Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Talking with the sons of Confederate veterans

I once found myself behind a pickup truck in Jackson, Mississippi that had bumper stickers of the American flag AND the Confederate battle flag. I’m sure it made sense to the driver, but all I could think was: Which is it, buddy? Was not one specifically designed to negate the other?

It was a perfect illustration of how the rebel flag’s meaning has been transformed over the years. In the late eighties, when Mississippi was preparing to vote on whether to retain its current state flag, which includes the Confederate battle flag in its canton corner, I saw a few bumper stickers touting the flag with the words “Heritage Not Hate.” It may have been true in the eyes of the people who sported the bumper sticker, but a heritage that encompasses racial supremacy is naturally going to offend people of other races. The KKK is partly to blame, though the problem obviously runs much deeper than that. Regardless of how you view the Confederate flag, it was the symbol of a nation that sought to secede from the U.S., and one that officially embraced human slavery.

I wrote in a recent post about the Neshoba County Fair that I’d like nothing better than to see black people co-opt the flag, so we can be done with the wedge it drives between the races. Personally, I’ve never been flag-oriented, having observed that symbols are easily perverted. Plus, any kind of nationalism makes me wary. People whom I mistrust and even revile have waved the American flag, too. As a white southerner I’m not personally offended by the rebel flag, but I don’t feel a strong attachment to it, either, and I understand why some people don’t like it. All of which came to mind when I was invited to speak to a group that calls itself the Lowry Rifles Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which meets in the fellowship hall of the tiny Central Independent Baptist Church in Pearl, Mississippi.

The book tour for Sultana is over, but I still get calls now and then from someone who wants me to talk about it to their group, and on this night it was the Lowry Rifles Camp. I was happy to oblige. I’m always interested in engaging people with different perspectives on the story.

When I arrived at the church I noticed that the vehicles in the gravel lot were mostly pickup trucks, many with Confederate battle flag ornamentation. No surprise there. What was surprising was the ritual that the 30 or so members and guests performed after their opening prayer: They pledged allegiance to the flag (the U.S. flag, that is), then to the Mississippi state flag, then to the Confederate flag, which, for those of you who aren’t familiar with such things, is different from the familiar “rebel” flag. In their salute to the Confederate flag they pledged their faithfulness to the cause it represents. I was tempted to ask, when I got to the podium, “What cause would that be?” But that would have launched a long discussion, and I had been asked there to talk about the Sultana, which carried its own subtext, seeing as how the Confederates are the enemy in my book.

Marc Allen, who introduced me, issued a bit of a disclaimer when he mentioned my book and reminded the group that their common interest is history, first and foremost. He seemed to be preparing them to listen to a sympathetic treatment of Yankees. And I think he was right, they were interested primarily in history. Everyone listened to my Yankee story and asked thoughtful questions afterward. I could not have felt more welcome.

When it comes to racial matters I often like to transpose words and vantage points as a sort of test. Say there’s an article about racism, which typically means white racism, though there are clearly other kinds; I like to transpose the words “black” and “white” to see how the story plays that way. It can be an illuminating exercise. In this case I wondered how I’d have been received at this meeting if I had turned out to be black, which would be the antithesis of something that happened several times during the tour for my book Mississippi in Africa, when black audiences were surprised to find that I’m white. I like to think that most people are welcoming by nature, and that it is only in the heat of the moment that they get ornery and hateful. Then again, back in the sixties the moment got heated in places exactly like the Central Independent Baptist Church. There was no way to know how I’d have been received had I been black, but people are complicated and I’ve learned firsthand that just because someone likes the Confederate flag doesn’t mean they’re racist.

At the start of the meeting, before I was introduced, one of the members of the group made a few announcements, one of which concerned a recent news item that the SEC was considering withdrawing its upcoming tournament in Mississippi due to continuing controversy over the state flag. This elicited groans from the audience. He also mentioned a planned “burn a Confederate flag day” in Arkansas, in opposition to a tea party rally, which elicited a few gasps. What really seemed to irk him, though, beyond the flag-burning, was the association of the Confederate flag with the tea party, which he considered offensive.

