October 1, 2012

{Memoir Monday} Gopher Town

Gopher Town

by Felice Austin
“A gopher town can easily spread to take over large sections of prairie or mountain meadow and may have a population in the thousands.” - Wikipedia

Like a black hole at the center of the universe, the gopher holes had their own magnetic pull. As children, we were drawn to them like strange attractors. My mother was waging a personal war against the gophers, and we couldn’t get enough of the excitement. Family folklore tells of entire stalks of corn being dragged underground before our eyes, their silky green tops frantically waving like drowning victims. They were no match for the bucktoothed rodents, who ate the roots first, then had easy work.

No one else we knew had this problem. No on else we knew had a garden. We lived in a medium-sized city, north of Los Angeles and south of Santa Barbara in the oil rich hills of Ventura. In my childhood the hills all along the coast highway were dotted with oil derricks, like bird beaks, rhythmically pecking the earth. A rhythm that hypnotized me on car trips. Most of the city was highly developed, but by some accident or zoning blip, our corner house backed up to a large piece of undeveloped land--a hill that was many acres square. The bulldozers and other earth movers that had once rumbled across it now lay silent and rusting.

My mother had made use of our large corner lot and planted several gardens. Carrots, strawberries and raspberries grew in planter boxes around the side yard. Zucchinis and other squash grew heavy and abundant in the back yard. And in the far garden beyond the avocado tree, bean stalks climbed wooden frames. There were also potatoes and other root vegetables. The root vegetables didn’t stand a chance.

The grating of the hill had displaced many creatures from their homes and like water, they flowed downward--to our house, and to my mother’s garden. The gophers were only one of many pests she battled. There were also the squirrels, mice, and stray cats. Of course, she may have also counted us, her four children, in that group of pests, but our intentions were pure, as was our hunger for her raspberries.

She experimented with many methods of pest elimination over several years, from yelling and banging pots, to a gadget that looked like a spacecraft. The flying saucer was purchased from a gardening catalog and must have been expensive, but my father agreed to buy it for her. The space ship was made of green plastic, about the size of a salad plate and a few inches thick, with a metal stake in the center. When the stake was pounded into the ground, it looked like a UFO hovering a few inches above the vegetables. Once they installed the batteries, the craft sent seismic waves down the post and into the ground around it, causing gopher sized earthquakes ten to fifteen feet outward from the epicenter. This seemed to be a success, and for several weeks my mother went about her gardening with a smile, an exultant twinkle in her green eyes.

I thought about the gophers often. I wondered about their underground route and their nighttime habits. I empathized with them to a degree. I also liked to sneak the fruits of my mother’s labor, but they crossed lines I would never dare. Their lack of regard for my mother’s position awed and baffled me.

Sometimes from the elementary school across the street, I would look up at recess and see my mother standing on the hill top. In my mind she is paused with her back to me, gardening gloves on, in dark blue jeans and reddish hair. At other times she had no hair, and the sun shone off her shaved head, or her light blue turban, because she didn’t like to wear wigs. And she seemed like a giant to me. Her hips looked sturdy and wide under the stretched blue denim. One would never know the extent of her internal ravaging.

Even though she never turned around, I always knew that she saw me looking at her. The gophers didn’t understand this. Her ability to see without looking, her largeness, or her quiet determination to win. So I was glad when the space shuttle arrived.

However, the win didn’t last long. Either the batteries died or the gophers became smarter. I imagined them coming out at night, their yellow front teeth leading, followed by their small eyes and ears, inching closer and closer till the smartest gopher finally rapped it with his curved claw, and said in chipmunk voice, “It’s plastic.” And they all sighed and chuckled and went back to their ravaging.

Nothing was said, but somehow the failure of the space craft was felt among the whole family. Perhaps we absorbed the resonance of her frustration in our meals.

Of all the pests, the gophers were the most mysterious to us, because we never saw them, only the evidence of them. So when my brother shouted that he had seen one of the rodents peek its head up and then retreat into a gopher hole in the back yard, we shrieked at our luck. We were hungry for gopher action.

Mom was inside, probably cooking or sewing or laying down. In an instant we decided that the hose was our best weapon. Forrest jammed it down the hole and I turned it on full blast. I grabbed a stick from the nearby woodpile and ran to the other hole at the end of the yard. The stick was for bonking the gopher when it would surely be flushed out any minute.

Poised like a batter, I listened to the water run. Even as an eight year old, I was conscious about water. We were in a monumental drought and the way my parents made it sound, every drop of water cost a hundred dollars. Yet in that moment, I didn’t care. I had read the story of Noah and the flood and I knew that that much water could do damage. And we wanted to do damage. Ephraim was excited to get in on the gopher clubbing action too, and soon came running with a baseball bat.

We made eye contact occasionally, thrilled by the possibility of fighting a common enemy. The possibility of blood.

It felt like an hour before we finally gave up. An hour of water down the gopher hole. It did not flood out like I imagined, but rather seemed to disappear down an unseen well. Forrest took the hose out and put his eye to the hole, but could see nothing. He jumped up and down on the ground and screamed at them.


That’s when I realized that their underground tunnel system was more extensive than we knew. In my night-time imaginings of them, I began to add intricate gopher highway systems that ran for miles underneath the entire property and the denuded expanse of dirt that was the hill.

How does one make a map of the unknown?

The radiologists had made small blue tattoos on my mother’s body. Just a dot or two here and there to map where they had been or would go again. They too were fighting the unseen.

My father, perhaps because he couldn’t stand the unknown any longer, went after the more visible pests--the squirrels. Perhaps it was after breakfast one Saturday that he leapt from the table, grabbed a BB gun from his closet, and ran outside where he saw one scuttling away from her garden. He lifted the gun to his shoulder, aimed and fired in one swift movement. The squirrel ran and then fell with another round of BBs.

My brothers and I held our breath. We had never seen anything like it. His movements had been focused, intentional, powerful. Yet as the blast sound ricocheted around the yard and dissipated, he seemed to get smaller. He walked over to the dead squirrel and nudged it with his foot. What happened next shocked me to the core.

I had read about crucifixion, and crimes of war—mostly in the Bible. But now my father, who survived Vietnam, who read philosophy books and listened to Joni Mitchell and Elvis, was nailing the dead squirrel to a wooden steak.

We all quivered near the event horizon. My father’s head was bent over the purposeful sound of the hammer. The squirrel’s blood was red like mine, and its guts were spilling out. My mother turned away and went inside.

I didn’t know what my dad was thinking, I only knew that my mother’s garden was being eaten by rodents as her body was being eaten by cancer, and he had shot and crucified a squirrel. He then hammered the stake into the ground at the top of the hill on our property line. He said that it was to be a public example for any other creatures who thought about coming down the hill to eat her garden.

This made sense to me. I imagined one or two gophers coming out at night, seeing the carnage, and running back to tell the rest of the family that the man on the corner had lost it—was showing no mercy; no animal was safe. They would all quake at the tale.

Felice Austin is the president of Memoirs Ink. She is still getting over her discovery that the laws of physics are not what she learned on Tom and Jerry. You can read more of her stuff here.

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