Top Dog, Badger, Bluebird and the sneeze

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, July 7, 2013

Once upon a time in July, in a valley nearly identical to this one, Prairie Top Dog sat balanced on his hind legs, spine straight, ears pricked up, darting eyes surveying things — notably the impressive number of dome and rim craters he and his fellow dogs had recently dug and the innumerable miles of tunnels and burrows they called Home, with a capital H, as it were the world’s center.

Top Dog felt pride. Pride is not a deadly sin for Gunnison prairie dogs since they are well known for it and refuse to see themselves as doomed — or even disqualified from great things — because of something so venial. So everyday. So often felt.

It was midsummer, and the mounds were dry and the dust was high under an uncompromisingly blue Colorado sky. All the prairie dog shadows were hard-lined, like light-sucking negative-space cutouts against the rawhide brown of the dirt. It was absolute perfection to Top Dog — just the way summer should be. All of it shimmering in waves of blistering heat. Seeds and weeds spilling out everywhere, high and low. A slice of time filled with the electric buzzing of crickets and fickle gusts of hot wind, and yet: utterly still. Yes, he did feel as though he — and, by extension, all the dogs — were at the center of it all.

Smitten by this feeling as he sat perched atop the highest of their dome craters, he breathed in deeply, scanning the colony, chest puffed up even more with what we will call not-quite-but-almost smug satisfaction. Prone to allergies this time of year, however, and having inhaled so profoundly, he felt a sudden sneeze come out of left field, his nose twitching with the tickle of cottonwood fluff.

As is true with many an animal prone to sneezing, he was compelled, involuntarily, to close his eyes in the exact moment of sternutation, missing for a split second what was going on around him. (Which prairie dogs are not likely to admit is possible.)

And in the time it took to close his eyes and sneeze, Top Dog missed a couple of things. He missed some residual dandelion stalks gifting their helicoptering germs to the updraft right behind him. He missed half a dozen ants right next to his left paw succeed — finally — in the picking up of some tiny dead thing they were hauling toward the anthill for dinner.

He missed a hummingbird moth drone by like a small plane, bee-lining for the luscious garden flowers half a mile away in the village. He had never seen a hummingbird moth before. Certainly, had he seen it, he would have called out a warning to all the other dogs, because who knew what messages, intruders or foreign compounds some low flying thing might bring in. It was less than a foot from his head! He was oblivious.

The two other things Top Dog missed were a bit more critical, actually. One was the urgent call of Bluebird on a nearby post, an adolescent who had been watching Top Dog and who had seen what the rodent had missed because of the deafening sound of his own convulsive expulsion of air. Teenaged Bluebird — dressed in saturated plumage even brighter than the sky above — was in training, intent on doing good, intent on doing the work of grown bluebirds, which is to follow things, either by wing or eye, and then to bring tidings, either glad or otherwise, depending.

But because Top Dog could not hear or see Bluebird, who had begun to flap her wings hard in warning, he did not see or hear American Badger (the fiercest of the badger species) come blazing out of his own rodent doorway, wiggling his muscular flesh over to Top Dog with so much power and predation, there seemed to be no hope for the clueless dog whose puffed up chest had caused the sneeze that had closed the eyes that might have otherwise seen Badger.

Bluebird, with ample gray matter at her disposal, instantly calculated that she would have to change strategies if any good deed was to be claimed on her scorecard and dive-bombed Badger’s ear, whispering a little something (we don’t know what) that momentarily caused him to falter. Thus thrown off, Badger was momentarily foiled and only able grab the pouf of prairie dog’s luscious but rather dry-tasting tail.

Today, all that remains of the prairie dog tail is a stub a few inches long, an embarrassment, especially when compared to the beaver’s, the bunny’s, the marmot’s. This little vestige serves as a daily reminder to Prairie Dog that pride, though delicious, may eventually bite one in the b_tt.

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