"If you trust in Nature, in what is simple in nature, in the small things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling, not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge." Rilke
So that is what I did. As I groped for images and ideas through which the story of Jacob Flint could be revealed, I began each scene, each chapter, as close to the natural world as I could get and tried to view the essence of each person and each scene through nature. Nature, which was here before us. Grass, trees, streams and sky. Birds. Insects. Light. Nature is the most prominent character in Serpent Box. It is the fabric that binds the people and events and the medium through which everything in the story transpires. The natural world, the woods, is a place I admit, I feel more at home in than in the world that people have constructed to combat it. Write what you know, they say. This is what I know.
It is no accident I chose to write a book set in the wilds of Appalachia. I am drawn to places dominated by trees and ruled by wildlife. My people are very much a part of their environment. They use the raw materials available to them to heal and cure, eat and worship. Perhaps my favorite person in Serpent Box is the mystical granny-woman, Gertie Bates, a midwife and folk-healer who acts as Jacob's oracle and spiritual mentor. Small, frail and well over ninety years old, Gertie Bates is a woman of the earth. Part yarb-doctor, part spiritualist, she draws all her strength and all her wisdom from the very ground she walks upon. She trusts what the world has given her and believes in the powers of animals, plants, trees and stars.
We are a part of nature, never separate from it, never independent of it, and when we look at ourselves through the lens of the natural world something miraculous happens. We are humbled. We are soothed. We gain perspective. And, we experience that rarest of emotions; joy. When we begin to truly recognize how incredible it is to simply be alive, to be a thinking, wondering organism capable of understanding our inner workings and our origins, when we think about DNA and atoms and weather and wildlife, we cannot help feeling lucky, being grateful, being cowed. Walt Whitman says:
"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars, And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren, And the tree-toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest, And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven, And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery, And the cow crunching with depress'd head surpasses any statue, And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels."
It is that supreme humility, that child-like wonder, which keeps us grounded and helps us to maintain the feeling that life is a precious, great gift.
In Serpent Box, the Cherokee snake-hunter Baxter Dawes says:
"... a man in the woods is about the purest thing there is in the world and the closest he can come to knowing God. A man can never buy with money this thing that the Lord gives him for free...The sense of awe and respect one derives from the trees and the earth and all things that dwell in between..."
I have tried to instill this reverence for the world and its wonders in all the people who inhabit Serpent Box. Be it the army field surgeon Sanchero, ruminating on the wastes of war, the redeemed murderer Sylus Knox, who recognizes and reinvents himself through a reconnection with the earth, the fallen preacher Hosea Lee, whose self-imposed exile in the woods leads him to greater truths, and to Jacob Flint himself, who takes refuge and solace in the nature that surrounds him.
The way I wrote Serpent Box, the method I used to figure out how to write it, was to trust in nature and to try to serve that which is poor, humble and too often, overlooked. The result was that I was staggered, and more importantly, I am no longer an infidel to that which has created me.