Shouts of “look at this sucker”, “¡mira! ¡mira! ¡mira!” and other exclamations in English and Spanish echoed up from the sandy arroyo. We girls stopped walking to watch from a safe distance what was undoubtedly one of the most iconic image of our combined childhoods: a two-foot long Gila monster clamped by its jaws on a long stick.
The big black and orange lizard made a much bigger impression on me than the innocuous-looking dry wash. But my cousins said not only could the poisonous lizard bite those rascally boys taunting it; if a storm was brewing in the Sandia Mountains, they could be suddenly swept away and drowned. I gazed up with trepidation at Sandia Peak, but it hovered with innocent beauty in the cloudless sky above the Albuquerque neighborhood while the girls described in arm-waving, vivid detail how water could snake down from the peaks in a powerful torrent, sweeping away everything in its path.
Compelled to step closer, I hesitated, feeling constrained by this double threat of death, a concept paradoxically hazy yet huge in my childish mind. Then I thought of a third danger. This locale was also sidewinder country and a snake could easily slither out from the rocky banks as well. My cousins and I had encountered one a few days before when we accompanied our fathers on a day trip into the desert. I knew I didn’t want to surprise one again because the way they bristled sideways spoke powerfully of unpredictable slashing fangs and deadly venom.
The two-headed rattlesnake pickled in a jar, shown to my family by the owner of a bed and breakfast along the Mississippi River in northeastern Iowa, didn’t faze me as much as the Southwest’s creepy, primitive-looking sidewinder. The unmistakable proof that the seemingly innocuous Corn Belt harbored venomous reptiles still seemed far less dramatic than the land of the showy Gila monster. The Southwestern locale and its complement of exotic creatures outshone everything scary in my childhood surroundings.
My cousins were also from Iowa and seemed proud to show off their knowledge about New Mexico’s natural dangers. At that moment, I could think of nothing more virulent in my home state of Iowa than hordes of stinging insects or the occasional angry bull or sow with piglets threatening to charge across a pasture or a farmyard pen. I’d heard stories about the latter and had encountered some angry bees and wasps a few times. Our neighbor had stirred up a nest of hornets while mowing the lawn and his dog had to be put down after hundreds of merciless stings. I knew the mosquitoes so big they could almost pick you up and carry you away were more annoying then dangerous, but they crossed my mind too. I forgot to consider Iowa’s impossibly placid green-brown rivers at full flood, a much more visible harbinger of watery death than this desert arroyo’s currently barren threat. For some reason, Iowa’s floods seemed far less dramatic than the possibility of a flash flood exploding through this dry arroyo on a serene summer day. Nor did I even entertain the roof-high winter snows that must have been deadly in pre-industrial eras, or the whirling tornados that still send families huddling in dank basements on summer evenings.
I had no idea then how rare a Gila monster sighting is, and once we strolled on, I didn’t think much about the creature until decades later. Then I began to notice that Gila monsters didn’t exactly pop up here and there after I moved into the Sonora Desert in southern Arizona, unlike the coyote, javelina, rattlesnakes, jackrabbits, roadrunners, horned lizards, and other common basin and range critters.
About nine years into my Arizona sojourn, my husband and I rented a retreat cabin near Colossal Cave outside of Tucson. Heavily pregnant with a baby due in early summer, I often spent spring weekends away from my stressful job driving city buses, reveling in long hikes and Sonora desert solitude. One brilliant March morning, I hiked into a meandering canyon bottom, a place reminiscent of the arroyo during that magical childhood week in Albuquerque.
After a spate of silent wandering, I discovered a boulder with a concave top perfect for meditation seating. It had just enough room for me and my companion – a plastic half-gallon water jug. A small mesquite tree shaded the spot and desert willow scented the air with a rhythmic swish of leaves in the soft, intermittent breeze. Beads of sunlight dappled sand and stone all around me, making a latticework of light that flowed along the turns of the snake-like wash.
I meditated cross-legged until my hips began to ache, pressured by my big belly posture. Then I returned to this world slowly, tilting my face toward the sky to savor the tangible peace of the canyon. As I opened my eyes, I wished for the safe birth and good health of my baby daughter, who squirmed and stretched inside me as though she too had enjoyed the serenity of little canyon and felt reluctant to return a world of gravity and karmic law.
Something caused me to look down toward my lap. What? A small orange and black lizard sunned itself on my rock, mere inches from my hand, still turned up in a meditation mudra on my left thigh. Should I sit quietly? Would it bite me even so? Could I hop up and away before it bit me?
