In The Desert
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Ambush in the Iceplant
Dave Taylor's satire about gardening in the desert will make you think; then it'll make you laugh. If you've ever had a garden or even thought of having one, Dave's wit in this partially fictional tale is outstanding. Don't miss this one!
It does not see me. I cast no shadow. It does not hear me as I glide across the ice plant towards its hole. I am the wind. It does not smell me. I am the earth it burrows through as it stretches far out of its hole for an asparagus spear. Even as my open palm draws toward it, it does not sense me, for I am the gopher. The gopher and I are one. When I wring its furry little neck, though there is passion, there will be no hatred, no malice. A piece of me will die with it. I will raise its tiny carcass above my head and thank the Gopher All Spirit for sacrificing one of its children so that I might keep its depredation from my garden. I will stuff it back into its hole, the hole it was digging so recently, then go and wash my hands thoroughly.
"Hey there, Ole' Buddy," a familiar baritone booms out from above. "What'cha doin'?"
I look up to the top of the hill where the house is. A tall, rail-thin figure stands there, his hands stuck in his pockets. I need not look down. The gopher is gone. This was not its day to die. I clear my throat, re-entering the world my friend calls down from.
"Hey, there GB," I call out, my voice sounding as if I've just awakened from a deep sleep. "Oh, I guess I'm just assessing the gopher situation."
"Well now, isn't that fortuitous." GB leers his big grin. "For I have brought toys."
After being in the garden for so long, the house seems unfamiliar, alien to me. The walls close in, the stuffy air is not full of the noises of the garden, the whirring of bugs and bees, the chirping of birds. The Woman has taken The Progeny to a social gathering of some kind. I would have liked to have gone, talked to other humans, played with my precious offspring, but it is not to be. I must guard the asparagus.
"Remember I told you, 'if I could just build a better mouse trap', and you said, 'build me a better gopher trap'? Well, I have two candidates."
GB is a good buddy, younger than the Woman, which makes him really young. He is some kind of engineer, a tinkerer, an unrepentant gadget guy. He is single, and has much time on his hands.
"I don't know, GB. Traps just haven't been doing the job for me." Technology itself seems to be ineffective, I think. "I've found myself having to resort to more -- esoteric tools."
"Yet there is no harm in trying," GB offers. "The proper amount of high explosives can solve almost any dilemma in modern society."
We have moved into the den, and are sitting on the couch. He opens a brown paper bag and pulls out a green-painted contraption with soldered-on parts, including a battery pack.
"Now, what other things have ya' done to kill gophers?"
"You mean besides Reggie?" Reggie was a gopher snake that GB caught in the chicken coup and reintroduced on the ice plant-covered embankment. We didn't have gophers for two years. "Dog fur in the holes, cats in the yard."
"What about that plant?"
"Gopher Purge," I answer. "They ate it."
"No gas bombs, no poisons?"
I smile a crooked grin.
"No poisons, no pesticides, no herbicides, all organic. I don't necessarily want them dead, GB, just want them out of my garden."
GB nods absently as he fiddles with his trap.
"Now you say the fundamental gopher trap is hard to improve on, right? But that you have to peg them down because the gophers haul them off into the hole."
"I've lost half my traps that way."
"Viola," GB said as he pulls the jaws of the trap apart and sets the trigger. "Surprised someone hasn't thought about this before."
He hands the armed trap to me. Critically I eye the intricate wiring, absently adjusting the trigger to make it more sensitive. It is a work of miniature art, the soldered-on sections minutely detailed. A large battery is attached to the trap.
"How's it work?" I ask just as the trigger snaps.
There is a crackling noise, either from the bright electric arch shooting from the trap to my fingers, or inside my head. There is a bright red flash behind my right eyeball. Every muscle in my body snaps to attention. With a grunt I am slapped back into the couch.
"Quite a jolt, huh?" GB nods with glee. "A 75,000 volt stun gun rigged t'fire when the trap snaps. Imagine something a thirtieth of your weight getting pounded like that. 'Course, you didn't catch the whole charge, weren't grasping it tight enough."
It crosses my mind that I should probably assure GB that, yes indeed, it was quite a jolt, that I have some musings on possible sexual peccadilloes his mother might have dabbled in to create such an offspring as himself, and that, although there has been a cessation of feeling from the right side of my body and left side of my body below the waist, I suspect I have lost control of my bowels. Instead I find myself making a puffing sound like a steam locomotive just beginning to pull out of the station.
GB grins ear to ear as he retrieves the trap from where I dropped it.
