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Gopher Tales

 

Now and then I talk about historical, and sometimes personal, experience with agricultural pests on the prairies. Although some of this material may turn the stomachs of the uninitiated, it is nonetheless intriguing, because the odd battles humankind wages with pests tell us much about our relationship with the land.

I recall a winter afternoon years ago this subject came up in, of all genteel places, the faculty club at the University of Calgary. I had given a lecture on folksongs of the Great Plains to a class, and the instructor, Tim Rodgers, took me to lunch with a gaggle of professors and associate deans and other people with time in the middle of the day.

It was not I but Rodgers who, over lunch, brought up the subject of extermination of pests. Rodgers was president of the Canadian Folklore Society, and he wanted to talk about a fine old song, “Knockin’ Around the Yard.” The subject is a boy who spends his time knockin’ around the yard with a stick, killing gophers for the bounty on their tails. This was a common way for boys and sometimes girls on the northern plains to pick up pocket change. Rodgers added that some boys were too softhearted to kill the creatures for their tales, and so they trapped them alive, wrung off the tails, and turned them loose again-a process known as a “ring job.”

So-I told Tim the story of FFA pest contests, which probably is too grisly for public radio. By this time other diners were starting their own conversations, but we were not to be stopped. I declared that as a boy in Barton County, Kansas, I had bagged countless cottontail rabbits with no weapons other than a gunny sack and a croquet ball.

On the farm where I grew up we had the home quarter under irrigation with gated pipe. The pipe were connected to the wellhead with lines of four-inch aluminum pipe. There were always piles of four-inch pipe lying around the fields. (All our pipe were thirty feet long, by the way, and I can still estimate distances accurately by visualizing how many irrigation pipe it would take to reach between two points.)

Whenever one of the farm dogs chased up a rabbit, it would run into one of those pipe and think itself safe. Not so. While the dog pranced about from one end of the pipe to the other, I came up with a gunny sack and wrapped it around one end of the pipe. Then I walked to the other end, picked it up, dropped in the croquet ball, and raised the end of the pipe over my head. The rabbit would scratch and slide down the pipe and emerge into the sack, along with the croquet ball.

An acceptable substitute for the croquet ball was a hedge apple, or Osage orange. A hedge apple wasn’t perfectly round, but it was heavier than a wooden ball.

Some of the academicians at the table disdained this line of conversation, which we had pursued purely in the interest of scholarship. My little story may have been idiosyncratic, but gopher tales certainly are cultural history. Wallace Stegner makes gopher hunting a metaphor for conflict with nature in Wolf Willow; the artist William Kurelek painted a lively depiction of gopher hunting; and Lawrence Welk, in his autobiography, says he bought his first accordion with gopher tale bounty money. And I mean that as a good thing.

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