My mind spun in astonishment more than fear. I quickly forgot about the baby and my husband as I recalled the significance of animal visitations in indigenous teaching stories, and quickly decided – fervently hoped – that this critter might be more a manifestation of Spirit than everyday reality. Since the childhood day when I saw the adult Gila monster gripping the stick, I’d always heard bad things about the creature’s deadly venom and jaw-locking bite. Its common name strong suggested a human revulsion for the exotic creature, and until this pivotal spring day, I found the old rumors and the images conjured up by the name believable. Though I longed to see other desert wildlife in the flesh and experience their company, I’d never yearned to sit flank-to-flank with Heloderma suspectum.
Even so, I opted to stay put. The innocence of the little lizard was part of my fascination and helped make my fear evaporate. About six or seven inches long, the critter obviously wasn’t an adult, nor small enough to be a new hatchling. I found out later that the slow growth rate of a well-fed Gila monster averages only from one-tenth to two-fifths of an inch a year.
Since this Gila wasn’t shy about revealing her radiant beauty, I imagined it might be a ‘she’ and that she might be “pregnant” like me – in her case, gravid, or looking to be. Gila monsters are most active during a three-month spring mating season, when the weather is mild and the nests of other vertebrates contain a convenient food supply. Only during this mating period do they exit and reenter their dens often, basking in the sun four to five hours in the mornings, a behavior important to successful reproduction. Then they lay clutches of two to thirteen eggs forty-two to fifty-five days after mating.
It didn’t surprise me to discover that Gila monsters spend most of their lives hidden underground. Scientists know a lot about caged Gilas, but have only a limited amount of data derived from studying them in their harsh natural habitat. They make rare appearances like reclusive celebrities, emerging to eat as seldom as three or four times a year. Even though the typical Gila monster lives in the Southwest’s low deserts, which have frosty winter temperatures and searing summer heat, they prefer the more moist and temperate conditions underground. They also hibernate when desert winter temperatures fall below the mid-fifties, the reason why hikers, scientists, and Gila monster fans don’t often encounter them in the wild.
As the sun moved high in the sky, depriving human and beast alike of shade from the mesquite tree near the rock, I became thirsty. When I eased my hand to my water bottle, I reconsidered the spiritual tone of the visit and half-expected my friend to bolt or bite. As I took a long pull from the bottle, she remained as still as a museum display piece, our eyes glued to one another. I cautiously uncurled my legs and resisted my urge to reach out and touch her, keeping in mind the salient fact about Gila monsters – their tenacious, poisonous bite. Though her chomp was unlikely to kill me, her venom might very well be toxic to my unborn child.
My body tensed with that negative possibility, but the Gila monster continued to study me as I studied her. She still looked sweet. Despite their brutish biting behavior, the Gila has a blunt and inoffensive look, not the sharkish, viper-like face implied by its “monster” tag, a grim face that rattlesnakes have. I thought she would have more light markings on her dark skin, imagining all Gila monsters looked like the banded Gila popular in photos. Later research proved her a reticulated Gila monster, a southern species whose light markings are more broken than its northern cousin. The Latin term Heloderma means sun-skinned, and Gilas warning coloration confirms this poetic moniker. The pinkish-orange and black camouflaging striations of their dorsal coloration mimic a dark lava mountain at sunrise or a desert sunset on a stormy evening. This young Gila monster’s markings suggested she were nothing more than a band of flaming flowers set against roughened stone.
I returned to the problem of water, and asked her if she was thirsty, though I doubted it. Gila monsters love moisture, but my instincts and later research confirmed that Gilas get most of their water from food and absorb additional water through their skin. My friend needed much less water than my primate body, having adapted to this landscape over thousands of years, a true indigenous being. Still, I cautiously poured a water offering into a small hollow of the rock near her nose. My friend continued her silent vigil for several minutes. Finally, sensing safety – I hoped she felt safe – she opened her small mouth slightly and lowered her jaw into the little puddle. As she drank or soaked water into her skin, she watched me, unblinking.
I thanked her for the grace of her rare company. Then this earth-centered creature waddled away into the rocks, satisfied with whatever Gila monsters find satisfying. Her movements and my movements were momentary, insignificant in this vast universe of enormous energies and motions. But our meeting made my day memorable, perhaps my unborn baby’s day as well. Perhaps my daughter’s ripening presence allowed me to share this visit by a gentle, misunderstood lizard.
Another realization hit me. I know this state, I thought, this belonging, yet not belonging, this otherness. The illusory state of feeling separate and misunderstood, while still clearly bound to the universe of all that exists, the interdependence that marks our very existence. At the very least, I reasoned, my daughter’s prenatal exposure to a curious Gila monster pointed to a simple, basic truth: all sentient life is as precious as our own human lives.
As we cherish rainbows in summertime or delicate flowers on the cusp of autumn’s last frost, so must we embrace all life on Earth with humility, an adventurous heart, and most of all, with loving kindness and compassion, before it’s too late for all of us. After all, what is there to write about, spiritually or otherwise, if there are no observers left to write?