This August passed, I had the pleasure of visiting America's Mid-South. From my base in the rolling hills of Nashville, Tennessee, I drove east through paleolithic forests into another timezone and the Southern Appalachian Mountains. En route, I passed the Oak Ridge Nuclear facility, where the uranium used to make America's first atomic bombs was enriched with the unstable U-238 isotope in what was then the world's largest building.
The Appalachian mountains stretch up the entire East Coast of North America, from Alabama to the beginnings of Canada. However, it is the region south of Mason-Dixon to which people generally refer with the word Appalachia (local pronunciation -- throw an apple atcha). This region has generated an intense and peculiar culture (I should say cultures) informed by Scots-Irish immigration, evangelical Christianity, and a kind of Hamsun-esque 'pantheistic oblivion' through contact with nature. The other ingredient in the mix is isolation. On trips to rural communities in search of old 78 RPM recordings, collector Joe Bussard spoke of homes without telephones or electricity at least as late as the '70s. It is important to reflect on that frontier community of America which has no voice internationally, and probably no wish for one.
You get something of a feel for a place through the flora and fauna - frequently road-killed fauna - that you see when passing through. East Tennessee is humid, and the forests range from a succulent green to rotting brown. For my time there, wood for whittling was hard to come across, the most promising sticks usually rendering no more than a rotten core or an enormous centipede. On the forest floor are snakes, which provide an ever present reminder of Satan, but are also a pagan force, unseen danger, and so on. These reptiles enable the existence of an illustrious Pentecostal Christian subset -- the Serpent Handlers, who, with microscopic precision, honed in on this as the Bible's crucial statement:
"They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them" Mark 16:17-18Therefore, their worship consists of many of the usual rituals such as speaking in tongues, song, and dance, but with the added thrill of handling live, deadly-venomous snakes. One story from this sect describes a preacher who was traveling between rival churches, one more liberal than the other (when I say liberal, I mean that one referred simply to 'Jesus' while the other gave the full 'Jesus the Christ'). When he was bitten and poisoned to a painful death, the orthodox church saw this as evidence that his faith was not true.
Many of the preachers have special decorative boxes for transporting the serpents, inscribed with verses from the bible. A project that I am interested in is recreating one of these boxes (with breathing holes) along with a whittled contingent of snakes to go inside. We should recall here Moses' snake/staff transformation, and the obvious ease of whittling a snake from a stick. The picture below shows such a box, and in case you can't make it out, his hat says 'Jesus is my God'.
The Museum of Appalachia, near Knoxville, is where I heard all of this. The museum has an extensive collection of artefacts, instruments, and folk-art. Primitive and libidinal 'face jugs' are a particular highlight. Whittling and carving make a good showing too. There are numerous examples of hand-crafted banjos displaying devastatingly effective simplicity, just as often joyful crudeness. Before the industrial mass production of guitars, the banjo was a far more popular instrument due to its ease of construction. Decoration comes in the form of fancy neck heels or figurative peg heads. Often, the whittler's rule of working with the natural form of the wood is used, with odd shaped branches creating instruments with a minimum of tooling.
The collection has a large section devoted to whittling proper. These items are mostly folk-art or knick-knacks. One display relates how an older whittler would carry around a little supply of little shoes or birds, presents with which to delight his many grandchildren. Most of the subject matter is rooted in the everyday; wildlife, some excellent serpents included, and in a characteristically self-reflexive example of human activity, model knives and tools.
Religious tropes bear heavy on this part of the world, but the dominant Protestant theology eschews iconography. It seems, however, that this injunction is lifted when it comes to Satan, who is always so-named and is frequently depicted with an almost action-sculpture style of fervour. What was, to me, the centre piece of the Museum and a triumph of primitive craft for capturing the inherent sinister part of nature, is a huge sculpture of Satan made from walnut wood. The sculptor first spent days walking around hills and valleys searching for a suitable chunk of wood, an action which already loads the piece with performative pathos. A knotted and twisted walnut trunk duly was found, it's dark colour and marbled, sinewy grain recalling dark offal, kidneys or liver. Again, the tooling is minimal; the already-there shape of horns is added to by inlaid glass eyes. Below is the final exceeding accomplishment, as the teeth of a dead animal are seamlessly integrated into the trunk. The perfect fusion of wood and bone, life and decay, terrifying in their pervasion.