I used to want to be a writer. I used to think I had a few poignant tales to tell. Then I read this book after stumbling upon it in the Birmingham Public Library. I needn’t bother. My tales have been told. And much better than I could ever have dreamed of telling them. Dennis Covington wrote my book for me.
No, I’ve not any experience with snake handling. I’ve been vaguely aware what seems my whole life long that there were people who seemed to believe that handling a poisonous snake without being bitten was evidence that the Holy Spirit had descended upon them. I’ve never had much interest in snakes at all (or the Holy Spirit, for that matter), except to avoid them. Dennis Covington loved snakes as a boy, going on snake-hunting expeditions with his pals, so was naturally drawn to the snake handlers of Southern Appalachia after reporting on a trial of one for attempted murder that he’d covered for the New York Times.
I’m not quite sure how this book and the snake-handling trial that spawned it slipped by me back in the early to mid-90’s, except that around the time the trial was going on, I was getting married and shipping off to war, and when the book came out, I had just graduated law school, and with a wife and young child in tow, was finally making it back to Alabama to start my professional life. I had little time for such curiosities. And the internet had barely begun its ubiquitous inculcation into everyday life. You had to try to keep up with news so bizarre it was noteworthy. And the details of the trial were definitely that—a snake-handling preacher was accused of getting drunk and forcing his wife at gunpoint to put her hand into a cage full of rattlesnakes in an attempt to kill her. She did, three times, but the snakes didn’t bite. Maybe it was the Holy Spirit working in her. He got 99 to life.
But the snake-handling, and the fascination with snakes, is about the only point of departure between me and Covington. The book is a memoir, along with a tale of snake handling, and it turned out Covington had lived partly my life, and partly my Dad’s. Covington grew up in East Lake, in Birmingham, Alabama. Same as my Dad (who adopted me at age four when he married my mother). He went to Woodlawn High School, same as Dad, and started out wanting to be a preacher, same as Dad, attending with him the same Methodist church growing up. Covington veered off before reaching college, and instead of going to Asbury College in Wilmore Kentucky, went to the University of Virginia, and later to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, to become a writer. Dad veered off the priestly path at Asbury, deciding he could do well while doing good, and became a doctor.
Then, when Covington was bored teaching writing at the local university back in his home town (UAB), he decided to wrangle some press credentials and head down to El Salvador to report on the civil war raging at the time. That’s when he started living my life. I served about ten months, in two five-month stretches, flying helicopters in support of the Salvadoran government in their fight against the FMLN, the Soviet Communist-backed rebel group. Then Covington became enamored with the Sand Mountain area of Alabama, the place where my wife’s family came from. It is Sand Mountain’s less-geographically-extensive (but higher in altitude) sister ridgeline, Lookout Mountain, where the wife and I own some land and are building a farmhouse. The people up that way refer to all of it simply as “the Mountain”. Snake handling churches can be found on both ridgelines, but Covington found his on Sand Mountain, hence the title.
It’s all a part of Southern Appalachia, though. The two ridgelines aren’t ridgelines at all, but are part of the Appalachian Plateau that extends down into Northeast and Central Alabama, as far south as St. Clair County and as far east as Winston. The plateau would be mostly flat, something like the land around the Grand Canyon in Arizona and Utah, except, like there, for erosion. The two ridges are what’s left of the plateau after what is known as Will’s Creek carved a ten mile or more gully between them.
After seeing his daughter take so readily to the singing and preaching in one of the snake-handling services he attended, Covington just knew that it must be touching some visceral something within her, awakening some long-dormant aspect of her nature, so he set about to follow his lineage to see if he was related to anyone on the Mountain. And of course he found that he was. Most all the folks working the steel mills in Birmingham had dribbled down the spine of the Appalachians to find work. Sand Mountain finally peters out as an identifiable geologic feature a few miles northeast of Birmingham, depositing its effluvia on the lush Jones Valley plain. I’m sure I’ve got similar people in my lineage, but can’t know for sure, at least not on my paternal side, as Mom never told me before she died who my real dad was. But when I look in the mirror at my red hair and blue eyes, I see an Appalachian soul. Will’s Creek is named after the first white settler to the area, a red-headed, half-breed Cherokee Indian. Legend has it that my real dad was a half-breed Cherokee Indian. The first time I went to the Mountain with my wife, before I knew any of this, it felt like going home to a place I’d never been before.
Covington had read Albion’s Seed before getting involved in the snake handling culture, and recognized the traits of the borderlands Scotch-Irish people in his own blood and in that of the handlers. The Scots and Irish migrated from the Borderlands region between England and Scotland, or from the Scottish Highlands, or from the Scotch colony in Ireland (called Scotch-Irish in America), starting in the early days of the American Republic, and gathering speed into the late 18th and early to mid-19th century. They usually arrived in Philadelphia or Boston or New York, and them that didn’t stay moved on to Appalachia, i.e., the borderlands/no-man’s-land region of the fledgling country. Eventually into Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia, and finally, Alabama. The Borderlands people who settled Southern Appalachia were tough bitten, clannish, combative, suspicious of authority and outsiders (often one and the same back home, given their residence in the hinterlands, far away from the power centers), emotional, and with a near mystical spirituality. It doesn’t take much imagination to see Albion’s characterization expressed in the people, particularly the snake handling people, of the Mountain.
Everything was so familiar to me in Salvation on Sand Mountain that I looked up Covington on the internet (he’s a writing professor at Texas Tech University now), and sent him an email, thanking him for his beautiful, brilliant telling of ‘our’ story. Lo and behold, I got a phone call later that evening from none other than the author himself. I figured he might respond with an email, or perhaps nothing—it’s sometimes dangerous responding to unsolicited ‘fan’ mail. We had a rollicking good conversation. He knew my dad—one of the ‘Asbury boys’ he talked about in the book (but not mentioning him by name), who had been something of a hero to him (Dad is six years older than Covington, and six years is a big difference in age when young). It turned out that we had been in El Salvador at the same time—his last trip was in the latter half of 1989, and I was there all that summer and into the fall. There was so much to talk about, it was a struggle to get off the phone by a reasonable hour. I told him of my place up on Lookout Mountain. He half-jokingly asked if I had a couple of acres I could split off and sell him. I said I did. He promised to look me up when he was back in town. I promised to do the same if I ever made it out to Lubbock.
I can’t be objective about this book. It was too close to my own life. But I can say, objectively, that the writing is brilliant. The story-telling supreme. Just like you’d imagine one of those Borderlands people, who have always had a literary flair, might have told it, around an evening fire in some backwoods cabin. Thank-you, Dennis.