Friday, 21 March 2014


I acquired a more than passing interest in the Nahuatl speaking cultures of Precolombian Mexico sometime around 1994, and by 1996 I had learned enough to realise that this was something I would have to start taking seriously in order to achieve a more thorough understanding. I drew up a contemporary continuation of the Mexican Tonalpohualli calendar, and began to conduct my daily life with some consideration of Nahua Gods and related sacred forces. To be absolutely clear here, I don't mean to imply that I had chosen to believe in something which, one might rightly point out, would seem a little lost in the context of 1990s south-east London; but then nor do I wish to suggest I would ever engage in anything quite so dry and cynical as a mere thought-experiment. A better way of putting it is to perhaps say that I made an effort to regard my environment and the world in general in terms that would have made sense to a fifteenth century Nahua, principally in order to gain a better understanding of Precolombian thought by treating it as something which had existed for a reason, rather than mumbo jumbo to be pinned out on the dissecting table of objectivity.

Whilst I have a lot of time for Richard Dawkins, his general dismissive view of religious systems isn't always either helpful or interesting, often amounting to a set of one-size-fits-all refutations which, whilst perfectly logical and effective for his purposes, amount to what may as well be an attack on traditional Inuit clothing based on how it looks terrible on the catwalk and proves uncomfortable when traversing the Sahara desert.

Anyway, to return to the point, there I was in south-east London at the end of the twentieth century trying to think myself into the world of someone born in Tenochtitlan five-hundred years earlier. In practical terms, this amounted to eating Mexican food, following the calendar already mentioned, keeping an eye out for coincidences, and painting the Gods, characters and concepts upon which I had fixated as though they were real, rather than mere subjects of anthropological study. I say as though they were real, and should probably qualify this by stating that I came to believe that the Gods and spirits of Mexico are real in all senses that matter, by which I mean that as ideas they are real, and the ideas are the most important element. I don't for a second believe in anything that contradicts the established laws of physics, or in disembodied superhuman intelligences sat in judgement upon the more comfortable clouds, but I do think that a helpful religious system is one that provides a useful way of thinking about things, or of seeing the world, and a way that can under certain possibly subjective circumstances be considerable more useful than the rigorously and sometimes puritanically rational. For example, one might dismiss the First Nations view of respecting the Earth as superstitious anthropomorphism, and suggest that sacrificing valuables to the land in hope of an abundant crop is obviously ridiculous. The same land reduced to mere material commodity might just as well be turned into a huge toxic waste dump gratuitously formed into the profile of Margaret Thatcher when seen from above, unless long term ecological consequences are taken into consideration; but humanity doesn't have a particularly good track record where long term consequences are concerned, and therefore the superstitious theological view, for whatever reason, happens to represent a particularly useful way of thinking about the land in question regardless of whether or not the earth is genuinely grateful for all those human hearts buried earlier in some corner of the field.

So with this in mind, I painted pictures and paid attention to my daily calendar, noting with some pleasure those minor coincidences such as the cold, wet, miserable day when my friend Paul came over to record DIY techno on my somewhat coal-fired studio set-up, which turned out to be a day theologically distinguished by the patronage of Tlaloc and Huehuecoyotl, respectively the Mexican Gods of Rain and Dance. That isn't to say that these coincidences necessarily meant anything in the real world, but they were fun all the same.

Along similar lines, I sometimes wondered what my Nagual or companion animal spirit might be, suspecting it was probably a frog as there were always a ton of frogs in the garden who, from what I could tell, seemed to think I was okay. Of course, the idea that I might have an animal spirit, or even that there could really be such a thing, as the Nahua believed and continue to believe, was essentially either ludicrous or at least not to be mistaken for anything belonging to the real world, but still it seemed an appealing idea on some level.

My fascination with Mexico led to my visiting the country first in September 1999, and then again on four more yearly occasions. By the time I met my wife, my gaze was already set firmly upon the Americas, albeit the Americas a little way south of Texas, and so it took about three seconds to decide whether or not I wished to move over here.

We were married in July 2011, and I began the process of settling and acclimatising to a country and environment which, despite all of my preparation, was nevertheless very different to anything I had known before. The heat was phenomenal compared to that which I was used to, the shops were all different, the food was unfamiliar, all of the punk records, science-fiction novels, and Mesoamerican textbooks which had defined my growth into whatever the hell I am today were five-thousand miles away along with all of my friends and family. Additionally, I had never been married before, and neither had I been a parent nor a stepfather, and whilst Junior was lively, imaginative, and essentially likeable, he was often hard work, and - as with many children - very rarely ever so cute or funny as he believed himself to be.

I had made a huge leap entirely on the possibly insane anticipation of it somehow, against all odds, working out. The most sensible thing to do seemed to be to throw myself into work, and so I got started on the garden, or more accurately the back yard - a desiccated football pitch of scorched earth with chain link fence surrounding containing rusting barbecue equipment. Physical labour, as I had already discovered on a number of previous occasions, tends to be more philosophically productive than sitting around thinking about things, and I felt I needed to get my hands into the soil, to symbolically root myself to this corner of Texas and mark out my territory. This was to be my building something upon which I could stand steady, and so I began to work on a lawn.

I dug every square foot of soil which had reduced to grey dust and limestone rocks in the August heat, collecting in the process a mountain of stones by which I eventually marked out the borders of my projected garden. The work was tough, but helped by the fact that every waking minute had become something akin to an adventure in this new and unfamiliar land. Amongst the first of many, many surprises was the discovery of grub worms, fat, white insect larvae about an inch long living under the soil and generally regarded as a menace hereabouts for their voracious consumption of plant roots. I was startled to realise that these insects were larval to a bright orange and largely nocturnal beetle resembling what the Precolombian Nahua had described in Bernardino de SahagĂșn's sixteenth century Florentine Codex as the pinauiztli beetle.

