Refugees from a well-watered West

Review of “Relicts of a Beautiful Sea” by Christopher Norment.


Relicts of a Beautiful Sea: Survival, Extinction, and Conservation in a Desert World
Christopher Norment
288 pages
hardcover: $28.
University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Relicts of a Beautiful Sea is a wide-ranging, obsessively detailed and oddly inspiring book –– an intriguing tapestry of scientific exploration and natural history that also takes turns as a eulogy, a love letter, a poem and ultimately a plea.

In Relicts, Christopher Norment — a professor of environmental science and biology — sets out to consider the nonmonetary value of six “relatively obscure” Great Basin and Mojave desert species that we can’t eat, hunt or sell: black toads, Inyo slender salamanders and four species of pupfishes.

Why these six species? In part because of their obscurity: Due to their small sizes and relative inaccessibility, Norment writes, they “carry little of the innate appeal” of charismatic megafauna such as gray wolves or whooping cranes, nor do they play much of an economic role. That obscurity allows us to ponder their worth without immediately reaching for our wallets.

They are also, however, aquatic species restricted to tiny patches of habitat in the Mojave and Great Basin deserts — vulnerable to water prospectors, the bright tentacles of Las Vegas and the thirsty whirlpool roar of Los Angeles.

Norment points out that similar species have also survived withdrawing- Pleistocene seas, earthquakes, uplift and hot water only to succumb to thirst or thoughtlessness: Tecopa pupfish, for example, which could endure temperatures up to 108 degrees but went extinct after hot springs outflows were developed and combined for bathhouses; Las Vegas dace and the Vegas Valley leopard frog, lost in the 1950s and 1940s, respectively, to groundwater pumping for and expansion of Las Vegas itself; the Ash Meadows montane vole, likely extirpated some time in the 1960s as alkali meadows devolved into peat mines, alfalfa farms and ranches.

After a pause to remember the fallen, Norment moves on to the precarious living, one species and one chapter at a time. As he weighs their worth, Norment visits the animals themselves, the people trying to save them and those who might someday have a hand in their destruction. He travels from the deep past — describing a volcanic eruption 760,000 years ago that could have buried or burned Inyo slender salamanders out of existence, but somehow didn’t — to the present and near future, examining the threats the pupfishes face from Las Vegas’ and Los Angeles’ ongoing searches for water, among other things.

He explores abstract concepts such as loneliness and hope while circling back to concrete and enchanting tidbits of information, such as the world’s remaining weight of Devils Hole pupfish — measured in raisins — and what their vocalizations sound like underwater (squirrels gnawing on walnuts). 

Norment loves his diminutive subjects enough to actually risk using the word “love.” What can a scientist so steeped in wonder communicate to someone who says, as one woman in the book does about extinct Tecopa pupfish, “I think they were pretty tiny, not good for much of anything. You couldn’t eat them. Not like trout.”?

Salt Creek pupfish, Cyprinodon salinus salinus.
Scott Hein

Norment’s answers turn out to be surprisingly good ones. He doesn’t try to make a direct appeal to the people who prize false fountains and alfalfa farms far more than desert springs and species (and who — let’s face it — are unlikely to read this book).

Instead, he writes a thoughtful and thought-provoking letter to the rest of us: those who didn’t know desert aquatic species existed, those who take them for granted or rationalize that they’ll survive our tender inattention, and even those who have almost given up, who are already privately lamenting the loss of the tiny beleaguered species and places they love. Especially those.

“Think about how resilient the pupfish are, and what they have endured,” Norment writes, “and then contemplate, gently, your own struggles and what you have endured. For all of us, at some time or another, this can be a dogshit world, unbelievably cruel and sorrowful and painful. ... But I will say this: that in my own life I have been consoled and heartened by the strength of pupfish and salamanders. ... Their presence in the world, their insistent example, helps me to endure and go on, too.”

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