Jan 8 2012

Of Dogs & Prairie Dogs

Melissa Crytzer Fry

I expected to see dogs this past weekend. Lots of them. Brittany Spaniels, to be exact, and one little gal in particular: Pearl.

Six-month-old Brittany Spaniel, Pearl, is the baby of our neighbors, Mark and Roxanne. She awaits her first puppy field trial. Click to enlarge.

I did, in fact, see a lot Brittanys — excited by the horses and riders, the camping trailers, by one another’s eager barking, by the tinny blanks fired from guns to signify a bird ‘find.’ (No birds were killed. The dogs simply needed to stay on point once they located a bird).

Dog owners could walk their dogs along the trail, or they could ride horses. We walked behind as Pearl’s doggy dad, Cody, competed. You can see a Brittany low in the grassland to the right. We missed Pearl’s competition the next morning (boo). We hear she did pretty well against "Bucky." Click to enlarge.

This horse took my breath away, and this photo is going on my wall! Click to enlarge.

What I didn’t expect to see during this weekend adventure: prairie dogs. Rewind back a few years, and I wouldn’t have seen them. No one would have. Unfortunately, black-tailed prairie dogs vanished from Arizona’s landscape nearly 50 years ago, the result of human-related poisoning and habitat fragmentation.

Click to enlarge to see this plump prairie dog along the mound to the right.

In 2008 this community of black-tailed prairie dogs was reintroduced to the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area in Sonoita, Arizona. When the population is stable, these “little dogs” will be ushered to four additional sites in southern Arizona, beyond the area pictured above. Such actions are aimed at preventing the species’ inclusion on the Endangered Species list.

While many may view these furry little critters as nothing more than pests, they actually play a key ecological role.

“Black-tailed prairie dogs maintain grasslands for other animals to forage and serve as important prey for eagles and hawks,” says Eric Gardner of Arizona Game and Fish. “Because of the far-reaching effect they have on other species, successful re-establishment would benefit the whole ecosystem by maintaining species diversity.”

Did I mention that I witnessed some of that species diversity? I watched a pair of Harris’s hawks catching the updraft and steering into strong head winds, levitating over the vast prairie grasses before me. I saw sparrows, doves and ravens, too. Did I also mention that I was as smitten with the landscape as I was by the prairie dogs and lovely little Pearl?

It was easy to get lost in the deepness of these golden grasslands, the mountains near the Mexico border rising behind them. Click to enlarge. (This photo is going on my wall, too).

Yucca, mesquite and prairie grass add to the area’s diversity. Click to enlarge.

The drive home among this desert grassland was reminiscent of a trip we’d taken to Sonoita and Sahuarita – Arizona’s wine country – back in the summer of 2010.

In spite of the beautiful vistas and the dusty back roads we traveled then, we were reminded of the harshness of this part of the state. Not just its oppressive heat and arid soil.

Another sign we encountered (not pictured) indicated "licensed vehicles only" with a warning to expect up to six years imprisonment and up to $6,000 in fines if unlicensed. Not knowing what 'license' was required (U.S.?), we took a different route.

These signs are common, as are the Border Patrol stops (I would have taken a picture of a Border Patrol station for you, but I didn’t think the officers would take kindly to me pointing a camera at them as they held firearms at their sides).

The signs reminded me, in an instant, that so much more lives on these grassy plains than what meets the eye: danger, passion, dreams, survival. And – once again – the black-tailed prairie dog.

For Readers & Writers: This weekend adventure revealed to me the importance of juxtaposition in fiction. When I looked around, I saw both beauty and danger, struggle and promise. Novels that introduce readers to seemingly disparate emotions, settings and concepts often seem the most satisfying, don’t you think? Does your novel – or the book you’re reading – have the right mix of both, the right amount of resulting tension? How do you achieve that kind of balance in your writing?


42 Responses to “Of Dogs & Prairie Dogs”

  • avatar Julie Says:

    Great photos as always! I feel like I’ve been there after reading your posts. Thanks for taking us along on your adventures.