The pinauiztli beetle is listed specifically as a creature of ill omen, and I had discussed its identification in correspondence with English Mesoamericanist Dr. Eleanor Wake some years earlier. The elusive identity of this insect had been of sufficient mystery and appeal as to make it into at least one draft of my novel, Against Nature; and  having wondered about the creature at some length, it seemed I now had a garden full of the bloody things.

Another resident of the yard was a lizard, specifically a Texas spiny lizard of the species Sceloporus olivaceus whom I had first noticed as a swiftly moving shape out of the corner of my eye. In traditional Nahua terms, the lizard - or cuetzpallin - is a fairly important symbol of plenty and as such stands as one of the twenty pictographic stars of the Tonalpohualli calendar. As with many of these Mesoamerican symbols, the important detail is that which they represent, and so a lizard seems well chosen as an avatar of plenty. As I have seen since living here, lizards come out in their numbers in Spring as the air warms and crops begin to grow; and if this seems too simplistic a parallel, it might also be noted that abundant crops will attract abundant pests, which in turn draw the lizards out of hiding. Agriculture was roughly how I came to meet my own particular little four-legged friend who, as I started to notice, would emerge each day as I began to dig up another patch of yard, and wait for what grub worms I tossed aside. My hope was that they would perish under the punishing heat of the midday sun, but it turned out that I was serving dinner.

Ever since I was a dinosaur-obsessed child I have liked reptiles and amphibians, and when I kept the garden in London, it had been gratifying to read in an issue of New Scientist that, contrary to the received wisdom, the higher cold-blooded animals were entirely capable of both affection and recognising those humans who bought them food or who kept the tank at just the right temperature. This seemed to be borne out by the larger frogs who gathered around the small pond I had made and who, after several weeks of my bringing them whatever worms I had found whilst digging, could no longer be bothered to hop away, but rather sat regarding me, waiting for my exit before pouncing upon whatever I had bought. This peculiar bonding repeated itself now in Texas as the lizard grew accustomed to my presence, becoming a little bolder each day. Of course, it may have been that I was visited by more than one lizard, but it seemed unlikely, for if that was so then they would all have to have been the exact same size, and worked in shifts with never more than one of them turning up at the same time.

I'd never seen lizards in the wild in England, although my friend Lucia told me that some had been seen on her allotment in Forest Hill, thus happily putting the dampers on Lewisham Council's plans to build yet another complex of overpriced luxury rabbit hutches for the benefit of overmoneyed Time Out subscribers and people who care about Damien Hirst. I had seen lizards in Mexico, but never at close range like this, and I was fascinated.

My guy was full grown, and about six inches in length, and he became so accustomed to me that I was almost able to feed him from my hand, as is apparently not uncommon. What astonished me most, aside from his obvious intelligence, was how birdlike his movements seemed, and how adorable I found him. Cold blood is generally painted in at least the school textbooks of my youth as representing the short straw in the metabolism draw, but this, I suggest, is a conclusion that only makes sense if you have no direct experience of reptiles.

I took photographs of my lizard, and told my wife about him. We wondered whether to tell Junior, then going through a slightly unfortunate phase during which he tried to make everything into a pet, worst of these being hermit crabs brought back from the beach at Corpus Christi. Thankfully he's since grown out of it, and has even developed a healthy and prescient degree of concern for animal welfare, but it was touch and go for a while, and my heart would cloud over with dark thoughts each time he ran off into the bushes after some defenceless critter yelling who wants to help me catch it?

'Let's not tell him,' I said. 'I don't think I could stand to come back from the store and find that lizard stuck in a tank in his room for no good reason.'

Bess sighed in concurrence.

'Besides,' I added, fitfully scratching at the rash of my own mild irritation, 'he'll only give it one of those names.'

At least a few years of the boy's development had been characterised by his bestowing bluntly descriptive names on any animal he encountered, followed by testy behaviour when the rest of us failed to fall into line with the identification of Swimmy the fish, Chirpy the bird, Jumpy the rabbit, Fuzzy Larry the hairy caterpillar and so on.

I thought of the lizard, recalling the dominant pattern of the scales on his back. 'Junior would probably call him Stripy.'

I sighed at the idea, but next day as an increasingly rotund Stripy waddled back to where I'd been digging for the day's grub worms, I realised I quite liked the name. It was cute, and I had begun to feel protective towards the little fellow. I had even begun to worry about whether my supply of excavated grub worms represented too generous a cornucopia, whether he might explode; but online research disabused me off this notion.

Eventually many months later, I'd finished the digging, and although I still saw Stripy - or a lizard which was probably Stripy - from time to time, Winter was on the way, and it was clear that we shared similarly dim views of the colder months of the year and were responding accordingly. I'm not saying that I had at last found my Nagual, or my animal spirit in Stripy, but my reclaiming the yard, turning the Earth back into something in which plants would grow, could be argued to have had a ritual purpose, and so it seemed useful, or at least entertaining to believe that I had; and the important detail is that it worked, and this place has become my home.

Today, after two weeks of grey skies and biting wind which could be quite adequately equated to the fourth level of the Mesoamerican underworld - Itzeheyacan or Where the Wind is Like Knives, the air is suddenly and dramatically warm, so warm that, having grown up in England I half expect to hear the steady buzz of bees and a distant lawnmower. Out on the trail, cycling my usual fifteen miles a day, I find that my limbs are much stronger, newly energised by not having to fight against the cold. I've not yet seen the first lizards of spring, signifying the harvest, plenty, cups which runneth over and all that good stuff, but I expect it's only a matter of time before I do.

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