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Monday Photo Meditation: Copper Beads and Diamond Backs


Have you ever looked at a snake? I mean really looked at it?

I have clear memories of encounters with snakes as a child, small harmless garters with whom we shared the land. I have no idea which of those meetings was my first. I do recall, however, my first look at a wide variety of venomous and other snakes, close enough to touch yet safely separated by glass. It was a kindergarten field trip, and the first rooms of the wild animal park we were visiting held case after case of coiled serpents. Some were frightening, but all had their own strange and unexpected beauty — and ironically, the most beautiful were often the most dangerous. Rattlesnakes of all sizes and shapes and colors and patterns hissed behind bared fangs and beat an angry tattoo upon the glass with their rattles. And who could blame them, ripped from their homes to be put on display for the (too often harassing) amusement of another species?

I have only vague memories of the rest of the trip, but the “snake rooms” made an impression, although I was too young then to understand fully why that should be the case. Part of it was their anger, something that to his day instills a feeling of sorrow ore than dread in my spirit — sorrow that they should have been confined as they were in a white man’s for-profit prison, rather than left in their homes in the wild. And part of it was the beauty of color and pattern than I never expected to see.

I asked at the outset whether you had ever really looked at a snake. I did on that day, and came away astonished at the range of colors and stripes and geometric shapes they wore. So many dressed in robes of copper beads: bright copper, dull copper, tarnished copper, but shades of red-brown sometimes turned golden or greenish in the light. And their scales were beads to me, each its own tiny jewel of adornment. The rattles were in a class by themselves, most of them huge and imposing. there were diamondback, and diamond backs, not all of the latter belonging to the former. There were giant rippling blue-black serpents, like coiled rain or an undulating river of jet; there were diamonds and rectangles and squares and bands of alternating fire and ice. And I’ve never forgotten the music of their rattles, either — a memory that has served me well, having encountered rattlesnakes a few times since.

Our cultures vary widely in their approach to snakes: For our N’de (Apache) neighbors to the west, they are always and forever taboo. For the Diné, there are taboos involving snakes, but the relationship between them and humans is more complicated. For the peoples of this region, they are connected largely with the symbolism of the Water Serpent, an often-horned being whose clan brothers exist in the cosmologies of indigenous nations all over Turtle Island. And for my own, the relationship between snake and human is complex, involving great power that manifests in a variety of ways: as violent force, as prosperity and abundance, as Medicine with a capital “M.”

It is the season of the serpent here now, summer temperatures finally fully present, the air hot and dry and the sun unrelenting. The hay stands tall and dense in the fields, the grasses sharp and dry, and the world is again welcoming to these cold-blooded creatures of earth and water.

In my homelands, garter snakes were common, small and bright green and possessed of a wriggly locomotive pattern. Garden snakes were common, too, as well as many other species that were not toxic to humans . . . but so was a species of rattler. In the old days, rattles were more prevalent, or at least better known; our peoples understood their power well, and approached them with the respect due a creature so capable of killing and healing simultaneously (some of our language’s Medicine terms come directly from Rattlesnake, particularly his rattles).

But there is also the Great Snake, the Water Serpent or Horned Serpent, who lives beneath the surface of the great waters. He resembles the Horned or Water Serpent of this land, too (and analogues are found all over the continent). And while his powers are fearsome and his mood often capricious — in my lands, he is known to whip up storms upon the lake when irritated by unwary or disrespectful travelers across it — he is also, in both places, a symbol of abundance.

In some stories, the snake is the water: a long, flowing, undulating cascade that sustains the land and gives the world life. In a desert land where water is literally life, the breath that flows through soil and soul, the spirits who guard its pools and depths, who assume its form or deliver its gifts, are quite naturally seen as avatars of abundance. Prosperity, after all, can only build upon the foundational blocks of life itself, and in this place, nothing is more elemental than water.

We have not yet run into any snakes here this year, although I suspect a few may put in an appearance when it’s time to cut the hay. The bullsnake in the image above is a regular visitor, or perhaps each year it’s a new member of his clan. From a certain vantage point, they, too, are all copper beads and diamond backs, although they lack the rattles (and the venom) of the smaller prairie rattlers that likewise summer in this place. And while they also lack the horns of Avanyu and his kind, those who dwell within the waters, I think of them as smaller cousins, younger siblings in a place where time and age are calculated on a geologic scale.

On this day, when sand and dust driven hard on hot dry winds, at the outset of a week when the long-range forecast holds out the promise only of more of the same, an encounter with one of their kind might prove profitable. Perhaps, if one comes to visit, he’ll bring the rain.

~ Aji







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