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#TBT: Water In the Balance

Blue Gila Pin

It is hot and dry and dusty again today, the light clouded by heavy smoke from the El Rito wildfire current tearing through Bonita Canyon. Air and sky alike have been gray since dawn, and breathing is difficult: Headaches, congestion, burning eyes, and coughing are the order of the day, and we have been wearing masks much of the time when we venture out of doors.

Worse, there is no relief in sight: The extended forecast shows nothing but goose eggs in the “chance of precipitation” column for the next ten days.

This week, we have been invoking the image and name of Snake, the Horned Serpent who holds power over the waters — a motif already planned for this week, but one that now carries with it perhaps a vague subliminal hope that he will be persuaded to bring the waters to us. For now, the way forward must be one of conservation and adaptation, until such time as the rains see fit to return.

The purpose of our #ThrowbackThursday posts is to bring readers a view of Wings’s past body of work by way of  items that have not been featured on this iteration of the site. But most of Wings’s snake-themed works (save for the many separate incarnations of the Warrior Woman) have either been featured in this series already, or actually appear elsewhere on the site.

But in this place, Snake has cousins, extended clan members somewhat distant biologically but exceedingly close geographically, fellow reptiles who thrive in a dry desert climate. And today, we go back eleven years or so to one whose likeness Wings summoned into silver and stone: Gila monster.

Wings drew out his template freehand, a crescent-cum-near-perfect-circle, a design that resembled an extended horned moon with face and eyes and articulated legs. He began with the shape, using a small jeweler’s saw to excise the silver until he was left with the shape shown above: narrow head, flowing neck, four legs with claws, a tapering whip-like tail.

To create the features, toes, and serpentine scales on the body, he chose exactly four stamps: a scaly sunrise design, a tiny hoop, a tapering group of verticals like a sharpened palisade stand, and an inverted “V” like an arrowhead. With these four tiny motifs, he coaxed Gila monster into being.

To be clear, this was extraordinarily labor-intensive work, creating the great lizard’s banded scales by way of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of strikes of a single rayed sunrise stamp. And merely creating parallel lines was insufficient; Wings had to array them so that they came together in narrowed creases on the inside of the body’s arc, and similarly narrowed with the taper of the tail. He also left a couple of spaces blank, adding in the “beading” of the reptile’s skin by way of the tiny hoop stamps.  He saved the “bead” motif for the creature’s neck and shoulders, a single row of beads within a band at the center of the body, and then a wider band of collected beads between body and tail. Finally, he added the spear-like motif to the legs and feet, and used the arrowheads to add visibility to its claws. Finally, he chose two tiny round cabochons of Sleeping Beauty turquoise and set them into saw-toothed bezels to form the creature’s eyes. Its name? Blue Gila.

I saw my first Gila monster as a child, on a trip to a biological gardens in the southern part of the state. It’s an area where desert lizards, particularly the small ones, do particularly well; unlike some subgroups of the class known as reptiles, they require access to very little ready water, having adapted to maximize their use of it when it is available. The Gila is, in a sense, in a class of its own, however: compared to the average desert lizard, it is enormous, in both senses of the word. It’s a venomous lizard, one with a bite that is toxic to humans. It’s also possessed of a strange beauty, robed in bands and beads in alternating pale pinkish and brown-black tones. And while perhaps “monster” is seen as self-evident, the choice of the word Gila is fitting in its own way: It is the name of a region in southern New Mexico and a river that is a tributary of the Colorado; the label is a Spanish corruption of an old indigenous word that translates more or less literally to “salty river” or “salty water,” a reference, perhaps, to the silicate erosion into the Gila River itself. It works as a metaphor for the creature’s venom, and for the great lizard’s capacity for the efficient use of fresh water in a landscape where little is available.

That sense of enormity, however, is also echoed in the Latin name bestowed upon it — and, likewise, its only known extant relative in North America, the Mexican beaded lizard. The Gila is known in the white clinical world as Heloderma suspectum, the second word translating from the Latin as “suspect” or “suspicious” (no doubt a reference to its venomous status). Its Mexican beaded brother is known as Heloderma horridum, and the second word means exactly what on would suspect: “horrid,” from a Latin root meaning “to shiver,” or “to stand on end.” and yet, to some of the indigenous peoples of this broader region, Gila and his venom are useful in healing and ceremony.

It’s all in the balance.

And what better exemplar for our current state of affairs, when climate change has brought us spring in winter and winter in spring and now fire and drought in these pre-summer days?

In a day when the world is gray with the smoke of not-very-distant fires, when breath comes hard and water not at all, we can seek the aid of the Horned Serpent . . . but we would do well to heed to adaptive lessons of his kind’s Gila cousin. After all, what the outside world calls “monster,” our peoples have often known to be teachers and guides, bringers of healing and restorers of harmony.

Today, it is water in the balance.

~ Aji







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