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  • avatar Cynthia Robertson Says:

    Your posts always make me think, Melissa. (Stop that, would you? (just teasing))
    I love those two photos of the mountains with the snow on them. The colors of the sky and the grass, all of it, just beautiful and so crisp. Those should be framed.
    I hate to hear about all the prairie dogs that are poisoned on the golf courses around the valley, it makes me ill. I understand they can be a nuisance, but killing them, especially that way just seems so wrong. They were here first, after all.
    If by disparate you mean contrast, then yes, my WIP has that, and yes, I do feel it makes a novel more satisfying. Juxtaposing can say more than a thousand words, sometimes.
    That horse does rock. He looks like the poster child for The West, eh?

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    Melissa Reply:

    If I’m making you think, then I’m doing my job (yay!)… I agree with you 100% about the critters being here first. Man’s self-centeredness can be so infuriating (and I had NO idea there were prairie dogs on any of the golf courses up there. This black-tailed species is supposedly completely gone from Arizona, though a different kind does exist up north… Still, so sad).

    I can’t wait to read your work. It sounds wonderfully rich in detail and contrast.

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  • avatar Terri Says:

    Thank you for sharing a piece of this country I have not yet experienced. I’ve been through Arizona at night on an interstate but not experienced this glory you share! Amazing grassland!

    Love Pearl’s expression, she has it all figured out and seems to want your readers to know that!

    I can see why the horse and horseman photo will be on your wall! Outstanding photograph!

    I especially appreciate your sharing the immigration reality with us. It makes it more real. It is part of the experience of your trip.

    I am a new subscriber via a suggestion from someone. She knew I would love your blog and I do!

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Oh, Terri. I’m so excited to meet you, and I’m so happy you enjoyed my post. Do you have a blog as well? Drop me a line and let me know. Yes, the immigration situation is a reality, though few people really ’see’ this part of it from the media. You must come visit Arizona in DAYLIGHT!

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    Terri Reply:

    Yes, returning to Arizona, it is on my list!
    I’ve been thinking about Arizona ever since I read your story earlier tonight! I’ve also been seeing your photos in my mind! Oh the splendor of that place and your remarkable ability to capture it and share it, well Bravo!

    No, I don’t have a blog. I posted my first story on Millivers Travels in December. I will be posting stories over there for a while. I am working on my next one. (!!)

    I emailed you tonight, hope you got that, let me know if you didn’t.

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  • avatar Shary Says:

    Amazing photos, as always. And thanks for the reminder how important a multi-dimensional setting can be. I’m rooting for the prairie dogs.

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  • avatar Julia Munroe Martin Says:

    “….both beauty and danger….Does your novel have the right mix of both, the right amount of resulting tension?”…. exactly the question I’m grappling with in draft 3 of my edit!! A wonderful post with amazing photos that take me back to living in the west! That photo of the mountains and yellow grasses in the foreground is phenomenal and would go on my wall too…. if you’d let it 🙂 p.s. I love prairie dogs too; so many of them in the plains of Colorado where we used to live. And Pearl is a beauty!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Yes, I love the prairie dogs in Colorado. When we visit our friends, they always roll their eyes and say, “They’re such pests!” I guess I need to lecture them!

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  • avatar Erika Marks Says:

    Oh, Melissa, just what I needed this dreary morning–those pictures are breath-taking! Your point about balance is such a good one–it’s SO HARD, IMO, to find let alone KEEP that balance–it’s certainly something to always be aware of–and not something I can ever achieve on a first or second or even third pass of edits. I have to see the whole to know where that tension is lagging, or simply lacking.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Well, since I’ve read Little Gale Gumbo, I can say with certainty that you figured out how to achieve that balance/tension for sure. I agree – it definitely takes some editing and re-work (and swearing and hair-pulling, and head-banging). 🙂

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  • avatar Annie Neugebauer Says:

    Melissa, you are such a talented writer. This post has a really lovely mix of elegant prose and a professional, journalistic quality. And you’re absolutely right. I love that you do the “for readers & writers” bit at the end; it really drives it home. Nice post.

