Nature’s Underdogs, The Mighty Pupfish

Owens River Pupfish, courtesy of California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Owens Pupfish, Cyprinodon radiosus, courtesy of California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“At the junction of Highway 6 and Highway 395, Billy took a right and floored it to Fish Slough, toward what could be best described as halfhearted puddles containing the last of the Owens Valley pupfish, a two-inch-long silver fish whose charisma—which is to say, its lack thereof—did not endear it to the average valley resident. It wasn’t a sport fish, it wasn’t edible, and it made no one any money. Not a cent.” 

From “The Parable of the Pupfish,” a story from my collection Cover This Country Like Snow and Other Stories

Mistreated, underappreciated and completely misunderstood, pupfish are nature’s underdogs. They are nearly extinct in Death Valley’s Devil’s Hole. In the Owens River they were pushed out by the construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the completion of which prevented the natural flooding that provided such a great seasonal marsh home for this incredible fish.

What is remarkable about this fish? That it lives in just a few inches of water, at temperatures as high as 110 degrees Fahrenheit and in cold conditions, too, at temperatures as low as 32 degrees Fahrenheit? That like the finches of the Galápagos, they have evolved into several different species in their islands of water, which are separated by desert sands  over hundreds of miles? That they used to eat mosquitos from the Owens River, and mosquitos are the only animal for which I have no affection? Or that they persist at all?

Owens pupfish have had a traumatic history — first the Aqueduct, then the killing machines known as large-mouth bass, which are a non-native sporting fish introduced by entrepreneurs and fish and game agents in the early 20th century. I doubt those men aimed to kill off the pupfish; they simply sought ways to increase tourism dollars in the Owens Valley. Retired fisheries biologist Phil Pister called the introduced large-mouth bass, “chainsaws with fins.”

A largemouth bass eating another fish. Photo stolen while searching for a suitable image to illustrate how the Owens River pupfish didn't stand a chance against the bass!

A largemouth bass eating another fish. Photo stolen while searching for a suitable image to illustrate how the Owens River pupfish didn’t stand a chance against the bass!

While researching my book, I became obsessed with pupfish. What did their recent history say about humanity’s attempt to control our environment? Their ancient history, how could we reckon with that? After all, they descended from fish that lived in lakes and streams that were connected to one another during the Ice Age. What lessons could we learn from their seemingly small universe, their isolated existence in puddles and holes between vast stretches of desert? Why try to save them at all? What’s the point of a pupfish? What good is it to us?

If Phil Pister had his way, we’d give the pupfish the same opportunity to ask the converse of those questions – What is the point of a human? What good are you humans to us pupfish? 

My answer: as the party responsible for the dire dilemma of the pupfish, we are also the only ones who can resolve it. Some of us have so much hope and science stored up in our hearts that we might not only save the pupfish, but save other plants, other animals, too. And even in the face of daunting evidence to the contrary (you know, all the data about the rate of extinctions, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, the catastrophic drought conditions in much of the Western U.S., the lack of protein to feed the 9 billion people we’ll soon be sharing this planet with, etc.), we’re stupidly going to keep trying.  

These three stories and articles get at these questions:

  1. You MUST read Phil Pister’s seminal article, “Species in a Bucket,” from the Natural History journal, January 1993. He is an Owens Valley hero.
  2. Matt Miller’s dispatch from Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge near Death Valley National Park, which The Nature Conservancy helped protect for pupfish and other irreplaceable resources such as spring water, captures the breathtaking scope of the pupfish’s natural history. My colleagues and heroes Dave Livermore, Bill Christian, Jim Moore, Laura Crane, Sophie Parker, Scott Morrison, and many, many others have made a difference for the mighty pupfish.
  3. The Forge Journal published my story “The Parable of the Pupfish” this summer! My real-life heroes appear in the story, some as composite characters.

Have a pupfish story? Leave a reply below! What good is a pupfish?  What good are we to them? Has Kristine gone mad?





Those Who Hold Her Dear

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Down this road is the Ghost Ranch, where Georgia O’Keeffe owned a home and painted in the land of multifaceted enchantments. Photo by the author.

I can love more than one high desert landscape. As a child in the Owens Valley, I grew accustomed to altitude, aridity and skies wide and pregnant with possibility. That’s why the adopted home of Georgia O’Keeffe, north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, spoke to me so loudly when I visited last month.

