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