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  • avatar Jolina Petersheim Says:

    I would frame that picture on my wall, too, Melissa–it’s gorgeous, as are the others. You really have a gift for photography and for capturing the pioneer spirit of Arizona. The poisoning of the prairie dogs does make me sad. My younger brother (who’s 14) told me when he moves out here that he’s going to shoot every red-tailed hawk and coyote so they won’t eat his cats or dog. I tried to explain that without that wildlife, life wouldn’t be the same even if their presence brings about death. He didn’t quite get it, but maybe one day. Thanks for these beautiful images on this dreary winter morn.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Yes, let’s hope your young brother grows to understand the necessity of the circle of life. The ecosystem is really so delicate; you take away one animal and it throws everything else off. One of the most frightening is the disappearance of honey bees. Thanks for the compliments on my photos. I had so much fun snapping away.

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  • avatar StoriesAndSweetPotatoes Says:

    A new blog post! I adore prairie dogs. The zoo I went to when I was little had this huge area where you could crawl through tunnels and the prairie dogs were on the other side of the glass and they would run around with you.

    I like the point you bring up about beauty and danger. In fiction I like them to be conflated so that both the characters and the reader have to work through emotions and choices until the end.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Did that tunnel accommodate adults, because I’m pretty sure I’d like to get in there and run amongst the prairie dogs RIGHT NOW. Yes, I’m with you: love a book that makes me work through the emotions and choices up to the very end. I think reading should be, in some ways, exhausting :-).

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  • avatar Michelle Says:

    Just had to visit your blog to see great pics of blue skies before I forget what the sun looks like! I have never seen a prairie dog and didn’t know the difference betwen them and groundhogs until now. Good for you for spreading the word about the plight of prairie dogs – what affects one, affects the whole chain.
    Also, those are good points to consider when thinking about setting in a novel.

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  • avatar Lara Schiffbauer Says:

    What wonderful photos you have! Seeing them as a part of your post reminds me of how much there is to see in the everyday world, if we just remember to look.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I’m so excited to hear that my photos had this impact. There IS so much to see every day in the world, and I hope to keep my eyes open again this year.

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  • avatar Katie Pickard Fawcett Says:

    Pretty. I haven’t been to Arizona, but the pics remind me of central Mexico’s bajio region.

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  • avatar Leah Says:

    First of all, I want to grab that spaniel and take her home! Second, very interesting questions. I just finished a very compelling book by a fellow blogger called “Daughter of the Drunk at the Bar” (Michelle O’Neil). She did a great job in her memoir writing of making you feel anger, sadness and pity for a character who was not all that lovable at all. So I think there was a nice balance of prairie dogs in that story. (By the way, I’ll be featuring her and the book on my blog soon.)

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  • avatar Country Wife Says:

    Great post, great photos, AND great questions at the end! Nicely put together. The dogs and prairie dogs are a familiar sight. Thank you for making me think about the books I read in a different way.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I figured you were familiar with the prairie dogs. I have to tell you how MUCH I love your blog. I think we have very similar outlooks and “remote” experiences. Love reading about SD and what you capture on YOUR trail cams. Our recent snap shot: about 10 javelina with two little ones.

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  • avatar Nina B Says:

    First, welcome back! How does it feel? I echo Cynthia about you always making us think. Tension is so key . . . when I’m reading it’s easy to see where it’s missing. When I’m writing it’s much harder to make every scene as tense as possible. I wish I was better at that!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Yes, it’s always easier to see that missing tension in someone else’s work rather than what we’re writing.

    Wish I could say time away was relaxing, but there were too many visitors/too much going on. Not a lick of writing was done. But that’s behind me. Here’s to both of us and 2012, a year of writing!

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  • avatar Erika Robuck Says:

    As always, you photoblogs are an inspiration, and the connections you make to fiction are extremely helpful.

    Thanks for the reminder of how beauty/danger, life/death are so close to one another. In fiction, tipping the balance back and forth is not only engaging for the reader but also realistic. Today I’ll try to craft my chapters to make sure the balance is there–relief from the dark pages, trouble during the light.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I’m sure your chapters were filled with that tipped balance of beauty/darkness. I love it, Erika: “relief from the dark pages, trouble during the light.” Conflict rules!

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  • avatar V.V. Denman Says:

    Beautiful! These pictures remind me of West Texas. The same, but different. Your walls must be covered with great photos.

