Friday, August 02, 2013

Guest Post: Gopher v. Man

I'm pretty sure you can trace the historic failings of the University of Minnesota sports teams to their choice of name:  Gophers.  In Minnesota lingo, at some point the teams started being called the "Goofers".  I think the football team last won the Big 10 championship and got to go to the Rose Bowl in about 1963, and I'm pretty sure they lost.  Basketball, baseball, wrestling, swimming, soccer -- quick, name me one national title the U of M teams have won in the last fifty or sixty years, even when they had Dave Winfield on both the basketball team and the football team ... .  
I thought so.
I'm pretty sure the Goofers could win a Foosball championship if the NCAA sanctioned it.  Those long winter nights, indoor activities fueled by camaraderie and beer, have definitely produced some bad-ass Foosball players.  Hit me with your best shot.
Gophers are not really vermin, but they are pests. They don't spread disease to humans, but they still wreak havoc.  They build these complex subterranean family homes, and spread the dirt in piles all over fields, gardens, and lawns.  They're kinda small, have nubby little tails, front feet with nails on the paws for scratching and digging, and goofy little curved yellow teeth that curl out of their lips -- also, I guess, for digging holes and tunnels and tearing up roots and destroying gardens.  One of their admirable qualities is industriousness, which is why they are also a bane.
Cute?  Do not be fooled!
Here is a picture of a gopher, in case you've never seen one up close. Notice the whiskers, the little beady eyes, the small pinned-back ears, and the yellow teeth.  Ugh.  Somebody ought to teach this guy some dental hygiene.  I've seen meth addicts with better teeth than that.

My dad hated Gophers.  Not as much as he hated Dick Cheney, but still, when he was creating his picture of the perfect hell for Dick Cheney I'm pretty sure there were gophers in there to torment the guy.
Gophers are not a minor threat.  I quote from Wikipedia:  

