Serpent Blog

Books. Give me *books*. 
The novel is the only thing that really matters to me. The book. It's the only thing that makes a difference, the only thing that makes a lasting dent. A novel burrows and inhabits. It's a thing I can hold in my hands. Pages. Text printed on paper. To see the whole before it is consumed. That's another thing that sets it apart. To see it. To feel its weight and measure its thicknesses.

Books do things to me. Like nature. Like weather. They surprise me by showing me myself in new but familiar forms. The novel, the right novel already exists in my head before I ever open it. It's just been waiting for me. The books that I read and the books that I hope to write are patiently waiting, Reading them, or writing them, simply reveals the details of what I already seem to know but have not yet articulated.

A novel is a miracle. Born in another time within another human's heart, a stranger's heart , unfolds inside my own, in my present. A single human being enters another. Intimacy without knowing. A faceless form of love. A code exchanged across space and time wakens neurons, fires, neurons, creates images, feelings - good God, the feeling of it, the way a book makes you feel. That subtle tickle in the back of the lower part of your throat, like a contraction, the choking part of 'choking-up', the waves and the vibrations, the rising joys, the shivers of revelation, how your body just hums, sometimes, how it physically reacts to sudden and unexpected understandings, recognitions of something lost and buried being slowly revealed. A film does not do this. Not as personally, not as intimately. A painting does not do this. You have to work harder to see yourself in a painting. But novels seep into all my crevices. A novel is a liquid that fills the empty spaces and conforms to the shape of its container. The container is myself.

In a sense a book is a container and a story is water being poured from one vessel into another. From one body into another. A book is a bottomless vessel. One copy of To Kill a Mockingbird can fill a million little cups across ages. Is a writer then a bartender? A chef? A chemist? No, an alchemist, transmuting souls. Great novels transmute me, transform me, transcend me. There is nothing else like a novel. The only other art form that comes close is the song. Music does this. But I cannot write music so I write words. A paragraph is a song. Great novels sing. They well up like Negro spirituals. I can feel them in my bowels, in my bones. They get inside me because they come from inside me. I am always the focal character. I am Madame Bovary and Holden Caulfield. This is not a simile. I am not like them. I am them. This is what really separates novels from movies, from music. I never feel that I become the person on film. There's always a separation, a wall. I don't see me there and I don't feel me there. I may have empathy and sympathy but I am never them. We never blend. But in a book I am that person, and sometimes many people. This is occurring at a subconscious level. We are contained within the container. We hold ourselves in our own hands. We are connected.

I need to carry my books wherever I go. I want them to get wet and dirty and bent and scuffed. When I am finished I want them to know that they've been read. I like my books like I like my people - beaten and worn. Damaged. There's no such thing as a digital book. Words can be digitized, books cannot. A book is more than words. Books have souls. Even different copies of the same book are unique.

If story does not occupy physical space, if it does not have volume and texture and smell and a sound then I find that it is lacking something vital. A cover; which is a door. A title page; which is a curtain. A typeface; which is a secrete code through which I absorb and discover, a certain paper stock - the emulsified pulp of living things, a tree. A book is a resurrection. There is poetry in this that justifies the death of the tree.

I know trees. Trees will willingly give their lives for great books. It is an honor to them. Whole groves should be grown specifically for this purpose. I see now in my mind's eye, an eye created by 40 years of reading, a father planting an orchard at the birth of his son, who will grow up to write a great novel to be printed on the very paper milled from that grove. I see that boy wandering his orchard, touching his sacrificial trees, speaking to them, whispering to them like a toreador worshiping his bulls. The sound that the wind makes in their branches is a language only he can understand. The power and magic that is contained in real books originates in trees. Trees are the elusive philosopher's stone in this mystery equation. It takes a tree to make a book. For a book to have its power lives must be lost.

Novels grow on paper like fungus grows on the bark of dying oaks. New life is fertilized with corpses. Every book should be a resurrection. And that is what I feel when I hold a real book, a great book, like Shadow of the Wind or Cold Mountain, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Sun Also Rises. Something died to bring those stories to me, and I must feel the weight of those deaths and treasure them, like the mummies of the pharaohs. I must worship them, dust them, keep them clean, open them from time to time to read random passages. Every great book is a funeral and a celebration.

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An Apology and an Oversght 
I apologize to Shelby Lee Adams for posting his photograph, Boy with Serpent Box and Poison Jar, without his permission. Copyright is the only protection an artist has and it should be taken seriously. I did not do that. I wish to express my regret for this oversight. It was not my intention to offend the subject in this photograph nor to exploit Mr. Adams.

I will be taking down the photograph in question as soon as I can contact my webmaster. I have already removed another copy of it from my blog on which I included a caption which the subject may have found offensive. For that I am also sorry.

