Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Hole Story by Will Zeilinger

Alarm clocks cause of a lot of heart attacks in this world – at least, I think mine does. It was Saturday and I was awake now. Looking out the window, I muttered, “Low clouds and fog along the coast followed by partial clearing inland and hazy sunshine. Highs will be in the upper 70s along the coast and low 90s for the valleys - no rain in sight.” That mantra would not have a permanent home in my consciousness if I hadn't heard it a gazillion times since moving to Southern California. My toes dug around under the bed until they found my old flip-flops, now molded to the shape of each foot from countless other Saturdays. I plodded out the kitchen door scooping up my eyeglasses from on top of the dishwasher and out onto the patio, or as my lovely wife loves to call it our “lanai”,
As usual I stopped on the way to our home office, where the garage used to be, and scanned the backyard though I prefer to call it “surveying the estate”, checking the orange and apple trees, the pomegranate bush, the fig tree and of course, the lawn. Our patchy green-brown turf has not seen a drop of rain or water from my garden hose in months. I've always had a problem with turning on the tap and dumping expensive water onto the ground that has traveled all the way from the Owens Valley.
My mind travels back to childhood and my father, standing at the service station filling up the old Rambler. I would sit in the passenger seat with the window open, listening to the gasoline pump go “ding – click, click, click, click - ding - click, click, click, click – ding”, and that's what I hear when I pour water on the lawn. As a result, our adobe soil is as hard as the walls of Mission San Juan Capistrano and most of our plants are in pots filled with real soil from a nursery.
This morning, however, I noticed something different, something sinister.
Near the base of the wall that separates our yard from our neighbor's and close to the fig tree - a small, dark mound of freshly turned earth had appeared. Cautiously, I approached. I had taken about three steps, when a furry little head with eyes the size of small raisins popped up, wiggled its nose for just an instant and just as quickly disappeared.
What the…? It's a gopher! At least I think it was a gopher. I ran to the mound, but it was too late. It had made good on its escape.
I stood there and eyed this curious development. I have rented tillers costing hundreds of dollars and not ended up with soil as fine as this critter created. A golf ball-sized hole was located near one end of the fresh soil.
No matter, the critter was not crossing the border into my estate!
My first instinct was to flush it out. I ran for the hose. The critter was just there! I should be able to get it and be done with it. I turned the water on – full! No valley is too far, or water cost too high for the defense of my estate!
I shoved the nozzle into the hole and squeezed the handle, I could hear myself maniacally laughing inside – “Ah ha ha ha! Take that you kwazy wabbit!” (I knew it really wasn't a rabbit.) The earth swallowed the water like a bottomless pit and caused me to wonder if someone's fountain in Shanghai suddenly came to life.
A minute passed and the water kept disappearing down the tiny hole. Why isn't it filling up? That should have drowned it.
I went to “Plan B”.
Next to the “lanai” is a pile of football-sized stones. In another life, they lined a small pond that once existed on the very spot of the incursion. I selected an appropriate specimen and dropped it over the hole, stomping on it for good measure.
“Durn fur-bearin' varmint!” I said in my best Yosemite Sam voice. I jumped on it – twice.
Ahh – peace. Such a wonderful thing. The kingdom is safe. The terrible beast is dead or at the very least, locked away where it will never be heard of again. My loving wife praised me and showered me with kisses, the victorious slayer of spiders and creepy crawlers.
Sunday morning, a new mound had appeared just east of the now, sealed entrance. No water for you! Another stone, and again peace. But in the recesses of my mind I new it wasn't over.
Phone calls to friends yielded no positive responses or magical incantations, a lot of sympathy, but no solutions.
That left “Plan C”, the Internet.
Within minutes, I retrieved some authoritative information from the University of California and the California State Department of Fish and Game.
The good news is - I was right. It was a gopher, a Pocket Gopher, Thomomys bottae, to be exact. The bad news is they eat just about anything that grows, especially roots.
Oh my gosh, our Fig tree, Apple tree, Orange tree and Pomegranate bush! All would be gone to the gopher salad bar.
Since they are considered non-game animals by the State of California, I could deal with them in any legal manner of my choosing; and those seem to be macabee traps, gas, poison or harassment which involved digging up their tunnels on a regular basis.
Some interestingly different ideas were suggested by well-meaning cybersouls that included: ultrasonic transmitters, a plant called Gopher Purge, chewing gum, urinating in the gopher hole or the purchase of a $50 eight-inch long device powered by four batteries which vibrates and is inserted into the gopher's tunnel opening. (I know, that's what it sounds like to me too!) I opted for harassment.
Whenever a gopher hole was detected I filled it with pea gravel and firmly tamped it down with dirt. Another hole, more gravel, more tamping. I dug up an entire 15-foot long tunnel from the hole back to where it disappeared at the neighbor's wall. Into the trench I placed another large stone and filled the entire run with gravel then tamped dirt over it.
My wife, bless her heart, pointed out that this particular corner of our yard looked like a diorama on World War I trench warfare techniques. The ground was indeed bare. Trenches and small craters littered the surface.
“Truly, a no man's land,” She said, “You're really enjoying this aren't you?”
After three weeks of battle, I was a seasoned veteran of the gopher wars. I thought for a moment and reflected on my enjoyment of crossword puzzles, chess, and playing with my mashed potatoes. “Yes, I think I do.” I replied. At this, she expressed displeasure with the appearance of our backyard and pleaded with me to call an exterminator, but the smell of battle lingered in my nostrils. And so, with shovel in hand, I fought on... Through some miracle, I was able to prevent her from calling one herself. In an effort to maintain tranquility on the home front and encourage the grass to reappear I reluctantly filled all the craters and trenches with gravel and smoothed the soil as best I could, then set out the lawn sprinkler and wet the area well.
The next morning, I discovered another hole, but this one was left open. I trudged through the mud, poured gravel into it and closed it with dirt. Many large dirt clods were still too hard to smooth over, giving a boulder-strewn look to our yard, so I set out the sprinkler again that morning for a couple of hours. The soil was now no longer damp mind you... it was wet! Another open hole appeared that afternoon. More gravel, more dirt, more tamping. I thought about this development for a moment and theorized that the critter did not like the wet dirt. Damp was O.K., but wet – no. It was leaving the holes open to dry out the tunnel! Thus began a campaign of saturation lawn watering. The one small, square sprinkler was just fine to keep this area wet.
The following morning I again put the little sprinkler beneath the fig tree and went back to the “Lanai”, when out of the corner of my eye - movement. At first I thought it might be a mockingbird pecking for bugs. Upon closer examination I saw a furry critter with a short, rat-like tail. Was that a baby opossum? It turned its head. It was the gopher; soaking wet and attempting to dig a new burrow into the hard, dry earth at the base of the wall near the orange tree. It soon gave up trying to dig in the concrete-like soil and headed for the back fence, which led to... the alley! The gopher was leaving and I felt good.
Everything I considered... Gas, traps, poison, water, ultrasonic probes were all either ineffective or inhumane. I've kept three unused traps for the next time. My dear wife asked, “Is there going to be a next time?”
I stood with my arms folded, staring across the battlefield that was once a corner of my backyard, and replied,
“You never know.”
Peace had returned to the estate, but in a way, I miss the little critter.