"Hit myself last night, before I'd worked out all the bugs. Had a nice little nap." He shakes the trap at me. "No gopher's taking this trap anywhere."
I am leaning to the right, and when I try to straighten myself, I discover only my left leg is working, and that it's spastic.
"But I think we ought'a start out with this other trap first," GB presses on, pulling another device, just about twice the size of a normal trap. "The stun one is susceptible to moisture, and it still doesn't address that one problem you told me, where the gopher pops the trap by shoving a pile of dirt ahead of itself."
I attempt to tell GB that, after more analysis, the real problem appeared to be not making the trigger as sensitive as possible, precisely what I was doing when I set off the stun trap. Instead, I sound like the steam locomotive is picking up speed with sharp hard puffs, still sliding paralyzed to the right.
"Now this one, I probably over-engineered," GB says. "See, I've got what basically is a crossbow, but instead of a leaf spring, I took two spiral springs and placed the bolt down the center." He leans over to show me as he inserts a bolt into the machine. He holds the device up so that the bolt tip is inches away from my face.
"See that? Razor sharp," he nods with a wicked grin. "And see the chain?" I look closer with my left eye, the right one wandering about the room. Indeed, what had appeared to be some kind of flexible wire attached to the rear of the bolt is in fact a finely crafted chain.
"Eighteen inches of titanium alloy steel. Light, strong" GB winks. "One of the little perks of military contracts. Make nice, they'll do you favors." He raises the trap so that he's sighting down the bolt. "The bolt launches, flies down the hole, impales whatever's in its way." GB does his wild toothy smirk. "Then you just reel it in."
I wish to voice doubt that the bolt can make it through a pile of dirt, and also express reservations about GB pointing the cocked and armed machine in the general direction of my groin. Blowing bubbles from my nostrils, it feels like something is boiling from my right eye tear duct as well.
"Now I made it so you could arm it, then cock it." He points it away from me, across the room. I would give a sigh of relief, but I am not sure I am breathing.
"Gotta hold on tight," he says, "Or the chain'll jerk the trap right out of my hands." GB pops the trigger. The bolt flies with a flat trajectory across the room, the chain unraveling behind it, unfettered by any connection to the trap. The bolt pierces the back of the love seat on the far side of the den. The wall behind the love seat shudders. The titanium alloy chain hangs limp from the hole the bolt has made through the upholstery of the love seat.
"Ooh, that's right, I was thinking maybe we should pin the chain down separately from the trap, making possibly two lines holding onto the gopher." GB offers this as he bounds across the room. He looks back at me as he crawls onto the love seat and grimaces. "Maybe not."
My left foot is jerking ineffectually. I am like a boat with one paddle.
"Through the wood paneling and into the drywall!"
I mentally sit up and take notice, even as the drool from the limp right side of my face reaches my shoulder. A bolt capable of flying across the room, through upholstery, through wood, through drywall, would certainly be able to get through a few inches of wet dirt.
I smile with the left side of my face and gurgle, "Wicked!"
We have returned to the garden. My body is mine again, and I have placed a large pillow to hide where the hole is now in the love seat in hopes The Woman will not notice.
"Got a low tire on the 'tiller," GB notes as we pass the machine on the top level.
"Slow leak. Don't use it enough t'justify getting a new tire, so I just fill it up when I need it."
"I'd think in your garden you'd be using it all the time."
"Yeah," I place my hands on my hips as I stand looking over the terraced hill that is my garden, orchard and chicken run. "I thought so, too."
I remember when we first moved in, my naïve joy knew no bounds. Half an acre of terraced land begging for a garden. At least that was my notion. Never mind that the terraced hill faces almost due north, never mind trees shade both ends. I am a Gardener. This was my new land. It would be gardened.
"But this is a different kind of garden," I continue. "A rototiller is best on flat ground, with wide open spaces for it to maneuver. It works pretty well on the lower level, between plantings, but the middle level is too thin to turn at the end, especially with," I grind my teeth, "Electrified fencing t'keep the dogs out." I sigh. "Besides, in this soil, I gotta till deep. You adjust the tines by inches, and I need to go down feet. In this garden, mechanization has limited benefits." I grit my teeth. "It's a down and dirty kind'a garden."
It is at the asparagus field that I wish to make a stand against the gophers. It is a small field, actually above middle level, designated SPA: Special Project, Asparagus. It is outlined by aviary wire rising up from the ground, and numerous tender shoots of asparagus peaking above the sheet of compost I have piled over it.