I tried to write Serpent Box with respect and dignity toward the Pentecostal movement that inspired it. I have tried to portray Holiness people as God-loving, spiritual human beings. I have heard from several Holiness people who have read the novel, and they have told me that I did in fact succeed in doing so. But Serpent Box is a work of fiction. It is not based on any real people, and is not meant to be a documentary about snake handlers. That being said, I was moved by Mr. Adams' photos. His incredible book, Appalachian Portraits (which was ironically stolen from me) introduced me to these people, whose faith in God and Jesus infected me, and provided me with the impetus to re-discover God in my own life. I am truly grateful to him and to his subjects.


It has also been brought to my attention that certain photographs on the site should be credited to Russell Lee with appropriate copyrights attributed to him. These I got from the National Archives and at the time did not see such a credit nor was I aware of the Commons Licensing requirements. This will be corrected shortly.

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The Past Matters and the Future is a Scam: The Wisdom of Carl Jung 
I have been struggling to articulate this for years. I could write a thousand blogs and not come close to what Jung says so eloquently here. Take heed, ye children of Facebook, Twitter, iPhone and Blackberry, we are killing our ancient souls…

“Our souls as well as our bodies are composed of individual elements which were already present in the ranks of our ancestors. The “newness” in the individual psyche is an endlessly varied recombination of age-old components. Body and soul therefore have an intensely historical character and find no proper place in what is new, in things that have just come into being…we are very far from having finished completely with the Middle Ages, classical antiquity, and primitivity, are our modern psyches pretend. Nevertheless, we have plunged down a cataract of progress which sweeps us on into the future with ever wilder violence the farther it takes us from our roots. Once the past has been breached, it is usually annihilated, and there is no stopping the forward motion. But it is precisely the lost of connection with the past, our uprootedness, which has given rise to the “discontents” of civilization and to such a flurry and haste that we live more in the future and its chimerical promises of a golden age than in the present, with which our whole evolutionary background has not caught up. We rush impetuously into novelty, driven by a mounting sense of insufficiency, dissatisfaction and restlessness. We no longer live on what we have, but on promises, no longer in the light of the present day, but in the darkness of the future, which, we expect, will at last bring the proper sunrise. We refuse to recognize that everything better is purchased at the price of something worse; that, for example, the hope of greater freedom is canceled out by increased enslavement to the state, not to speak of the terrible perils to which the most brilliant discoveries of science expose us. The less we understand of what our fathers and forefathers sought, the less we understand ourselves, and thus we help with all our might to rob the individual of his roots and guiding instincts, so that he becomes a particle in the mass, ruled only by what Nietzsche called the spirit of gravity.
Reforms by advances, that is, by new methods or gadgets, are of course impressive at first, but in the long run they are dubious and in any case dearly paid for. They by no means increase the contentment or happiness of people on the whole. Mostly they are deceptive sweetenings of existence, like speedier communications which unpleasantly accelerate the tempo of life and leave us with less time than ever before. Omnis festinatio ex parte diaboli est – all haste is of the devil, as the old masters used to say.”

Carl Jung, from Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1961

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The Upside-Down Man 
The street was crowded with us. We, the workers, the commuters. We were on our way home from jobs. Home from jobs. I was among them. It was Friday, this past Friday, and the collective thought of us all was the Friday thought – a weekend. Home.

A throng of us was approaching the corner of Battery and Bush when I saw a man who was upside-down. This didn’t seem at all strange to me. The man was standing on his head on the busy street corner surrounded by us - the suits and cellphone set. The light was against us so we waited for it to change. The upside-down man, I noticed, was not resting the entire weight of his upended body on the pavement, on his head, but was resting his head on a sort of plate or dish that has a narrow base or foot. It was clearly a device of his own making. The crown of his head fit perfectly into the cup of this wooden stand.

I stood less than six inches from him. He had before him a clear plastic cup with money in it. One of his legs was folded, his knee bent and crossed over his other leg, like some sort of yogi or mystic, as I have imagined so often in my fantasies of India. We made eye contact. I could see that his eyes were bloodshot and very wet. I could see the struggle in him, the effort it required to maintain a stable posture, upside-down, on a busy street corner, with traffic quite literally inches away from him. He looked at me and I at him. In that moment we had met.

I spoke. I said: If I had any money on me I’d drop it in your cup. He smiled. He said: That’s alright. We have this. We have this connection. Then I said something I still cannot explain. I said: If I could, I’d make myself small and jump into your cup. I have no idea why I said that or where it came from. But the upside-down man, whoever he was, smiled again. He looked at me. He looked at me with the eyes of knowing, a look you can only feel from strangers who are not strangers at all but who you have somehow always been known. He said to me: You’re already there. You’re already in my cup.

This transaction (and I consider it a transaction because an exchange occurred, an exchange of love) lasted no more than 30 seconds. The amount of time it takes to deliver to me an advertisement for a brand of soup. Yet, it stayed with me. The upside-down man and his cup.


On Sunday morning I went owl-hunting. I needed an owl. There is really no way you can understand this. My need for an owl. Upon the advice of a dear yet very new friend, I took a solo hike into Tennessee Valley in Marin.

It was a cold and gray morning but that meant that the trail would be quiet and empty. Armed with my Moleskine notebook, a pocket volume of collected Rilke writings and a digital recorder, I set off to find my owl, and then, to the sea.

