Flash in the Pan 

Gopher broke

I saw something terrible in the garden last summer. Something had eaten several garlic plants from below. All that remained were decapitated garlic tops resting awkwardly in the holes where bulbs once grew.

I brought in the old hippy for a consult. "Gophers," he said.

The next day he brought his gopher trap. He proceeded to prowl my garlic patch, shovel in hand, looking for a pattern in the piles of tailings left behind by the gopher's excavations.

After what seemed like a lot of soul searching, the old hippy began digging in a patch of ground about three feet from the garlic patch. About a foot down he intersected a tunnel. It ran parallel to the garden fence.

"Shit," he said. "It's not going into the feeding grounds."

"By feeding grounds," I asked, "you mean my garden?"

He nodded. "If the tunnel goes straight into the patch, then you know his den is at the other end of the tunnel. But this tunnel runs alongside the garden, so you don't know which way his den is."

The trap, a Victor-brand Black Box, is a tube-like contraption somewhere between a hangman's noose and a mousetrap. You place it at the end of an exposed gopher tunnel. But when you cut into a tunnel, you have two tunnel ends to choose from. You want to choose the opening that leads to his den, but when the tunnel runs alongside the patch you have nothing to go on, so you have to guess.

He chose the tunnel that leads toward the creek. Respecting the gopher's keen sense of smell, the old hippy donned a brand new pair of medical-grade Nitrile gloves and carefully fixed the trap to the end of the tunnel.

He buried the trap loosely, then positioned a piece of plywood (cardboard also works) over the hole. You want to let in just enough light so he'll come and try to patch his tunnel.

"Gophers are really cool," the old hippy said. "And they're an important part of the ecosystem. But when they get in your garden, well, that's their karma, I guess."

I saw Caddyshack at a young age and I've always remembered it fondly. My recent gopher conflict caused me to read up on the movie's plot, which is when I realized that I'd completely forgotten there was anything more to the film than the golf course groundskeeper, played by Bill Murray, going after a gopher. It turns out the movie was mostly about country club politics; the gopher part was just a side-story leading up to an earth-shaking explosion that caused a crucial putt to fall in the cup.

Unlike Bill Murray's character, the old hippy got it done. The next morning there was a dead, rat-sized gopher in the trap.

Defending your territory, even from a small fuzzy mammal, delivers a primal satisfaction. It's an urgent and just fight. But the rivalry can also get under your skin, a la Caddyshack.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF WARNER BROS.
  • Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

I didn't have gopher problems for about a year after that, but the other day I was watering the garlic patch and I noticed water running down holes where garlic plants had recently been growing.

I borrowed the old hippy's trap and dug right below the disappeared garlic, where I found a waterlogged tunnel. Since it was in the middle of the patch, I had to guess which direction to face the trap.

I guessed wrong. Next to my trap the next day was a new mound of gopher tailings. I cleaned up the hole, placed the trap facing the other way, and re-buried it.

The next day the trap was partially dug out but still un-sprung and there was a shiny spot on top that was sticky to the touch. Instinctively I brought my sticky finger to my nose for a smell and accidentally touched my nose. It smelled extraordinarily foul. And it was on my nose.

After cleaning up I called the old hippy.

"I think he peed on the trap!" I said.

"Wow," he said. "He's a crusty old fella."

I explained how I'd set the trap in the garlic patch.

"There's too many tunnels in the feeding area," he said. "It's too easy for him to go around the trap. You need to find a tunnel outside the patch."

Lacking the old hippy's gopher tunnel divination skills, I dug a trench along one side of the patch, going about eight feet before I finally hit a tunnel, eight inches down. Upon further inspection, I'd actually taken out a Y-shaped intersection where two tunnels converged into a single tunnel that headed straight into the patch. I had to pick one of the two converging tunnels to set the trap.

I decided on the tunnel that headed toward the creek. But first, I shoved a brick into the other tunnel, lengthwise. The brick fit snugly, and I packed dirt around it to stop any light. I figured if the gopher hit the brick, he'd turn around and use the other tunnel, which of course he'd find in need of repair.

Before I installed the trap I washed it in hot water—no smelly soap—to remove the gopher's nasty olfactory red flag. Then I placed the trap at the opening of the tunnel heading toward the creek. I scattered handfuls of dirt onto the trap and placed the plywood over the hole, allowing just a little light in.

Sometime between then and the next morning, the gopher's karma caught up to him.

I'm glad I didn't have to blow up the garlic patch to take him out, but during the heat of my obsession I shared a few curious moments of understanding with Bill Murray's gopher-hunting maniac. And in those moments I realized there's a reason that only the gopher part of the plot made an impression on me, and I doubt I'm alone. While few of us can relate to country club drama and golf tournaments, we can all understand the chess match, the battle of wills, the gritty struggle of man against beast that is the muddy path of the gopher hunter.

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