Growing up as a white boy in Jackson I had a certain fondness for rebel soldiers, who were clearly the more romantic of the two teams in the civil war. They were our people, and a few of them were considered heroic. Later, when I was a student at Ole Miss, before the administration grew sensitive to the problem the university’s symbol, the Confederate battle flag, posed for its athletic recruitment program, I enjoyed seeing the sea of rebel flags on our side of the stadium during football games. We were the South. We were different. We were rebels. Only later did I come to understand that we weren’t the South, exactly. We were a part of the South, and the flag meant something entirely different to some of the other parts. I’d had the luxury of not having to worry about the flag’s deeper meaning. It wasn’t one side in a civil war game. Though I felt no heartache over the eventual banishment of the flag from the stadium, neither do I automatically judge people who see it as a symbol of something they admire. Flags, clearly, can mean different things to different people.

The obvious answer to the question, “Which is it?” is that conservative politics is the common ground over which the otherwise contradictory flags simultaneously wave. But I suspect there was more at work in the fellowship hall of the Central Independent church, in part because of something Marc Allen told me afterward. As he was talking about his group’s mission to restore, save and maintain local civil war cemeteries (many of which are, for a multitude of reasons, endangered), he told me it doesn’t matter to them whether the graves are of Union or Confederate dead. “Whatever side they fought on, their memory should be respected,” he said.

Time heals all wounds, I suppose. The Lowry Rifles Camp may not have diversity in its mission statement, but it’s more inclusive than you might think. There were more than a few women among them, including one from Indiana, and they truly did seem as interested in the stories of Union soldiers as they were in the stories of Confederates. I don’t know how they’d react to a black person who expressed an interest in joining, in that black soldiers fought on both sides during the civil war, but I doubt that’s a call they’ll have to make any time soon. They’re pretty deep into the white southern thing, as evidenced by the items for sale on the table, which you can see in the picture that accompanies this post. They’re the Sons of Confederate Veterans, meeting in a Baptist church in famously white Pearl, Mississippi.

Still, it was interesting to go to a place where those divisive symbols – Rebel flag decals, patches, car tags – were actually on sale, and find that they did not seem to be a rallying point for hatred. On the contrary.

As we lingered outside after the meeting, watching distant lightning fracture the night sky, a boy of about 12, nicknamed Bubba, who had earlier been inducted into the Lowry Rifles Camp, listened to Allen express his deep dismay over the sale, on eBay, of items he was certain had been pilfered from battlefields, including some that were likely exhumed from graves. His point was that some people do not share the SCV’s reverence for the past. Obviously, that reverence is being handed down, as evidenced by Bubba’s induction into the camp. The problem is that the past, in Mississippi, is fraught with perils, and it provides the perfect context for a battle flag to come into play.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Naomi Campbell's hair

A lot has happened in Liberia since my book Mississippi in Africa was first published in 2004, including the arrest of the country’s president, Charles Taylor, for war crimes, the election of the first female president of an African nation -- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and the release of two remarkable documentaries, An Uncivil War and Pray the Devil Back to Hell. More importantly, though, the West African nation, which was settled by freed slaves from the U.S. before the American civil war, has found peace after back-to-back civil wars that kept the country in turmoil from 1990 to 2004.

I traveled to Liberia in 2001, searching for descendants of a group of emigrants from Jefferson County, Mississippi in the 1840s. One of my chief sources while I was in Liberia, Jefferson Kanmoh, a student activist who went unnamed in the book due to concerns that he would suffer reprisals from Taylor, has since been elected to the Liberian Congress, representing Sinoe County, site of the old colony known as Mississippi in Africa as well as neighboring Louisiana, which was similarly settled by freed slaves from that state.

I’ve kept up with Jefferson and many others I met while I was in Liberia, and for obvious reasons have remained interested in what was happening there. Last week, I was surprised to read of an episode that adds a new dimension to the strangeness that has never been in short supply where Liberia is concerned: The testimony, on August 5, by supermodel Naomi Campbell in Taylor’s UN trial in The Hague, Netherlands. I was a bit nonplussed to find that the magazine Vanity Fair, which had previously published some excellent reports about the Liberian civil war by journalist Sebastian Junger, chose to focus this time on Campbell’s… hair. So it goes with Vanity Fair. That’s Campbell, by the way, in the photo accompanying this post, alongside another, of two female Liberian soldiers taken by photographer Teun Voeten during the civil war.