As is usually the case, an unexpected chain of events led me to my quarry. I saw a deer. It was a lone doe, feeding on a ridge above the main trail. I left the fire road and followed her up a steep trail. In the distance, hidden behind a large Monterey Cypress, I saw a boulder that was completely ensconced in an ancient tree stump. I moved toward this stump, knowing that I must see it, touch it, photograph it. I was walking carefully through the thick undergrowth when I spied the remnants of what appeared to be a large lozenge of hair on the ground. An owl pellet. I knelt in the dried grass. I pushed the pellet with a twig and it fell apart, revealing its treasure of tiny bones. I soon found more pellets. I looked up an discovered I was directly under a cypress tree. Horned owls love Monterey Cypress trees.

I promised myself that once I was done exploring my old stump, I’d go back to the tree to look for the owl.I photographed my stump. It was beautiful. About as big as a hot tub and completely hollow. Then I went back to the tree. I looked through the grass and found more pellets and also a large guano spatter pattern. The owl spent a lot of time above this spot. If I was lucky he’d be there now. I stepped back a few yards and looked up. There he was. A Great Horned Owl. My heart jumped. It would be difficult to describe to you what owls mean to me. They are my spirit guides. My totem animal. And when I see one I am usually at some kind of crossroads in my life. It had been over a year since I last saw one in the wild and I am indeed at a major crossroads.

I photographed the owl and I spoke to it. I will not tell you what I said. That was between myself and the owl. But I’ll give you a hint. What I say to owls is similar what I say to God. Help me. Grant my strength. And since I am lacking in what the owl has an abundance of, namely sight and hearing, I ask for a little of that too.

I left the owl and walked to the sea. The rhythmic crashing of the ocean resets my soul-clock. I just need to be near it. 15 minutes by the water’s edge does more for me than any therapy session. Hawks, vultures, a rabbit, the owl. I found a tree branch where a buck had been rubbing its antlers. I spoke to a raven. And I read from Rilke to the very sea itself. Rilke. How can I explain how this man and his hundred-year-old words has saved me? Time and time again.

I think about the upside-down man and how he invited me to enter his little cup. I think about how I have been an upside-down man. I think about the owl and the hare and the raven and the deer. God is everywhere and in every thing. And He is not a silent God. It is I who can so often be deaf. Blind. Noisy. Be like the owl, He tells me. And go quiet into your night.

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The woods in the morning. A quiet stillness. A rising mist. In the moments before the dawn everything is silhouettes. The rays of sun, when they come, are angled up instead of down. We are walking in the filtered footlights, my father and I. We are walking through groves of chestnut-oak and birch.

The lake in the morning. It, too, emits a wispy, visible breath. My father is busy with rigging fishing rods and preparing the canoe. He does not see his own reflection in the mirror of the lake. He does not see the tall black pines that are mirrored in the lake. It is so quiet that I can hear the sound of enamelware cups rattling at the cabin a mile away across on the other side.

The harbor in the morning. We wake to the sound of shrouds rapping against a forest of aluminum masts. My father slides open the hatch cover. A cool air rushes in and I can smell the salt marsh and the pungent gray tidal flats. My father is making coffee and of course he’s smoking his pipe.

I am the son of the morning. I was raised in a soft, golden light. I became familiar with the stillness and the quiet hush of each day’s newness. Far away crows. A dog barking somewhere distant. Empty streets. Newspaper trucks. Old men buying racing forms and poppy-seed rolls. The cool earth, fresh from its dark night slumber. I am almost alone, here. I am almost the only boy living. I am almost primitive in my relationship to light.

It is the light that is the magic of the morning. My body feeds off light because my body is composed of light. I do not like the darkness. The night saps what the morning brings. If I had my choice I’d be asleep an hour after sunset and up an hour before the dawn.
I loved to work on the water. When I was 16 I had the best job I ever had in my life. I was a launch driver at a yacht club on the north shore of Long Island. I ferried wealthy men and their families to and from their moorings in a 30’ diesel launch. I spent 12-14 hours a day in a boat on the water. I woke before dawn and prepared the boat for the day’s work ahead. I raised the American flag and the club burgee up the flag pole and at dusk I fired the gun and took them down. I wore a uniform. I carried a radio. There were times I worked the graveyard shift. But there was something beautiful about being out there in the morning.

If the day was going to be very hot the surface of the water would be as clear and still as resin. You could smell the creosote warming on the docks. The air was filled with sounds I can never forget. The wooden docks would creak. The water lapped gently against them. The steel shrouds of sailboats rattled and clanged against their masts. The launch itself in its throaty diesel chug. If I could have this job again I believe I would pay for the privilege.

Now it is Sunday morning. It is the best of the seven. The preceding week leads up to this. And it’s worth it. John Coltrane on the iPod. A good cup of tea. Nothing spread before me but a book and a day filled with sunshine. Promises. That’s what mornings are. Beautiful, golden promises. And now I will go off to enjoy the rest of this one.

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