Gophers create a large community of tunnels with large mounds of dirt and rocks at their entrances, frequently referred to as gopher towns. Adult gophers will frequently stand watch at the entrance to a tunnel and whistle when predators are spotted, causing all the other gophers to run for the safety of the tunnels. A gopher town can easily spread to take over large sections of prairie or mountain meadow and may have a population in the thousands. The resulting destruction of plant life will then leave the area a stretch of denuded dirt. Gophers eat shrubs and other vegetation.
See, my dad was a visionary.  He understood that gophers were worse than Communists and that if permitted to thrive they could probably destroy our food chain and dismantle the entire system of American food production and distribution, leading to starvation, disease, and the fall of the American empire as a great civilization without the Chinese even having to invade us.  Imagine the horror:  thousands of little four-ounce rodents working away under the surface of the ground, unseen, subterranean, giggling and laughing and chattering and whistling to each other while they plotted to make Bill Murray and my dad go stark raving crazy.
One of the exciting things you used to be able to buy in the local hardware store in Hallock was dynamite.  I saw Dad use it twice:  Once to blow in the basement of the old farmhouse after Grandpa Leo sold it and some guy moved it to Emerson, where it still stands.
The other, to kill gophers.
There used to be, maybe still is, a bounty on gophers in Minnesota.  You would buy these little traps and put them in and around their holes, and when the little buggers fell into the trap it sprang shut and murdered them.  Then you would pick up the carcasses, re-set the traps, and take them to the local wildlife officer and get the bounty, which I think was about ten cents.  Dad thought this would be a great way for me to earn some money and learn a little about outdoors and wildlife, while also doing the world a service by contributing to the elimination of gopher evil.  
But trapping is a nasty business.  You'd come and see these little furry ugly dead creatures and take them out of their traps and put them in a bag or something and carry them into the game-control office or whatever and make maybe sixty cents.  That's a really hard way for a kid to earn some money -- not hard work, just kind of disgusting.  I think Dad had the idea I'd really get into it and hate gophers as much as he did and buy new and more and better traps with my gopher money, and build a burgeoning gopher eradication empire.  However, I just wasn't cut out to be the gopher-killing king because, as I say, the whole process was kind of disgusting other than doing something with Dad, which I always liked.
I think the gopher killing business died after a few weeks, having earned gross receipts of about $2.70 in return for a capital investment (traps) of probably $12.50 and expenses (gas, lettuce for bait) of $10.00 or so for a net taxable loss in the vicinity of $20.00.  Actually it was a profit for me of $2.50, and a loss for Dad of $22.50, meaning he paid about ninety cents for each gopher we killed.  
I'm pretty sure he thought it was worth it, because that was 25 gophers who didn't live to plague the world and breed more gophers.  You know, 25 gophers become 700 gophers in a few years, then multiply that out and raise it in orders of magnitude through the fifty intervening years and voila:  we probably saved Kittson County!
Since trapping failed, Dad turned to other methods.  Poison.  I know they ate it because the pellets disappeared.  But the gophers did not disappear.
Shooting.  Dad couldn't shoot for shit.  One day a furry little gopher was standing out by our farm shop.  Dad took out the single-shot bolt-action .22 caliber rifle, put in a high-velocity Remington bullet, took aim, and fired from about twenty feet away.  He missed by so far it didn't even scare the little booger.  He just stood there on his hind legs on the gravel, kinda looking around and basically knowing he was totally safe.  Dad went in the shed, got another round, operated the rifle bolt, put it in, took aim very carefully, and fired again.  This one spattered on the gravel a few feet from Mr.-I-don't-have-a-care-in-the-world, who looked around a little more and sauntered off back to his mound of dirt in our farmyard and went in to tell all his buddies this funny story about what a hero he was and how he knew he was safe because the big man with the long stick that went boom couldn't hit the broad side of a gopher with a barn door.  
So, we got dynamite.  
It came in a package of dynamite sticks wrapped in white plastic.  It had a fuse or igniter.  You put it where you wanted to put it, and hooked it up to a long wire which you screwed into the little box with the plunger.  Man, this was fun!  I'd seen it on television, and in The Bridge On the River Kwai.  French partisans and intrepid G.I.s were always taping it to bridges or railroad tracks , scurrying down into shrubs or tall grass, and waiting until the train or the tank came along and then pushing the plunger and -- BLOOIEE-- up goes the smoke and down comes the bridge and the train falls off into the river with a huge explosion and the army and the world are saved.  Or, even better, it fails to go off the first time and some poor bloke has to run up onto the bridge under heavy enemy fire and gets shot a couple of times and manages to re-attach the broken wire to the fuse and wave his arm to his buddy just as he's dying and his poor buddy has to push the plunger even with his friend still alive on the bridge and the buddy and the tanks and the Nazis and the bridge all go up in smoke and down into the ravine together.  The guy on the bridge wins a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor and the buddy goes back after the war and comforts the grieving widow in the romantic triangle.