Taylor, an American educated former warlord who was elected president primarily because Liberians saw it as their only hope of ending the bloodshed (the popular mantra was, “You killed my ma, you killed my pa; I will vote for you”) is charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape and cannibalism. The story is too complex to even begin to do it justice here, but Taylor is accused of arming warlords in exchange for so-called “blood diamonds” mined using slave labor, while participating in civil wars in Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone in which an estimated 250,000 people were killed. Apparently he sought to impress Campbell soon after his election, which is how she came to testify at The Hague.

Prosecutors had hoped to solidify their case against Taylor through testimony that he had given Campbell a bag of raw diamonds after a charity dinner hosted by Nelson Mandela in Cape Town, South Africa in 1997. Both Campbell’s former agent and actress Mia Farrow confirmed the gift, and though Campbell had previously denied receiving it, she changed her tune in the International Criminal Court. When asked how she received the diamonds, she said: “When I was sleeping I had a knock on my door. I opened it and two men were there and gave me a pouch and said, ‘A gift for you’.” Inside the pouch she saw “very small, dirty looking stones” -- uncut diamonds. She continued: “At breakfast I told Miss Farrow and Miss White [her agent] what had happened and one of the two said, well that’s obviously Charles Taylor, and I said, yes I guess it was.”

When questioned about what she had done with the gems, Campbell said she passed them to Jeremy Ratcliffe, then-director of Nelson Mandela’s Children's Fund and asked him to “do something good with them”. The charity denied receiving the diamonds until last week, when Ratcliffe handed them over to police.

Taylor has been in prison since 2004, and his trial, which began in 2007, appears to be in its final stage. His wife, Jewel, divorced him in 2006 and now serves as a senator in the Liberian Congress, alongside my friend Jefferson, who is in the House. One of the couple’s sons is serving a 97-year sentence for his war crimes role.

The war was going on when I traveled to Liberia, but I wasn’t there to cover the conflict – far from it. I was trying to find out what had happened to the largest group of emigrants, more than 300 slaves who were freed from Prospect Hill Plantation by the will of Mississippi planter Isaac Ross (hence the long and cumbersome subtitle of the book: "The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and their Legacy in Liberia Today”). The war, for me, was primarily a hindrance to doing historical research, and I lived in fear of being arrested while in Liberia after U.S. embassy officials informed me that Taylor thought I had traveled there as a UN spy. Several other journalists had been arrested under the same pretense and charged with capital crimes, though all were subsequently released. My inadvertent insertion into the war, which naturally led to its inclusion in the book, also led to a lasting friendship with Sebastian Junger, whom I contacted after reading his Vanity Fair articles about Sierra Leone, hoping he could give me advice on how to prepare for traveling to Liberia. Sebastian advised me not to go, but when I told him I had no choice, he gave me useful nuts-and-bolts advice and told me to get back in touch with him upon my return. I think he was intrigued by the idea of this inexperienced guy researching family trees in a war zone, without any protection or support, as much as anything. He afterward hooked me up with his literary agency, which sold my manuscript for publication.

Through Sebastian I later met Teun Voeten, the Dutch war photographer whose photo of two young female soldiers appears here, and Tim Hetherington, a British photographer and videographer who spent eight years living and working in West Africa, four focused on Liberia, and shot the footage for the stunning documentary An Uncivil War (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MaWb_OZAdLQ). Teun wrote his own book about his experiences in the region, and in 2006 Tim took a break from photography to work as an investigator for the United Nations Security Council’s Liberia Sanctions Committee. More recently, Tim and Sebastian collaborated on the film Restrepo, about the war in Afghanistan, which won this year’s Sundance prize for best documentary. You can check out Teun’s photos at www.teunvoeten.com and Tim’s at www.timhetherington.com. The trailer for Pray the Devil Back to Hell, a documentary about how the women of Liberia rose up to protest for peace, can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uon9CcoHgwA. There's also a brief video about efforts to assimilate child soldiers into society, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlL1SBZfz20

Jefferson, meanwhile, who was shot and imprisoned during the Liberian civil war, is now an up-and-coming statesman and remains one of the more inspiring people I’ve met. He recently traveled to a human rights conference in San Francisco and hoped to make it to Mississippi for his first visit to what many “Americo” descendants in Liberia consider their homeland, to “return” to a place he had never been, much as the original freed-slave emigrants to the Liberian colony “returned” in the 1840s to Africa – a place that they, as longtime American slaves, had never been. Unfortunately, Jefferson’s plans fell through.

Despite brief news coverage, the publication of books and the release of documentary films about Liberia, most Americans are unaware of what has been going on there, which mystifies the average Liberian, who’s acutely aware that theirs is the only nation the U.S. ever created. I could not help noticing, during the time that Liberians were asking the U.S. to intervene in their civil war, that American opponents warned of “another Somalia,” despite the fact that the two countries are as geographically and culturally distinct as Ireland and Uzbekistan. Then again, many Americans think Africa is a country, not a continent.

Liberia is Africa’s oldest independent republic, and its history is among the more complex and enthralling in the world. It’s worth reading about, which is why I’m proud to say that the newest edition of Mississippi in Africa is on the shelves after a brief period out of print.

Liberia exists in a sort of parallel universe, with communities named Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Kentucky and Virginia, and reports from the country do occasionally feel as if they’ve passed through the looking glass. Unfortunately it’s often a one-way mirror, through which they can see us but we can’t see them. Perhaps if more supermodels were involved we might pay closer attention.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Neshoba County Fair

Like the rest of America, the Neshoba County Fair has grown more conservative, and incrementally wilder, in the last decade, which is about how long it had been since I was last there. I attended the fair, which is held just outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, for two days last month for a much-needed refresher course, and noticed, first off, that the Democrats have more or less gone underground at an event that historically has revolved around political debate.

The Dems are still there – my friend Chuck Lewis’s cabin, where I stayed, is a notable liberal way station on Founder’s Square -- but you'd hardly know it from the look of things. Their voices are quiet and exceptional. The fair is now primarily a mecca for white Republicans, a change that is probably more noticeable to someone who hasn’t been there in a while. Not that it's becoming a giant tea party -- far from it. The fair’s rustic cabins, the venues for what National Geographic magazine once called “Mississippi’s Giant House Party,” are welcoming places, and political differences are tolerated if not necessarily embraced.

The fair’s demographic has always been conservative, though it once voted solidly Democrat. The shift in political party allegiance came slowly, as it did elsewhere in the South. In fact, nothing changes rapidly at the fair, unless you count the occasional natural death among the generations who return each year to their respective cabins, and even then, while the change is keenly felt by family and friends, the fair goes on. There's always another elderly lady, one porch over, with her own scrumptious recipe for ambrosia salad. To make serious inroads, enough time has to pass to kill off all the old ambrosia makers, which is certainly happening, though their offspring are poised to take up the mantel. Continuity is the thing. Ambrosia endures alongside other traditional southern foods in the spreads laid out on Formica dinette sets and other time-worn hand-me-downs that have found their final uses at the fair. The drift toward conservativism is likewise nothing new. It’s something handed down from generation to generation. Those who were once conservative Democrats are now conservative Republicans. That's not to say there's no difference -- there is. But you could see it coming.

The fair, which lasts a week, is the largest and one of the oldest camp-style fairs in the U.S., dating to 1889, and is a much beloved local institution among its fervent but fairly narrow demographic. The rest of us are guests or, in some cases, part of the entertainment, such as the carnies, the jockeys who race the horses on the red-dirt track and the politicians who speak at the pavilion in the square. What the fair is really about is socializing in a friendly, relaxed, and hot and dusty (or muddy, as the case may be) environment. It is a safe redoubt for its participants. Children wander, unsupervised among the crowds, the horses and the carnival rides, or play in creeks that thread through the cabin lanes. My friend Catherine said that when her son Ian was small they would release him on his own recognizance with his cabin number written on his shirt so he’d be returned to his home base if he got lost. There are rounds of political speeches, with blowhards echoing off the cabins on the square to polite applause. There are talent shows, which are entertaining in large part because they’re hopelessly amateur. There is drinking, eating and socializing late into the night. If you’re part of the demographic, it’s a comfortable, reassuring and fun place to be.

