The “Weighing of the Heart” in The Egyptian Book of the Dead offers a moment we may live any day or minute on earth, and one we may believe judges all our actions and thoughts after we die. This particular Book of the Dead presents Ani, a royal scribe, descending to the underworld–a descent which transforms the deceased so he may arise as the reborn morning sun. Ani journeys across the day-lit sky in a boat, and in the evening sails through the darkness of the underworld. In this panel, Ani’s heart rests on the left pan of a scale, the feather of truth on the right. The baboon and ibis represent Thoth, the god of judgment in the afterlife. If Ani is found wanting, if his heart fails its test with truth, then the dog-like beast Amit, “she who swallows the sea” will consume his soul.
Right now I’m consuming and judging a Woodford Reserve Bourbon. Oh my. The nose reminds me of a Glendronach12 year old Single Malt Scotch. Spiced fruitcake, toasted oak, vanilla, cayenne and ginger, barbecue sauce and anchovies, with green apples in the background. This is more than a bourbon, this is water of life to put on your shelf and savor on a cold winter’s night. Syrupy in the mouth but very clean with orange and bread notes, a bite of spice, a nuttiness . . . but wait . . . do I imagine boiled peanuts? And then fish, maraschino cherry and the ripple of a Manhattan.
The afterlife for Ani will resemble his life on earth. What he ate, drank, where he walked, and where he sailed will appear again before him for eternity.
As for him who knows this book on earth or it is put in writing on the coffin, it is my word that he shall go out into the day in any shape that he desires and shall go into his place without being turned back, and there shall be given to him bread and beer and a portion of meat from upon the altar of Osiris. He shall enter safely into the Field of Reeds in order to learn this command of Her who is in Busiris, there shall be given to him barley and emmer therein, he shall be hale like he was upon earth, and he shall do what he wishes like those nine gods who are in the Duat. A matter a million times true. (Rubric to Chapter 72)
Our ordinary world figures more than the appearances we live with–everyday existence shows the living and the dead, the mortal and immortal. Bread is not just what we eat at a certain hour of the day, beer is not just what we drink at a certain hour of the day, they are the very things that unite what is and what has passed. In his sequence of poems entitled “The Appalachian Book of the Dead,” the revered Southern poet Charles Wright posits a similar world, where any particular points to the transcendent. Read the opening stanza.
Sunday, September Sunday . . . Outdoors,
Like an early page from The Appalachian Book of the Dead,
Sunlight lavishes brilliance on every surface,
Doves settle, surreptitious angels, on tree limb and box branch,
A crow calls, deep in its own darkness,
Something like water ticks on
Just there, beyond the horizon, steady clock . . . (34)
Autumn and a day set aside for pause, reflection, and spirit figure the first line, and then with the second we return to a much more ancient polytheism grounding us in Appalachia–a stretch of mountain and river from a thin length of land in New York called the Southern Tier, through most of Pennsylvania, an eastern slice of Ohio, all of West Virginia, half of Kentucky and Tennessee, a good slice of Virginia and North Carolina, and finally into the northern stretches of Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina. A region routed in story, history, taste, music, and death. In this landscape that is also a book, light is everywhere and reveals flora and fauna of the world. And as always, time marks the journey.
Read the opening sentences of Sean Brock’s Introduction to Heritage.
I often tell people that I’m from the part of Western Virginia that should have been in Kentucky. I grew up in Wise County, deep in the coalfields and hollers of the Appalachian Mountians. Have you ever seen the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter? Well, that’s what it looks like where I am from. That part of Virginia has a unique voice; you can hear it in the food, the art, the music, and the storytelling. (13)
Wright and Brock sing of the same place in a Whitmanian tradition that finds in the particulars of place the universal language of humans straining to become themselves, reaching to become the very land that sustains them. My challenge? It’s Demian’s tenth birthday and he’s asked for pork belly topped with a black truffle butter sauce. Time to mind the horizon and clock, time to purchase a Mangalitsa/Berkshire pork belly from Revival Market, time to shop at Spec’s for black truffles, and time to read Sean Brock’s “How to Smoke.” It’s also time for Alison Krauss. Part Two will take us into the burning heart of a smoker, more stanzas from Charles Wright, Sean Brock’s guidelines for smoking and music, and more Woodford Reserve. Bon Appétit