We inspect the area around the asparagus. Pocket gophers fill their openings behind them, specifically to keep snakes from coming in to their lairs. The way a gopher trap works is, you open the hole and insert the armed trap. When the gopher sees light, smells cold air, it goes to close the open hole. In the course of kicking dirt up, It backs over the teeth of the trap, springs the trigger with its kicking rear feet, and is seized by the jaws. Sometimes it's a merciful kill, crushing the rib cage. Too often it merely grabs the one leg kicking dirt on the trigger, leaving the gopher to scurry down the hole with the trap, doomed since it can't maneuver with this ball and chain attached, it's one leg probably broken if not bleeding. Tying a stout string or chain to the trap and staking it allows you to haul the gopher out and beat it to death, but that still means it probably spent the night trapped and suffering. Like the American Court system, it's far from perfect, fair or merciful, it's just the best there is.
All the holes around SPA are filled. This particular herd of gophers has learned to fill its holes in at least a foot and to pack in the dirt, leaving no trail for us to follow.
"How we gonna find a hole?" GB asks.
Silently I start up into the ice plant. It's about a forty-five degree angle. There has been a metallic whirring noise in the distance. It suddenly builds to a crescendo. I duck down and motion to GB who does the same, although he gives me a strange look. He does not know why we must duck, and I do not explain, concentrating.
The whirring noise passes, and once again I turn my ear to the ground. After a moment of listening, I move about a foot over, take out my trowel, and start separating the ice plant. Below, there is no obvious sign of a hole, but I dig down and almost immediately find a wide thoroughfare of a tunnel, probably used by the whole clan.
"Ole' Buddy," GB asks, "With a gopher cage all around the asparagus, how the hell are they getting to it?"
"They haven't," I answer, "Not yet. I've been finding their holes right up to the aviary wire. That wire goes down to bedrock completely around SPA. My fear is one will cross over the top, then dig in. I won't be able to dig down very much because of the asparagus. It's a perennial, you know. In fact, I planted this asparagus nearly two years ago, and this'll be the first year we're actually going to get anything to eat out of it."
"What makes you think the gophers'll do that, cross over?"
"I've been catching them trying," I answer. I motion to where I've been sleeping for the last couple of weeks, the ice plant slightly depressed from where I've laid. "I'll hear them coming up, come up out of their holes, then I'll see them crossing over the aviary boundary. Three so far."
"You see them?" GB looks puzzled. "Then what do you do?"
I widen the two holes I now possess. The traps will fit easily and deeply in.
No animals were harmed making this publication (see below).
"I kill them."
"With what? Shovel? Pitch fork?"
I look GB straight in the eye. He's asked a straight question, I give him a straight answer, with no bravado, no pride.
"With my bare hands."
A moment's pause. GB laughs gaily.
"Had me going there for a minute, Ole' Buddy. Okay, now which hole do you stick the trap in?"
"Two traps, two holes. Works for me."
I start with the stun trap, making sure it is disconnected as I set the trigger so that it will take no more than a strong breath to set it off. I insert it deeply into the hole pointing down, Press it into the soil so that it's flush with the tunnel floor, then carefully back my hand out. GB has the battery pack attached by a cable. He now arms the trap.
I stare at the hole, even as I hold the second trap.
"GB, do you ever think of the morality of trapping, maybe killing in general?"
"How do you mean?"
My mouth works, I have several false starts. I know I'm doing this badly.
"You know, one of Gods creatures, pick on something your own size, bad karma. You know."
GB appears to struggle suppressing a look of irritation. He speaks as if choosing his words carefully.
"Ole' Buddy, your obsessive dwelling on my ethnicity could be misconstrue d."
I blink. He continues in his rumbling baritone.
"I am an American of Thai descent, a unique heritage that I am proud and well pleased with. I take umbrage at all cultures not of European descent, or even of all Asian descent, being lumped together, as if they're all the same. Concepts like karma, reincarnation and mass transit are as foreign to my family's traditions as it is to yours." He straightens his back a bit, raises his chin. "We are Buddhist. We like killing things."
I blanch and mumble an apology.
The metallic whirring is back. I am sitting on the embankment, but I signal for GB to get down. I make the mistake of not explaining why.
Having seen what the bolt can do on this trap, and having already tasted what the stun trap can do, I am especially careful as I arm and cock it. Cautiously I ease it into the hole, not noticing that GB has stood back up. I am concentrating completely on setting this trap just right. I don't even notice that the whirring noise is back with a vengeance.
Suddenly I hear the unique, sickening wet smack of something big and hard hitting flesh. GB screams and I look up just as he starts down. I have heard this sound before, too many times.
"I'm hit! Oh God!"
Conclusion in Part II