“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.”
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?