The reason why I am sometimes tempted to quit farming in disgust, and the reason why I can never quit farming, are the same. The reason is a little burrowing rodent called the western pocket gopher. The word “pocket” in his name refers to a pouch on each side of his face in which he can carry his lunch. I have trapped gophers with their pockets stuffed with grains of wheat and oats, or chunks of radish, or half a tulip bulb.
The gopher is a vegetarian, and lives by eating the farmer’s crops. He prefers the most expensive ones, and will always choose Casablanca lilies over mere tulips. He lives underground in a maze of tunnels. There is generally just one gopher to a system of tunnels, which makes me wonder how it is that they breed so prolifically.
Perhaps on Saturday nights Mr. Gopher slicks back his hair with his little paw, and polishes his ugly yellow teeth on a bit of root, and dabs some fennel under his arms, and goes above ground looking for a date. He whistles one up, or follows her pheromones, or maybe just goes to a club. Having found each other, he and Ms. Gopher knock off a quick and anonymous coupling in the grass — a squirm and a squirt — before going their separate ways. Some humans don’t do much better.
I reckon that I lose 25 percent of my net income to gophers. Each year I write that check: Pay to the order of Gopher, Six thousand and 00/100 dollars. That’s the difference between retiring when I’m 65 and working until the day I drop dead in the field with a hoe in my hand. And so I keep after the gophers. I’ve made what I think is a generous deal with them. There’s a six-acre block of forest along the creek where the gophers are free to build their civilizations however they choose, to develop the arts and sciences, to devote themselves to politics or literature, to pursue lives of asceticism or debauchery, and I will not interfere. But once they leave their own country and come into the cultivated lands, then they become fair targets, and I try to trap them.
Trapping consists of digging into the burrows, which are not always easily found, and setting a little wire trap, one facing each way, and then closing up the hole. When the unsuspecting gopher comes along and bumps into the trap, a powerful spring squeezes him around the thorax, and when he exhales he is unable to inhale again, and so he suffocates.
I lie in bed trying to imagine this, and it is not pleasant. The wire trap is said to be humane, “humane” being an ironic term referring to the lesser of two atrocities. Sometimes the trap doesn’t work correctly, and the gopher dies a horrible slow death. When this happens, I bury him at the base of a tree and say a little prayer: “May your bones nourish this tree, and may your spirit be reincarnated as a tree swallow so that you might experience the world wheeling in the open sky instead of lurking in a muddy tunnel.”
In choosing enemies, one must be even more careful than in choosing friends. Too powerful an enemy will crush your spirit; too weak an enemy affords no scope for sport or honor. As enemies go, the gopher is a good choice. He is wily and not easily caught, and 10 times out of 11 my trap is empty. And the gopher is easy to hate because he is a vandal. Look here, at this young olive tree, with a trunk as thick as a broom handle, a fine little tree, growing lustily in every direction. One day you notice that it looks a bit water-stressed. You reach down to feel the ground, your finger breaks through into an underground cavity, and the tree falls over sideways, bitten off where the root joins the stem. The gopher kills an 80-pound tree to take a quarter-ounce of food, and instead of staying there to finish the meal, he goes on to the next tree, and kills it too. If one weren’t a congenital pessimist, it would be heartbreaking.
And yet, there is something cowardly about trapping. I never meet my enemy face to face. I put the trap in a burrow, and the next morning I pull out a little corpse on the end of a wire. If I had to kill him face to face, say, by decapitating him with a sharp spade, and if I had to look into his bright, terrified eyes, I don’t know that I could do it. In trapping, the relationship is I-it; but face to face it becomes I-thou, and it would do violence to my notion of myself to slaughter the little fellow so unceremoniously.
I don’t know how a Hindu or a Buddhist would deal with this, but I can tell you that he would not be in the olive-tree business. One winter I planted a little grove of 1,200 olive trees into clean, gopher-free ground. But gophers snuck in that spring under cover of some clover, and the first summer I trapped 191 gophers out of the grove, and they killed just under 300 trees. If I had not trapped them, they would have killed all of the trees, just as one winter when I wasn’t paying attention they ate every single bulb out of a bed of 2,000 tulips.
I set 26 traps each day, which takes an hour of my time. Trapping is a job about which I can never say, “There! That’s it. I’m done.” It’s like bailing out a rapidly leaking boat — a condition of existence. I feed the dead gophers to some half-feral cats that hang about the place. In theory, the cats are supposed to catch the gophers, but they are smarter than I am and have figured out that if they just lie about on the porch, I will bring gophers to them. I have wondered if there is a higher use for the carcasses. I have thought of applying taxidermy to them and creating kitsch dioramas: gophers playing poker, Washington crossing the Delaware, Munch’s “The Scream,” that sort of thing. But I haven’t done it.
On a particularly bad day, one is tempted to shake a fist at the heavens and cry out, “Why, God, did you make this odious creature?” And having asked the question, one readily thinks of an answer. For, among animals who are vandals, the first prize certainly goes to humans, the most destructive of all creatures; none of the others come even close. And so the gopher is there to play the role played by the buffoon and the zany in a comic opera. He is there to mock us by clumsily imitating us, and to remind us of our own environmental crimes. This is almost fair. But there is a deep injustice in the way it’s carried out, for those least culpable are most afflicted. In Washington, D.C., where they are badly needed, there are no gophers at all.
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