• Gopher broke
    July 17,2014

    I’ve always hesitated to call myself a gardener merely because I have a garden in

    the same spirit that I don’t refer to myself as a Buddhist simply because I spend a period of time each day sitting vacuously in front of a set of houseplants, hoping to eventually absorb what they theoretically have to offer. Though I’ve been doing this for decades without any discernible learning on my part, I’m afraid to skip a day because that might be, you know, the day when the bromeliad goes all “Fantasia.” I’d hate to miss that.

    I’m also aware of how pretentious I’d sound. Some things are truly better left unsaid. I garden clandestinely as well. Partially because I’ve spent half my life wondering (too audibly) why people bother — particularly in Vermont. My most recent venture finds me unable to avoid slinking out there each day lest something important elude me: a tender shoot that’s not a weed emerging from the soil; a tiny lettuce leaf the moment before it’s consumed by slugs; or that one deerfly swarm that will provide enlightenment via proximity to utter madness.

    The seemingly repetitive nature of my life sometimes reminds me of “Groundhog Day.” Which brings me to the gopher, which, despite my abundant sensitivity, must depart at least my garden and perhaps the Earth itself. I’m in a grudge match between compassion and having enough parsley to make a credible linguine in white clam sauce.

    It took me awhile to figure it out where the few vegetables I actually grew last summer were going, and I truly didn’t get it until I actually saw the beast standing on its hind legs eating an apple, looking like a small man in a fur coat before the 1946 Yale-Harvard game. I thought at that moment, “He has to go.” My larger dilemma was how. Which brings me to the raccoon. Full disclosure: This would not be my first encounter with wayward vermin.

    Back in late November as shadows lengthened and temperatures plummeted, feeding birds seemed like a logical way to connect with the natural world as I doddered through my first winter of retirement. Far less logical and exponentially more surreal was my dispatching said raccoon with a shovel. As he crouched malevolently near where I was doling out black sunflower seeds, I assumed his intentions were maladjusted, given it was noon and his species was generally nocturnal unless gripped by lunacy.

    I would love to say the animal reared up and came at me, teeth bared, foam spewing from its razor-sharp fangs, and I feared for my safety. But that was not exactly how it happened. Looking back, it feels perpetrated by someone else. Certainly not the bodhisattva of the chickadees. Initially, my own intention was to fetch the garden hoe, quickly spin him around, tap his hindquarters and send him on his way, back to the forest where he would happily live out his days. Had only he agreed to leave quietly.

    Although his teeth were visible when he awkwardly aimed himself in what he believed to be my direction, and he did make a noise — similar to a slow leak in a truck tire — it became quickly apparent that he’d had a rough day and was not particularly threatening per se. However, his appearance was straight out of an Animal Planet production of “Saw III.” I’m not a veterinarian, but I estimated his actuarial table to be shrinking with each hiss.

    My first instinct was that termination with extreme prejudice was the most humane way to go about the delicate task of transitioning him to the big cornfield in the sky. But to do that without having the yard look like the Manson Family had been joy-riding through the neighborhood, I needed to exchange the hoe for something duller. If blunt force trauma is the objective, something ... blunt, like the shovel, seemed in order, a dull thud clicking the lights off and we’d be home free. At least I would.

    I’d always had pretty good hand-eye coordination: swinging a baseball bat or manipulating a pool cue but — unless you count midnight Wiffle ball on New Year’s Eve — hadn’t practiced either skill for a good long time, and my timing and accuracy left something to be desired. Not to mention the psychotic vermin turned out to be surprisingly resilient — a par 3 with a double bogey as I recall.

    Which brings me back to the groundhog dilemma. Asking around, I learn — often in hushed whispers — that even the other “crunchies” who recommend Havahart traps hesitate uncomfortably when asked, “Then what?” Since it is illegal in Vermont to do anything with a captured vermin except release it at the “point of capture” — probably right back in your garden — or humanely “dispatch” the thing, options are pitifully few and generally Darwinian.

    The gopher and I — unbeknownst to him and surprisingly to me — had entered a several week period of peaceful coexistence, which worked as long as our respective territories did not intersect as they appear to have this morning, when all the basil from the deck planter was gone and no one was having pesto on their granola. This could be bad. I’m not sure what to do. I’ve got the Dalai Lama on speed dial, but he’s not picking up.

    Walt Amses is a former educator and writer living in North Calais.

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