Since the fair is held in Mississippi in July the weather is invariably hot, which has made it one of the final holdouts for a once-ubiquitous southern prop, the hand-held cardboard fan, which typically advertises a local funeral home or a political candidate. Air conditioning was once reserved for the newer cabins, on the less rigidly traditional alleys off Founder’s Square, but today most cabins have it, though people still spend most of their time outside, fanning.

People still try to be a bit discrete about their alcohol consumption in the dry county, though you do see flagrantly displayed beer cans late at night, when young people roam the grounds on what appears to be a communal outdoor club cruise. There are still all-night sing-alongs, where strangers and old friends and extended family members who see each other once a year gather around a piano under a bare light bulb in the open air pavilion to sing old standards such as “My Wild Irish Rose.” The sing-along I attended had the look of an old Norman Rockwell painting, until the crowd got around to singing a song about… smiling darkies. The song illustrated the comfortably white-centric dynamic of the fair, for better or worse, and how things change very slowly, in subtle ways. As the sing-along crowd crooned the lyrics from their hand-out sheets, I noticed one young guy who’d been belting out the songs suddenly covered his mouth with his hand when they got to the part about the smiling darkies, yet continued to sing. Not far away, a guy in a group of rougher-edged country boys blurted out, in surprise, “Did you hear that? They’re singing about darkies!” and laughed.

The darkie song notwithstanding, I sensed no hostile racial overtones. Race rarely even comes up in conversation. The fair is simply a place where traditional southern whites can bask in their natural habitat and take advantage of the opportunity to sing familiar songs, including “Dixie,” unhindered. It's an outcropping of Mississippi’s cultural diversity. “Dixie,” for the typical fairgoer, is about how old times here are not forgotten. Pain over certain of the memories is not on public display. No one I spoke with at the fair mentioned the burial, back in the sixties, of three murdered civil rights workers in an earthen dam down the road.

The failure to ruminate about old times that people would just as soon be forgotten was noted in the blog of a man named Tim Murphy, whom I met at the fair, which was later posted on the liberal magazine Mother Jones website (http://motherjones.com/road-trip-blog?page=1). Murphy, who lives in Boston, showed up at the fair while on a cross-country, post-college graduation road trip, and could not resist mentioning the lack of mention about Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner, though he did so without judgment, which was itself something of a surprise. My thought was: Is the lack of mention really unusual? Would it have made sense to hear someone say, “Welcome to our cabin! Make yourself a plate of food, pull up a chair and we’ll talk about the civil rights workers who were executed outside Meridian and buried in an earthen dam not too far from here”? It’s alarming to think that good people the world over have allowed such atrocities to be committed in their midst, but from the perspective of fairgoers it’s just a matter of people going too far, which is a tendency that is roundly frowned upon. It doesn’t mean anyone’s forgotten; they just have a lot of personal catching-up to do.

Conservative fairgoers have no reason to attempt to drive the Democrats from their midst, and anyway, the cabins are legacies handed down, so no one is going away any time soon. They also have no reason to make the occasional black guest, who is not a jockey, a housekeeper, a member of the Neshoba County Fair Security force or a neatly groomed political operative, feel uncomfortable. Still, the political drift is unmistakable, and the aggressively Democratic Jackson city council has contributed to it by ceasing to participate in Jackson Day at the fair on account of the perception that it’s just a bunch of white people doing white-people things, which it most assuredly is, just as the Medgar Evers Homecoming is about black people doing black-people things. The difference, I suppose, lies in the responsibility white people have for the state’s troubled past. Fortunately, and contrary to popular mythology, there are a great many integrated events in Mississippi today; the Neshoba County Fair doesn't happen to be one of them.

When someone mentions the handful of Confederate flags hanging from cabin porches, it occurs to me that every group celebrates its culture, and doing so often drives a wedge between them and other groups. The flag is only offensive to people, black or white, who choose to see it so. In my view, black people should simply co-opt the iconic symbol. They should take to flying the Rebel flag themselves, and perhaps even wear Rebel flag belt buckles. They should just take the flag and run with it, so we can all be done with it. While it’s obvious that fairgoers generally appreciate that people there can fly the flag without being called out on it, the truth is most don’t take it seriously. You can say that’s troubling in and of itself, but the main problem is that such displays become the inevitable take-away for the media and black visitors, to which the natural cabin host’s response would be: “Have a piece of pecan pie!”

