June 2015

Rodents of unusual size

By David Feela

More than a few gophers excavate on my three acres. It’s inconvenient, but still preferable to having Kinder Morgan here, because gophers don’t drive pickups with flashing yellow lights, pulverize the blacktop on county roads, erect drilling rigs that flash at the horizon all night, or transport tankers full of dirty water to settling ponds in New Mexico. Gophers are more subtle. Tiny mounds appear every morning, dirt ground fine as coffee beans, which is how I know they’ve been awake all night, busy with their workload. They are classic hoarders, pouching their cheeks, not with profits, but with grass, nuts, insects and leaves, frolicking under the moonlight on a feast of roots and salad greens.

The internet has a wealth of material on the little rodents, enough to make me think I understand how gophers operate on my land. Unfortunately, most oil and mining companies prefer if the general public knows as little as possible about their operations. For example, CEO Richard Kinder supposedly earns a salary of one dollar annually, with no bonuses or restricted stock options, according to Wikipedia, yet Forbes Magazine places his wealth at about $11.8 billion. That’s a lot of greens.

But getting back to my backyard, the pocket gopher includes over 35 species, all of them confined to burrowing in the Americas. When I learned that no gophers populate the Middle East, I was relieved. Dependence on foreign gophers for our tunneling could make us weak.

The reason I have been studying the pocket gopher is that as my fleet of gophers moves closer to my gardens and house, it’s all too likely their presence may literally undermine my lifestyle. I am assured, however, that oil and mining exploration can do nothing but enhance our local economy, so I accept the company’s presence, but mostly because I can do little about it.

Many products are marketed to rid homeowners of gophers, but I’m here to report that none of them work. The film “Caddyshack” should have made it clear: gophers are the coyotes of the rodent world. They are tricksters with a knack for survival. I should just accept the gophers’ existence and leave them alone, but our ideologies are at odds.

In eight years, I’ve only seen one gopher scurry across my lawn during daylight hours, which explains why nobody organizes gopher hunts with cash prizes, much like they do to eradicate coyotes and prairie dogs. Hunters can’t call gophers to the surface. Nocturnal working hours and a dense layer of soil suppress their noisy industry.

Homeowners find out when they purchase their residences that the mineral rights below the surface have already been sold, but not to the gophers. If I decided to start my own tunnel in the backyard and I hit, say, a profitable vein of something, officially it wouldn’t belong to me, unless it’s just roots or bulbs. And then I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d be sued by a consortium of rodents with no appetite for an oil company’s style of extraction. Profits for the gopher must be organic and thoroughly digestible.

I’ve had only marginal success when it comes to trapping the varmints. They sneer at the idea of live traps. I’ve been forced to use the Victor gopher trap, which is nothing more than a mouse trap with attitude. The jaws must be carefully pulled apart and set so two spikes, when tripped, kill the gopher. It’s a nasty piece of business. The only thing that makes the prospect of stopping the gophers bearable is the knowledge that they’ll outwit my best-laid plans.

With a four-foot shank of rebar, I probe the dirt around each mound in a widening circle until I find the direction of its most active tunnel, then sink the blade of my spade into the earth to sever the artery, place one trap at each exposed opening, and cover my intrusion with a piece of cardboard to prevent any light from reaching my double roadblock. I followed these internet instructions precisely, guaranteed to solve my gopher problem.

The next morning I walked to the worksite, removed the cardboard, and found the hole I’d dug completely backfilled with dirt, my traps buried beneath the rubble – both triggered but empty. Just 2o yards away, another series of fresh mounds and a muffled, earthy sound that might pass for sniggering, which coincidentally is what I’d expect to hear if I come by the oil company’s corporate office late at night with a flashlight and the necessary tools to instigate an audit.

David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at http://feelasophy.weebly.com/