Mike Madison is the author of Blithe Tomato, from which these blog posts are excerpted. He is a farmer in California’s Sacramento Valley.


January 17, 2008

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.

There’s no extending an olive branch to gophers; they want the whole tree.

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.

There are 6 comments on this item
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1. by Carrie Floyd on Jan 17, 2008 at 12:14 PM PST

What a poignant piece — thank you. At the risk of sounding heartless, is there a market for gopher meat? Free-range, vegetarian fed gopher? If not, I’m thinking the dioramas have real potential; gophers on Harleys heading out of town....

2. by Scott7411@aol.com on Jan 19, 2009 at 5:02 PM PST

I, too, have an “issue” with these ubiquitous little monsters. I’m in SW New Mexico, and own a wolf-dog. Even she does not ever see nor catch them, to my knowledge. But their holes and hills are everywhere on my land, they appear even in the middle of my dirt driveway. Last fall they got into my greenhouse and my outside tomato, pepper, and corn garden. Between them and the rampaging moth caterpillars, they about wiped me out. I’m an occasional vegetarian, far from religious about it.

During the Siege of Paris (whenever that was), dressed rats were sold in the street markets; I recall a friend of many years ago who found an old recipe book with French rat recipes. There must be gopher recipes out there somewhere. So I’m thinking that at least, were I to start in the trapping business, I’d know that when I was doing my spring planting I’d be converting some of my efforts into animal protein from which I might benefit. I’m not picky, having eaten nearly everything from snails, to frogs, to jackrabbits, to venison and bison (enjoyed them all, hunger will do that to one). Would that I had a French chef on my payroll. (Alas, I’ve only a canine who lacks opposing digits and just wolfs stuff down, no surprise to me that she can’t cook, she has zero culinary incite and a picky appetite, I don’t.)

Gopher recipes? Anyone?

I’m not kidding, so skip the Cantonese fried caterpillar cuisine suggestions (although, in this economy, I may have to revisit the thought).

Just gopher recipes: is this so much to ask?

I’m actually serious about it (so much so I’ve herein listed my e-mail address). THEY are all around me (it’s almost Hitchcockian), and the only one I’ve seen in two years was roadkill with gorgeous long digging nails. Wily, they are. I might’ve taken the rat-bastid home for dinner, but I suspected his blood-alcohol level might’ve been rather high, after gnawing on my early-frost spoiled cucumbers and, yes, fennel. My fennel. How else could he be nailed out on the road? Swacked, I say. Went left when he should’ve gone right.

Somebody, please! Tell me I can eat them! Or at least turn them into wolf-dog food. I’ll figure out how to catch the bastids.

Or, perhaps the erudite and experienced author of this wonderfully (hilariously) written piece can describe his trap system.

If it’s top secret, Mr. Madison, e-mail me directly, feel free. Before they eat the tires off my vehicles. (No, wait, those are packrats, building pinon nests on my warm engine block, eating the wiring, and stuffing my carburetor vents with other parts of my vehicle...hmm, anybody know what they taste like, packrats...? don't)

Gotta love Mother Nature, her creatures do adapt. Well dammit, I will, too. With the help of others afflicted.


3. by Scott7411@aol.com on Jan 19, 2009 at 5:12 PM PST

Sorry, I meant insight, not “incite”...OTOH, she has nose sight. It’s worth noting that she turns up her nose at most commercial dog food, but will happily eat a dead bird. I...I don’t get it.

4. by krishna on Jan 10, 2010 at 6:16 PM PST

We have a small garden in which we had gopher trouble. We purchased a few traps, then we covered all the holes. The next day revealed the active holes. We opened the holes enough to slip the trap in and used a rag to block the rest of the hole around the trap. The trap has a little hole for light to shine through. Usually the next morning delivered a gopher. We’ve caught three and now I look for gophers with excitement. I have experimented with skinning and gutting them and feeding them to my poodle. He loves them better than anything that I’ve ever fed him! Thus, the cycle of life!

5. by Joseph on Apr 15, 2010 at 2:49 PM PDT

A solution which seems to work....a length of flexible conduit as straight as possible from your tailpipe to the gopher hole, let the vehicle idle for about 15 minutes.
Rgw carbon monoxide will sink into the tunnels and kill the little buggers. and, it does not affect the plants.
Any gas engine will do the trick!
use gloves to handle the HOT CONDUIT!!

6. by Saskatchewan resident on Oct 14, 2010 at 11:44 AM PDT

Gopher Pie

1 Gopher, skinned and cleaned
1/4 cup onion
1/4 cup green pepper
1/2 tbsp minced parsley
1 tbsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper
4 1/2 tbsp. flour
3 cups broth

Cut Gopher into 2 or 3 pieces. Boil for 1 hour. Remove meat from bones in large pieces. Add onion, green pepper, parsley, salt, pepper, and flour to the broth and stir until it thickens. If the broth does not measure 3 cups, add water. Add the meat to the broth mixture and stir thoroughly. Pour into baking dish. Roll only enough to make it fit the dish. Place dough on top of meat, put in a hot oven (400 degrees F.) and bake 30 to 40 minutes or until dough is browned. Serves 6-8.

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