Saturday, April 26, 2008

Not a PETA Story

Between the years of 1965 and 1970, our neighbor farmer, Howie, had the lushest, most pastoral fields of alfalfa and corn and oats of any farm in the valley. All the farms were pretty darned nice, since this valley 60 miles south of Minneapolis was an ancient river bed, and the floor of the valley had a 3-ft. layer of topsoil derived from prehistoric river silts. It would grow almost anything. Corn stalks would routinely top out at 8, even 9 ft. planted in this magical soil.

But Howie's fields were the nicest, and one reason was that he had lots of predators keeping the pocket gophers in check. Pocket gophers, if you've never seen one, are nasty, ugly little creatures, not at all like the cute little striped gophers that look like chipmunks or small prairie dogs. Pocket gophers can devastate crop fields, and can so damage pastures that cows and horses may break legs in the holes they dig. Pocket gophers look something like moles, with long sharp front claws and beady little eyes and sharp teeth.

In Howie's fields, though, there were lots of natural predators kept the gophers in check. There were red fox that hunted the gophers; an occasional badger might be expected to nab a gopher; razor-eyed red-tail hawks might seize one; one summer, we even had a pair of bobcats in the area that might have snatched an occasional gopher.

The most successful predator in those years, though, was a boy 10 to 15 years old, armed with a canvas bag containing a garden trowel, stakes and boards, a hunting knife, and a dozen spring-loaded metal traps. The most fearsome gopher hunter in the valley was...yours truly.

For five years or so, from the moment frost was out of the ground in the spring to the day when the autumn earth was too stiff to dig into, I made three early morning trips each week into the fields lining the hillsides, to trap gophers and keep Howie's fields green. I was paid .15 for each pair of front gopher claws I turned into Howie, and believe it or not, this added up to a tidy $5.00 per week allowance, which was good spending money for a young boy in those days.

The main reason I did it, though, was the soaring sensation I enjoyed by rising before dawn on those mornings, and walking through the woods and into the adjoining fields to dig in aromatic soil and hunt like some primordial man. The feel of the country air in the early morning hours is indescribable. By the time I returned home to get ready for school, I had already been awake for two hours, and had seen things about the outdoor world that most people never see. My jeans often would be soaked to the waist with dew, and I'd need to scrub my hands for a long, long time to get the dirt out from under my fingernails.

Trapping gophers is done like this: First, you look for the telltale mounds of black dirt in a field, marking exit holes of a pocket gopher. The freshest holes will be the darkest in color, and will not be crusted over with rain splatter.

When you approach the hole, you must be quiet for a moment, because putting your hand down into a hole where an active gopher is located can be trouble. You hear them if they are actively digging in the area. Or,more accurately, you feel the vibrations of them digging in the earth. If all is clear, you then use a trowel to widen the hole and dig down to create a flat-bottomed wide area about a foot laterally into the gopher tunnel.

Next, you open the jaws of a trap, set the trigger, then carefully set the trap into the hole. The trap is attached to a chain, and the free end of the chain is secured to a stake driven into the ground outside. In the early days, I used clam-shell type foot traps, but these generally did not kill the gophers instantly, and so I eventually went to a prong-style trap that gripped the gophers around the torso, suffocating them relatively simply and painlessly.

A small flat board covers the top of the hole, held in place by a handful of dirt.

I generally set six to twelve of these traps each mornings. The fresh traps were set after I checked the previous sets, marked by stakes with rags tied to the top.

Checking a previously set trap would involve one of three things. In some cases, removing the board covering the hole would reveal a solid wedge of dirt. Here, the gopher had spotted my trap, and had pushed dirt into hole from somewhere beyond the trap. I'd now need to dig rather laboriously to retrieve my trap and find a new location to set it.

If removing the board showed an open hole, a gentle tug on the trap's chain would tell the story. If the chain moved freely, the trap had failed, and I could either leave it in place for another day, or I could pack it up to move it to fresher hunting grounds.

But if the chain felt sluggish and anchored to a weight, I'd hit the jackpot. At the end of the chain when I pulled it from the hole would be a dead gopher about the size of a small rabbit, the life squeezed out of it by the heavy wire prongs of the trap. On very rare and unpleasant occasions, a gopher might not yet be dead, and I'd have to dispatch it with a solid blow to the head. I didn't like this much, but neither did I agonize much over it. It was just life.

I quickly severed the front claws from the gopher with a hunting knife, and put them into a pouch I carried. On Saturday afternoon I would bring the pouch to Howie, who would count the claws, divide by two, multiply by .15, and pay me my bounty.

Initially, I reburied the gopher corpses, but then one day I saw a red fox lying by a gopher hole about a hundred yards away, and I realized that other creatures could make use of the meat. After that I simply left the dead gopher out in the open to be eaten by fox or hawk. There came a point where red-tail hawks would see me coming, and would come perch in nearby trees waiting to be fed.

Years later I would become more of a softie, and would give up all my hunting and trapping activities, but in those days nothing seemed more natural to me than to be out in the world making my way by wile and muscle. The first date I ever had--taking a red-haired girl to see Ben Hur at the local theater when I was 14--was paid for by gopher claws.

I don't think I ever felt more alive or more natural than on these early morning forays into the woods and fields when I was just a boy. To this day, when I awaken in a delightful, serene mood, I am always reminded of the sensation I had while hunting gophers in a prehistoric river valley amidst the limestone bluffs of southern Minnesota.


Anonymous said...

Interesting story. I've never hunted or trapped at all; I'm a city girl through and through.

When I lived in Iowa, there were some problems with the deer population growing too quickly because their natural predators were diminishing. Some people even fed deer in their backyards, which exacerbated problems for both deer and people. Eventually, the city government had to do controlled hunts every fall to kill some of the deer before they simply starved to death over the winter or got killed by vehicles. Of course, there was a loud protest over that, but it had to be done.

My whole point is that, sometimes, we need to let nature take its course. Feeding deer and so on creates an imbalance that, in turn, creates other problems. Your trapping on one farm probably didn't cause any imbalance and at least you left the meat for other animals to use.

Robin said...

Thanks for this sharing.

Glad that you are no longer hunting for pleasure or money to date a girl.

All life has a reason for survival. And in buddhism, this is Karma.

It is like planting seeds.. and the fruits from what we planted will affect us, one day.

With wisdom and compassion always.

Glamourpuss said...

It is amazing how a country childhood can erconcile us to the harsh realities of life and death. Then we grow up, move to city and get all mimsy about such things.

Or at least I did.


August said...

Though I'm a city-bred gal (and a vegetarian) I agree with Puss. Those are the harsh realities of life and death.

There's something far more honest about what you did than going to the supermarket and buying a package of chicken breasts. I'm comparing apples & oranges but I hope you understand.

By the way, what a lovely coming of age story this would make.


Maury said...

Very good, effective, writing. Keep it up.

When I was that age I lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I had BB guns and slingshots. Something about that age (for boys) has in it some kind of joy in killing. Probably instinctual.

I killed a lot of very pretty tropical birds, and love every minute of it.

I too softened. Since growing up I haven't gone hunting for anything. Don't even like guns. I do relate to the hunting and to the giving up.

AphroditeRising said...

Wanna come get the voles out of my yard, Mercurious? LOL. My cat died and they overtook the place.
Great story. You write beautifully. I wonder if you ever went to Battle Creek in Saint Paul as a child? It holds memories for me...exploring those old caves before heading to grandma's over the river and through the woods. It's been overhauled since then, but it was a childhood dream back then.