight through, stopping only once to use the bathroom and grab a cup of weak "rest stop" coffee. I went directly to my favorite preacher's house and we spent a few hours catching up and looking over his latest batch of freshly caught snakes. One in particular was too big to get your hand around. He keeps them in large aquariums in a shed beside his house. He has a large padlock on the door for fear that someone might get in and steal these snakes that took him so long to find in the rocky hills near his home. I did a quick count, one very large yellow copperhead, a few smaller darker ones and at least a 3 large rattlesnakes. As you glance into the aquariums the snakes stare back at you, coiled, ready. A few seconds later the hum of the rattles fills the room. It's immediately obvious they don't like having you so close. Standing on saw horses in the middle of the shed is the handmade coffin he's been working on for the past few years. It's a dark reddish mahogany color and he's made the whole thing from timber pulled from the woods behind his house. I asked if it was done yet and he said "Almost, cept the inside". He cleared away some items from the top and opened the lid. Inside were pieces of white satin. He had started to staple the material to the lid but hadn't finished. It is obviously a work in progress, though he hadn't done much with it since the last time I was there a year ago. My father told me a story long ago of a friend of his who had built his own casket in his garage and was later buried in it. Seemed oddly nice and comforting knowing you made this bed, box, vessel, casket you would spend eternity in. We talked until around 6:00pm when I realized I had to hustle to make the first service of the homecoming on time. It's only about 30 miles from his house to the snake handling church but on those twisty roads it takes almost an hour.

I drove like a maniac and arrived with plenty of time before chuch started. People were milling about in front, talking, hugging and shaking hands. I saw a few men open their trunks and pull out the wooden snake boxes and carry them into the church. They set them among the others at the altar totaling about 7. You could hear the faint rattling as soon as you walked through the doors into the church. A few men were at the altar pointing and commenting on the snakes inside the boxes. The church service started at around 7:30 and the quiet spoken preacher had to raise his voice to get everyone's attention. The first words out of his mouth was a warning to everyone NOT to take photos if you weren't a member of the congregation...Or, unless you were a friend of the church (like me). He talked about how many times people had come and taken photos only to find them later published in some magazine with a horrible article describing them as nuts or fanatics. He warned that if any photos were used in a negative manner you would be banned from the church forever. Then everyone was asked to stand up, reach out to anyone close by and tell them you love them and give them a hug or handshake. As this was going on a few men went behind the altar, sat behind their guitars, basses, organ and drums and the music began. Men and women gathered on the wooden floor in front of the alter and began to dance, twirl around and stomp their feet. Hands in the air and eyes closed, praying and chanting. After about 10 minutes of loud, rhythmic, repetative, folk inspired playing, a man went up to the alter, flipped the latch on one of the boxes and reached inside. He stroked the snakes body and held it over his head as he prayed. It stretched itself out towards the ceiling, sort of hovering above everyone, rising up toward the twirling ceiling fan. Later a preacher told me he thought the snakes liked the wind the fan gave off. The next three days with these people was incredible to witness, to say the least. Each service lasted between 5 and 6 hours. The first night I left the church around 12:30am. I was exhausted from driving the 400+ miles to get there and after another 45 minutes of those twisty roads I pulled into a church parking lot, climbed into the back seat and cracked the windows. I woke up at 7:00am. I was the way you feel when you're camping. I washed up in a bathroom and brushed my teeth using bottled water. I drove another half hour hoping to meet a group of old men I had photographed a year earlier at a music store playing bluegrass. They had breakfast each saturday morning at "Bud's Place" near Tazewell, Virginia. I pulled in and was glad to see them all there sitting at a table, smoking and drinking that weak coffee with loads of sugar and CoffeeMate. They guaranteed me Bud's had the best biscuits I'd ever tasted. They were good, but tasted like any other biscuit to me. I left them around 9:30 and spent the rest of the day shooting the local scenery along those twisty-turny back roads. At 6:00pm I was back in that same  church. Saturday night they ask everyone including me NOT to take any photos, which was disappointing. Seems some of the old timers were showing up and didn't want their pictures taken. I decided to experience the service like a true church goer so I stood up front and sang, danced and clapped my hands with all the others. When the snakes came out I was closer than I should have been but I had no fear. Odd thing to be next to a man holding a 4 foot black rattler that could easily reach out and give you a death bite. After the service my preacher friend asked where I was staying and I replied "In the car". He was very kind and offered his couch so I went back to his place, another hour away and crashed on his couch. I was up the next morning at 5:35am and quietly left to take more snaps of the local scenery. Sunday's service began at 1:00pm and it was a low key, quiet group comparatively. The service was somewhat sedate and evidently God did not tell anyone to "take up serpents" because no one even approached the boxes. The service ended without a single snake coming out. Perhaps they were preoccupied that a pot luck dinner was outside waiting for anyone who wanted to partake. A bit later, many people had left or were leaving when I heard someone strumming a guitar and singing. A few people had moved back into the church and an impromptu service had started. I grabbed a camera just in time to see someone pull a large black rattler from a box... God had evidently spoken to someone at the last minute. After the service, I said my goodbyes and started the long drive home. The rain was coming down in buckets and with my wipers on high I could barely go over 20 mph. After a few hours I pulled into a rest stop and slept awhile before heading back to Va. 
Lastly, I wish I could post some photos of the serpent handlers on this blog.  I have some really great images. The problem is, these people have a moral standard they live by which is much more strict than my own. They've let me come into their church and homes to take photos. They trust me. By having certain photos that I've taken on this blog, although artsy, I don't think they would appreciate being on the same site as many of the photos.  And, I have to respect that.  Pictures? You'll have to wait for the book and/or gallery show.  

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