At one point, when Murphy, the guy from Boston, took shelter on a cabin porch during a sudden summer downpour, he was welcomed by the hosts, though he was a stranger. I choose to think this would have been the case even if had he not been white, because the fair is, if nothing else, a polite, hospitable place. One of the hosts filled him in on the fair’s history, the high point of which, from her perspective, was a visit by presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1980. Murphy and his traveling companion happened upon the fair by happenstance, and he pronounced it kind of wonderful and “wild.”

Later, as we sat on Chuck’s cabin porch, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, a former Republican lobbyist who is seriously conservative, took to the stage on Founder’s Square to ruminate about politics and to exaggerate about the impact of President Obama’s drilling moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico. Meanwhile, his wife sat on the porch of the cabin next door sipping her chosen beverage from a Styrofoam cup, and a Republican candidate with perfectly coiffed hair worked the crowd. A guest on Chuck’s porch looked through one of the photo albums chronicling the decades his family has been coming to their cabin at the fair, observing the comings and goings and the passage of time.

Congenial as the fair is, you can’t gather thousands of people together for a week at a time without the occasional hiccup. During the course of my stay, one of the horse groomers was impolitely stabbed during a late-night altercation with an acquaintance in the stables, and an elderly woman who failed to put her car in park rammed her family’s cabin and suffered a broken bone. But the next day everyone except the old lady was back to socializing, and the word was that she was most concerned about the possibility that she may have cast a pall over her family’s annual reunion. As one fairgoer noted, concerning the stabbing victim, “He was back at the fair by noon the next day, with stitches.” Such events are absorbed into the continuum of the fair. Soon enough, everyone will return to the real world, with all that entails, but for the moment, they're free to sing, with communal gusto, “To Dixie’s Land I’m bound to travel, Look away! Look away! Look away!”

Monday, August 2, 2010

On the trail

If you run through the woods long enough you’re going to run up on a snake now and then. Trail running in the South, particularly in summer, is basically a roving, high-speed surprise party for snakes. The surprise is also on you, of course, but it’s important to remember that the snakes are similarly off-guard.

I trail run every day that I have access to trails, and I’m aware of the presence of snakes, though I typically hear them more often than I see them. They make a different kind of rustling in the grass than legged animals. I occasionally come upon nonpoisonous snakes frantically squirming across the trail, as eager as I am to put the encounter behind. Venomous varieties tend to hold their ground, as if to say, come on, mofo -- I don’t have to run. Fortunately, I don’t see as many poisonous ones on the mountain bike trails at Butts Park, near Clinton, Mississippi, where I often run. I did come upon a copperhead last week that stayed put, right in the middle of the trail, until I backed up far enough that it apparently felt comfortable continuing on its way.

Such encounters provide food for thought while running. At the farthest point on the trails I’m about three miles from my truck, and I’ve often wondered what would happen if I got snake-bitten that far out, when my heart was already racing. “Keep calm and seek immediate medical attention” doesn’t really work in such a scenario.

The experts no longer advise applying tourniquets or trying to suck the venom out. Tourniquets hold the venom in place, which can destroy tissue and result in serious localized damage. Still, I wondered: Might not a temporary tourniquet be a decent fallback position to enable a victim to get back to his truck before he passed out? When I queried a local herpetologist he responded with a firm no. Take your cell phone with you, he said. You could just as easily break your leg, be attacked by a pit bull or suffer heat stroke, and you should be prepared.

Whatever. Anyone who runs trails in the South knows that carrying a cell phone is out of the question. You do not want any unnecessary encumbrance as you leap across roots, fallen logs and creeks, and electronics don't do very well when subjected to copious amounts of sweat. For better or worse, it’s just you and your sodden shorts and shoes. Given that, I asked the herpetologist, what exactly should I do if I get bitten? Keep calm and seek immediate medical attention, he said. Seriously, I said -- that’s the best you can do? Well, he said, just keep in mind that a healthy person isn’t likely to pass out from the bite of a cottonmouth, copperhead or even the kinds of rattlesnakes we have in Mississippi during the time it would take to walk back to my truck. Initially, you’re just going to be in a lot of pain, he said. Most useful was his observation that snakes take a second to get into position to bite, and as a result, rarely bite even when stepped on, assuming the person steps away quickly. Since I’m running, I’m likely to be out of range before the snake even thinks about biting, he said. I pointed out that a friend of mine’s daughter got bitten by a copperhead while running, though it turns out she was the second runner, the first runner having alerted the snake.