So these are the images that were going through my head when we were preparing the dynamite.  Although dynamite is stable and inert until you ignite it, I was scared stiff of the stuff but also fascinated by it.  I was still a pretty little kid.  Grandpa Leo and Grandpa Leonard and Dad took apart the packages and took the red sticks of dynamite and put them in the gopher holes and wired them to the plunger and we all stood back a good long way and got ready.  It was a bright sunny day, perfect for blowing up gophers.
Grandpa Leonard yelled, "Fire in the Hole!"  The suspense was killing me.  I was afraid I was going to die.  He pushed the plunger.  BLAM.  A deep hollow explosion -- dirt flew up in a fountain about ten or twenty feet high and fell back to the ground.  A crater appeared where the gopher hole had been.
Now think about this.  We did this in a farmyard where nobody lived.  We didn't have a beautiful green lawn or a vegetable garden or ornamental shrubs to protect from the gophers.  We didn't even have a lawn mower out there.  We cut the grass every two or three weeks with the Model M Farmall and a side-sickle mower when it got a foot or two high and we didn't have anything else to do.  The only visible sign of the gophers' dastardly underground surreptitious engineering conspiracy was a few mounds of black dirt a few inches high and maybe a foot in diameter, usually hidden in tall green grass.  They weren't damaging our crops or the foundations of any of our buildings, or hurting us in any way except making these unsightly black mounds in our farmyard.
That is, before the dynamite blasts.  You see, we repeated this process several times, with each visible gopher hole.  Put in the stick.  Wire it up.  "Fire in the hole!"  BLAM!!!
Now, instead of a few gopher holes here and there, we had craters.  It was like killing gnats with a bazooka.
You might remember the Elmer Fudd cartoon where he was sitting in his living room in an easy chair and a mosquito started buzzing around.  First he slapped at it with his hand.  Then he got out a fly swatter, but it kept flying away and buzzing around and torturing him.  Then he used some insect spray on it but the mosquito wasn't fazed.  So Elmer Fudd took out his shotgun and started running around and chasing this one lone annoying pesky mosquito and shooting at it with his shotgun until he blasted so many holes in his house the darn thing fell down around him -- and the mosquito was still there.
The Tao Te Ching teaches the concept of "Wu Wei".  Accomplish the most with the least amount of work necessary, for efficient use of productive time.  I think that also translates into applying the least amount of force necessary to your purpose, whether it be in litigation, or persuasion, or playing a wind instrument like the trumpet.
So I really never understood why we dynamited the gopher holes, unless either we just hated gophers like original sin (which is why we have to die); or just wanted an excuse to play with dynamite and blow things up.  
There are no good ways to control gophers.  They are a pest, but not a vermin.  Yet my dad and my grandpas got licenses, bought dynamite and blasting caps and wires and a plunger to blow up the little creatures, creating in the process these big craters in the farmyard to replace the unsightly gopher mounds.  Wow!  Talk about overkill!  Never bring a knife to a gunfight.  Always bring the biggest, baddest, most intimidating weapon you possibly can.  I think we actually had to use our bulldozer to push the dynamited dirt back into the craters and it probably took a couple of years for grass to grow back over them and cover up the visible reminders of that glorious bright sunny day when Grandpa Leo and Grandpa Leonard and Dad and I played with dynamite and made these big explosions.
What brought this memory back was I was listening on the radio to the organic gardener on NPR and a lady from Moab, Utah, called in and had a problem with gophers.  They were damaging her ornamentals and raising havoc with her garlic -- which they don't eat, they just raise havoc with it.  Mike, the gardener on "You Bet Your Garden", said there is a scientific journal which devoted a whole entire issue to the science of gopher control.  This lady had tried trapping them but they were still there and she apparently had the same reaction I did to killing the little yellow-toothed rodents -- i.e., they're really disgusting but especially so when they are dead.  Mike, for the first time since I've listened to his show, didn't have an answer or a solution to tell her how to control the gophers.  He said he thought there was some kind of a trenching system that was supposed to protect you from the critters' predations.  Mind you, this is fifty years later, and we still don't know how to control these villainous pests.
So, it made me think and remember those few days when Dad and I were great trappers, and the time he tried to shoot the gopher, and best of all the dynamite.  
Obviously my dad wasn't the only person who developed an obsessive hatred of gophers.  Just think of Bill Murray and Caddyshack.  He used dynamite too.  Whoever wrote that story must have had a similar experience, you can't just dream this stuff up.  If Dad had seen that movie first maybe he would have known that it was a hopeless quest, an impossible dream.
The gophers?  They lived.  I'm sure a few of them got smithereened, and others had nosebleeds and concussions and headaches and had episodes of dizziness, loss of fine motor control, blurred vision, daytime sleepiness, and emotional liability.  But not too long after we dynamited them they were back, digging their little mounds and poking their heads out and keeping watch and laughing at the big man with the pointy stick that went boom.  
A couple of years later Dad quit farming.  I'm just sayin'.

(c) Greg Haubrich

The Author (far left), hanging out with his cousins in Orleans, MN
[Click to see larger image...]