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  • avatar Lori Parker Says:

    I’d frame those two photos in a heartbeat. You should consider selling your jpegs, seriously. Also, I love Pearl!! (We want a dog (or three) badly, but lack the space.)

    Struggle and promise. I may need to post that across my laptop screen. I’d like to think my WIP bounces between the two, but I’m afraid it slips at times and loses its tone. Much more drafting and revising needed. Lovely post, Melissa!

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    If I knew HOW to make money selling my photography, I do believe I’d consider it. I haven’t a clue.

    I hear you about the never-ending battle of drafting and revising. We’ll get there!

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    Shari Lopatin Reply:

    First off, find some local coffee shops that may consider displaying your work. Then, start a section on your website where you display your photography for sale. 🙂 And, you may want to consider selling some of your work to local travel agencies and shops, that could use your work in their marketing. They’d probably to support a local photographer anyway.

    I have a sister who’s a professional fine artist. 🙂

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    Shari Lopatin Reply:

    Jesus, I can’t write today. LOL! I meant to say “they’d probably PREFER to support a local photographer.”

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  • avatar Suzie Ivy Says:

    I read this post a few days ago but didn’t have time to comment:-( I love how you see life in everything around you. You capture beauty in each picture and word. If my writing ever does that, I will have achieved that which I can be proud of. You simply amaze me!

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    And you simply made my WEEK with your beautiful comments. Your writing, my dear, DOES capture beauty. I loved your post about the old lady in her rocker. Loved it.

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  • avatar Shari Lopatin Says:

    Melissa,

    I’m a little late, sorry! Life’s been busy. 🙂 First off, I love how you’re such an old soul. You would have fit perfectly into the roughness, beauty and adventure of the Old West. Secondly, the photo of the illegal immigration sign sent chills down my spine. Back in 2007, when I was working for the newspaper, I was part of a team that wrote an entire investigative series on “The Cost of Immigration,” both the good and bad. It earned several AP awards. And as the years have passed, the emotional severity on the tapic has as well. Based off your comments, I’d like to recommend a movie I just saw this weekend (it’s on DVD now) that moved me profoundly: “A Better Life,” directed by Chris Weintz, the same director of “About a Boy.” And last, I’ve been struggling with adding enough tension to my WIP. It’s been the reason I haven’t written more for awhile, and I fear I sometimes will never find the answer. (sigh)

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    Shari Lopatin Reply:

    TOPIC, not “tapic,” sorry!

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    Melissa Reply:

    I like to ‘think’ that I’d have fit into the rugged west; things would have been simpler then, but much more difficult, I know. Thanks so much for the movie recommendation (and super congrats on the AP award for your investigative reporting).

    I hope the WIP writing is back on track for you and that you’ve been able to up the tension!

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  • avatar Natalia Sylvester Says:

    I love how your mind works, Melissa! I’d take one look at those dogs and just think “cuties!!!” but you see inspiration for writing lessons and the stark contrast that nature gives us. I agree that the best writing juxtaposes emotions, settings, and concepts. Life is often like that, and even though the truth is rarely black and white, we need contrast to guide us and lead us to the gray areas where things get really interesting. I’ve experienced this in my own life. One example that comes to mind is that when I was planning my wedding, my parent’s marriage was coming to an end. There was a lot of joy and heartbreak during that period, but it taught me so much about marriage.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Have I told you how much I appreciate the depth of your responses? Thank you so much for sharing the juxtaposition you experienced during your own wedding (I’m SO sorry you had to struggle with the beginning and end of a union in that way).

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  • avatar Lora Rivera Says:

    Ugh. That sign. It brings to mind an acquaintance of mine with whom Hubs and I took a road trip a little south of here (Tucson). The dude brought an assault rifle. In case of “any f***ing illegal immigrants.” I about wanted to shoot him myself.

    Cute prairie dog, tho 🙂
    And great pics.
    –Lora
    @lroseriver

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    Melissa Reply:

    Oh, goodness… and assault rifle! Yep – those prairie dogs ARE cuties! We need to plan our hiking trip – sometime in March??

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    Lora Rivera Reply:

    March sounds perfect! Hopefully the flowers will be out by then. Do you think?? I love Finger Rock for the blooming, but I’ve also been wanting to try 7 Falls…

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