Sitting on the deck one story above the garden I watch a tomato plant shake like its having a seizure, then get sucked into the earth like a spaghetti strand. They’ve eaten the roots of a couple of rose bushes until the plants are bonsai-ed. The nice Mimosa tree with its cotton candy puffs of flowers became a blackened stick giving me the yearning for the shotgun. I’ve tried the sonic vibrators, while pleasing as a tipping of the scales of annoying behavior, you’d need ‘em planted like a field of cornstalks to do any good. I have used the smoke bombs; I have tossed firecrackers then some M-80’s into the holes. Nothing has done any good and finally, yes, I have watered their holes watching the full-on hose empty itself for an hour with no result, me ready with a shovel. Of course to survive the monsoon winter they have a plan. They are masters of subterranean drainage. Living shelves, food storage larders and nurseries are placed in the high-ground underground to be a safe island in a rushing downpour or a hose stuck in the ground. At the local school soccer field they became tame with the kids offering mini carrots. With their burlesque grins, they poke their insistent little mallet heads out at soccer games and recess as if the vibration of little feet signaled chow-time.
Gophers are always shoveling scratching; digging deeper and longer tunnels feasting on gardens and lawns anywhere there is moisture. Water is the key. They always love to be close to damp soil. Watering a gopher hole has all the futility of trying to stop a wave from breaking ashore. Water infiltrates the subsoil by means of gopher burrows, minerals are brought downward as is humus and subsoil is brought to the surface in excavation piles—an average gopher can bring 2.5 tons of subsoil to the surface a year. Only though, in soil that has a bit of dampness. Putting the hose down the hole only serves to water their root gardens. In the big picture, they are part of the big picture, transformative and essential to eluviation–the interpenetration of minerals into soil layers.
Gopher facts: They have fur lined cheek pockets. Their lips are behind their incisors so they can dig with their teeth and not get dirt into their mouths. They are very territorial-one gopher to one tunnel system unless breeding. A male seeks a female by intercepting her burrow system. A fully irrigated field can drown gophers but the hose down the hole is like fuel to the fire. Gopher love soft moist earth and may be Darwin’s way of saying the smooth green lawn is a waste of time unless you want to be a gopher farmer or add a load of poison to your world. A local organic potato grower, we know, tithes 15% of his crop to gophers. Gophers love a nice lawn with well-watered soil. It’s like goin’ up to the big house to have a lawn for a roof. The male when courting will offer his prime location under a lawn. Owls, hawks and snakes are natural predators. House cats and some dogs can dispatch a gopher. Traps work, poison works, some say juicy fruit gum works. A tank of propane emptied into a burrow and lit may have spectacular results. Lately, I’ve had some success with traps, but they have to be exhumed quickly so to enjoy gopher ragout. My best solution is to plant in wire baskets.
I sat on a gated porch with a friend having a drink in the blue evening air, while her two dogs, snow-white Westys, West Highland Terriers, jumped like popcorn wanting to get at a gopher pushing up the lawn. Behind the gate quivering with instinct and pure desire the dogs broke the calm. I said, “They’re trying to tell you, a thousand years of breading shouldn’t be denied,’ Instinct wants freedom.” Of course, I was projecting my own pent–up instincts on her pampered little guys. “They need to feel their raison d’etre. Let them out for just a bit to see what they’ll do.” (They never were let outside the gate without a leash.) Very reluctantly she agreed and let the two out. One sat gazing back waiting for instruction but the other shot like a loosed arrow, grabbed the gopher and with a couple rattling shakes, the gopher was dead. Must have taken four seconds. My friend never let them out again.
But of course, everything belongs here, even the ones we scorn as pests. The inspiration for the making of “Gopher Dirt” came on a walk on the bluffs above Ten Mile Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. It was a clear day, breezy, the middle of the spring season when green blankets the hills in Northern California. On that day with the light lowering, the wide flat field we were crossing of the bluff top, waxed mythic. The mounds of gopher diggings showed up like the ruins of a miniature civilization. The earth was perfect to touch, so friable and worked over. In that magic hour, the stuff looked so lovely, “Why wouldn’t everyone want some? Let’s package it up.” That was in 1981, the year they broke up Ma Bell and liposuction was introduced. That it took so long to realize is simply another puzzle in the continuing mystery in the dialogue between inspiration and actualization.
That day it seemed natural to brand the “Gopher Dirt” Rølvaag’s after the author of the pioneer farmer classic Giants in the Earth.