I was able to test the surprise theory, to my own surprise, on Saturday, when the temperature was hovering around 100 degrees and I figured any self-respecting snake would be burrowed deep in his hole. As I was running through the woods along a creek, on a section of the trail that’s crisscrossed with tree roots, I noticed that one of the roots had what appeared to be a different surface pattern. It was one of those split-second observations; I watched as my right foot landed beside the root, and noted that it was, in fact, a water moccasin. My foot landed no more than two inches from the snake, which was stretched out, but I was already two strides down the trail before I reacted. The same went for the snake.

When I stopped and turned back to see what the snake would do, it seemed to be trying to figure things out. It started making its body kind of squiggly, just barely flexing, which told me that what the herpetologist had said was true – the snake needed a second to get angry and defensive. Then, to my surprise, it slithered off into the grass.

My first thought was: Damn. Two poisonous snake encounters within a week. My original theory – that by having come upon the copperhead I had diminished the odds of another encounter – was obviously way off. It now looked like the odds were pointing toward more snakes. Yet I actually felt more confident as I resumed running because the snake had not reacted nearly as quickly as it had in my imagination, when it had lashed out like a growling, hissing, prominently-fanged monster from the Temple of Doom. In reality it was just trying to get up with what was going down.

I have a healthy fear of poisonous snakes, but if you’re so risk-averse that you can’t do anything, what’s the point? So it was that yesterday, the day after the moccasin encounter, I was again running on the trails when the heat index reached 111 degrees. I thought of the herpetologist’s admonition, which the weather service has been repeating for the last few days, about putting myself at risk for heat stroke.

In summer I try to pace myself between “heat stroke” and “horsefly,” and unfortunately the necessity of slowing down in response to the 111 thing meant the horseflies could catch up with me. Their strategy was to fly into me at top speed, hoping, I suppose, to become entangled in my fur as I zipped past. Because I do not have fur, what resulted was a ridiculous and annoying exercise. At one point I passed another runner waving his shirt like a horse switches his tail, and wondered: Do horseflies bite snakes? Snakes would seem to be extremely vulnerable in this regard, which is a satisfying thought.

I had expected the trails and the adjacent park to be empty due to the heat, but I passed two runners and about 10 mountain bikers, and even the Indian cricketeers were out there doing whatever it is they do in the big field – “playing a game” seems a bit of a stretch when it comes to cricket. Anyway, I know what you’re thinking: Who would run through snake- and horsefly-infested woods when it’s 100 degrees? Well, there are a few of us. I like to think we’re the kind of people who would be useful to our post-apocalyptic tribe, which is the way I’ve been measuring people’s worth lately, if that tells you anything. Would you want someone in your tribe who whines? No. Steals? Maybe. Waits back at camp to evaluate your reports and/or tend to the wounded, cook and gossip? A few. Is capable of running through extremely hot, snake- and horsefly-infested woods, whether of necessity or for the sheer joy of it? Mos’ definitely. We, the trail runners, are learning the lay of the land, and we’re learning the truth of snakes and horseflies, for better or worse.

My position is, never listen to anyone who warns you to stay in an air-conditioned room, as the weather service has for the last several days. Just use your head. Live in your world. Drink plenty of water. If you run, slow your pace. If necessary, cut back on your distance. And spend as much time as possible in the shade, which is, of course, where the snakes are. But do not stay in that air-conditioned room any more than you have to.

You can play golf, ultimate Frisbee, or cricket, but just get out there. For me, there’s nothing like running through the woods, jumping creeks and fallen logs and yes, the occasional snake, to make me feel alive. Along the way, I’ve learned that the idea of danger is sometimes worse than the reality. When the weather service warns you to “limit your time outdoors,” ignore them unless you’re frail. You’ve only got so long to explore the world, and part of the time it’s going to be hot and there are going to be horseflies and snakes, so just do it, as they say. You’ll spend plenty of time burrowed down in your hole later on.