The tour operator at Georgia O’Keeffe’s studio and home in Abiquiu, a small hamlet in the Rio Chama Valley, prohibited photography, note-taking, sketch books and backpacks. How then, would I capture its serenity and elegance, the sense of purpose and curve of the clay-colored adobe walls? How could I possibly remember it all, including the Eames chair in the living room, the bones hung on walls and adorning bookshelves, horns curling and hurling through space and schists and polished stones in pleasant piles? The answer: I would have to really look with my eyes and mind and commit the place to memory as though I had but one shot.

“The land herself longs to hear the voices of those who hold her dear,” one of my cherished colleagues wrote to me this year.

Abiquiu, I hold you dear. Enjoy this poem, my readers. Whom I hold dear.

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Georgia O’Keeffe, Horse’s Skull with White Rose, 1931, Oil on canvas. Photo by Author at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Abiquiu Studio

Greying vertebra perched atop Georgia’s shelf, a view of Chama River Valley.

The highway with the cottonwoods in its palm.

The studio – a single bed at a right angle to the wall, at a right angle to the window on this world

All the world she needs.

Pantry left in situ on the day she died with tea canisters, coffee for every mood, spices in bottles, her ballpoint pen handwriting on faded masking tape labels.

The black door,

always the black door,

stepping stones,

cumulous clouds,

towering thunderheads.

Hollyhocks holy,

praying and bending to moths, hummingbirds, fingertips, camera lenses.

The Parish once owned this decrepit adobe, the walls falling, yet she was falling in love with sky, with sandstone, with her eyes swallowing joy for the first time.

A tin can is packed with brushes, a sculpture is cast from her mind to the real world, Ansel is snapping her convertible studio on a dirt road, her jeans rolled at the ankles, her hair pulled up and back, her face free to absorb that ghost of apricot rock.

Listening, her whispers are clear:

I am seeking solitude, I am like my father that way, I need to be alone, she says.

But isn’t the city betting on you? a man says. Won’t you return to show yourself, on the walls of his gallery, to acclaim, to own that breast and alabaster stomach and unshaven armpits?  Isn’t that your meaning? Your purpose, to be so female and to provoke the wagging tongues?

Did he make you?

Or did you make him?

Did he make you rich?

Was it his rib in your groin, in your iris, in your horsehair brush, in the oils gliding across the canvas?

I have asked too many questions.

A vertical sighing, afternoon storms are sweeping across the mesa country, washing clean her preconceptions and prejudices. Or mine.

Alfred was never here.

She cut the silk and sewed it into place, made his coffin comfortable, respectable, her love not final,

a candle would burn in the night,

but this task –

the last she could offer to him.


that scent!

If she could bottle it, carry it on a string around her neck: the earth’s perfume before the storm’s release, so bewitching and pure!

There is no ulterior motive, not a drop of evil in that wild precipitation, just energy.

A river forms in mere minutes, then thirst returns, the air takes care of her moisture and discourages the dilettante heavens who are unable to decide between calm composure and drama, between hand-wringing and worship, between worry and ecstatic quiet.

She’s in the library, then she’s walking the chow chows, tomorrow a hoodoo will call for articulate expression of wind, water and shapes that may change before she can drive and set down for a gentle spell.

The eye focuses on striations: copper, caramel, lime and lemon colors.

There are not enough names to call these palettes into being.

But oh she will try.

She will call upon the sun blanched bones, the flattened stones, the roots of the cottonwoods, the lightning strikes and the endless gate of this horizon extending from her shoulders to the flexing, yielding universe, folding inside itself and always knowing that it is nothing but itself, uncompromising, uncovered, big horn sheep mandible and horn, preparing for the next life, unearthed, exposed.

The black door.

The flagstones.

All the while we are in this life, with our dossiers and accounts, our annals of exhibitions, the catalogue of slights and sins, blessings and punishments, our moons and mantras healing and heeding our need for skies so sentient they breathe onto the balding plateaus.

Breathe onto badlands,

Breathe onto Georgia,

Breathe and open the black door,

Dance on the stepping stones

and now,

the skies breathe

the skies breathe unto you

unto all who come

to Abiquiu.

Ghost Ranch hoodoo. Photo by Jessica Leas.

Ghost Ranch hoodoo. Photo by Jessica Leas.

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Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico/Out Back of Marie’s II, 1930, Oil on canvas mounted to board, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Photo of painting by Author.


See the black door in its many incarnations in the current exhibit, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Abiquiu Views.” Photo of painting by Jessica Leas.

Go, breathe the New Mexico magic: