Eating Salad in Pittsburgh: Q & A With Environmental Historian Kevin Brown

Kevin's been documenting the management of the Devils Hole pupfish, which number less than 100 and survive just below this fence in a limestone cavern some 20 feet across. Photo by Kristine Zeigler.

Kevin’s been documenting the management of the Devils Hole pupfish, which number less than 100 and survive just below this fence in a limestone cavern some 20 feet across. Photo by Kristine Zeigler.

Introduction by Owens River Girl

With California in the fourth year of drought and Governor Jerry Brown mandating 25 percent reductions in water use, it seems everyone is trying to understand how we get enough water. For the Devils Hole pupfish out in the Mojave Desert, this is nothing new. What is new, is that this one fish’s story might actually save us all, in the end. At least I think so. And not just Californians, either, but anyone who eats lettuce, strawberries, almonds, rice, corn, oranges and avocados. According to the California Department of Food & Agriculture, the Golden State produces nearly half of all US-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables, which are consumed all over the world.

So what’s a fish got to do with the broader water crisis? In the Amargosa Valley in southern Nevada near the California border, Kevin Brown is documenting the management history of the Devils Hole pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis), a diminutive yet eye-catching cobalt-blue fish that may be able to teach us a thing or two about connections. For example, the connection between water we cannot see (that flows underneath the ground) and water that we can see (the water that flows on the surface, like creeks and rivers).

The Devils Hole pupfish has hung on for ten’s of thousands of years despite the terrible odds against it; the fish, which number less than 100 (though their population can swell to some 300 depending on the season), are totally isolated from their pupfish relatives, they live in an ancient pool only 10 by 20 feet across and their home inside a limestone cavern has limited amounts of oxygen. What’s more, they eat and make new pupfish in an even smaller space atop a natural rock ledge just beneath the water’s surface where they nibble on algae and diatoms as well as lay eggs. I like to think of this shelf as a welcoming counter in a diner combined with a daycare facility – the fish can come by for a cup of coffee and some pancakes, then drop off their kids (eggs) to be raised by the nice folks at the nursery!

The pupfish are accustomed to battles and have starred in their own David and Goliath story. In 1976 the fish was pitted against a nearby agribusiness in a Supreme Court case that illuminated the groundwater and surface water connection. The farm had drilled several wells to provide more water for its alfalfa crop and in so doing caused the water levels in Devils Hole to fall so far that the pupfish’s very existence was at stake. If the shelf were to be exposed to air, the pupfish diner would close down and the nursery would be finished; the pupfish’s already narrow margin of survivability would be eliminated. The groundwater beneath California’s Central Valley is now at the heart of the matter when it comes to the state’s drought; groundwater represents our savings account, and now that we’ve run out of snow, we have to spend out of our future. Even 60 Minutes covered the groundwater issue, and kudos to CBS for its elegant depiction of the connection between groundwater and surface water.

There is much mystery at Devils Hole. The cave is so deep no one knows where the bottom is; two trespassing divers died trying to find it, which is why the site is fenced. Beneath the surface of the small pool, labyrinths of subterranean chambers are unmapped. But the cave’s underwater passages are so interconnected with the rest of the planet that earthquakes and tsunamis half a world away can cause waves for the pupfish and have even been caught on video!

Kevin Brown, a New Jersey native and graduate of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, is writing the Devils Hole pupfish’s story for the National Park Service and the American Society for Environmental History. Kevin received his masters and Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh; since graduating he has been a journalist as well as a grocer, making him the perfect person to frame the pupfish’s predicament and to connect eating a salad in Pittsburgh to the water beneath the earth out here in California.

Researcher and historian Kevin Brown at Badwater Basin in January 2015.

Researcher and historian Kevin Brown at Badwater Basin in January 2015.

A Q&A With Kevin Brown

  1. What did you want to be when you grew up (when you were 10)?

For a long time, I wanted to be a letter carrier.

  1. What do you want to be when you grow up now?

Carl Hubbs, the prominent ichthyologist that gave Cyprinodon the nickname “pupfish” once wrote to a colleague that he wished he could live several lives simultaneously because there was too much that he wanted to learn and study. I (humbly) feel the same way.

The last two projects I’ve worked on (my dissertation and the Devils Hole project) have been about foresters and biologists – both groups of people who get to spend time working outside on issues with which I’m fascinated. It sometimes seems cruel that I get a chance to write about these professions while being cooped up inside! If I could follow Hubbs in wishing to live another live at the same time, I think I’d become an ecologist.

  1. In which subjects did you excel as a student in high school?

If I excelled at anything in high school it was racing the 3200 meters. Sadly, it did not help my writing!

  1. Name a book or an author that convinced you to go into resource protection. What about it resonated with you?

Nature’s Metropolis, by William Cronon, is a classic of environmental history that made me want to understand more about how humans have related to (and reshaped) nature. It is not actually about conservation – if anything, it is more about exploitation – but it is nonetheless an intellectually inspiring work.

  1. What is the most important environmental book of all time? Why?

It is hard to not say Sand County Almanac, right?

  1. Describe what you are working on this year with regard to the Devils Hole pupfish?

The Devils Hole pupfish, which lives in a disjunct part of Death Valley National Park, has been critically endangered, extensively managed, and fought over for some 45 years. The National Park Service contracted with the American Society for Environmental History to produce an environmental history of the recovery effort for this species. This 2 ½ year project will give biologists a sense of “where we have been” in Devils Hole pupfish management while also setting this species in the context of a changing American West.

  1. What surprised you about your work, what about it was unexpected?

I am continually amazed how the Devils Hole pupfish – living in one of the smallest vertebrate habitats in the world – has over the last fifty years become so wrapped up in some of the big issues of our time: water development fights, the rise of the “sagebrush rebellion,” and endangered species politics. When you visit Devils Hole – at the end of miles of dirt roads – it seems isolated. It is anything but.

  1. Why should anyone care about such a small animal?

People have been asking this question for a long time. As a historian I am fascinated by the diversity of answers. Often times, the answer about why we should care – or indeed, whether – has revolved not only around an abstract ethical or moral conclusion but the particular context and moment in which the question is asked. Those who made bumper stickers in the 1970s reading “Kill the Pupfish” likely had no personal animus against these tiny fish, but saw their protection as a potential threat to their economic interest. On the other hand, the biologists and managers who made “Save the Pupfish!” bumper stickers relied on a range of arguments, stretching from ones suggesting that research about the pupfish might someday improve human lives, to others that completely decentered humans from the story. To the question, “Why should we care about the pupfish?” they would retort, “Why the hell should the pupfish care about you!”

  1. What difference can one person make, if any?

The history of the Devils Hole pupfish suggests that one person can’t make much of a difference. What it does tell us, however, is that many people working together can. Carl Hubbs may have argued for setting aside Devils Hole as part of Death Valley National Monument, but it never would have happened without the dedication of many, many others. I think that is an instructive lesson for many other political and environmental battles.

  1. So do you live in Death Valley?

I live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for the time being. The last 15 months of work on this project have given me a wonderful opportunity to visit and work in the west. I expect I’ll follow Horace Greeley’s advice sometime soon and “go west” more permanently.

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