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The Gophers and Me

or how I learned to get along with nature.

      Over the years I've developed a view of humans, nature and the physical environment that I like. I see myself and humans as part of the natural environment. Not on top of it. Not separate from it. I'd like to be a constructive, cooperative and harmonious part of this natural world. I look for ways to get along with the rest of nature, the animals, plants and soil, the same as I want to get along with my wife, kids, neighbors and countrypeople.

      Some years back I found a large piece of land that I could afford to buy only 10 minutes from Berkeley. I now had the extraordinary opportunity to build a house in the country for my family. I was very excited about being able to live close to the land, to try to work in harmony and cooperation with the natural environment. This is part of my philosophy and goal in life.

      We sited the house so that it opened out onto a large field. The field had been considerably disrupted by grading done by the previous owner. We re-graded the field to natural contours and planted it with native grasses. (It is interesting that the grasses that have grown wild on this site for some 200 years are not native. They were introduced by ranchers who once grazed cattle in most of California.)

      I liked restoring this field to a natural condition. We were going to let it grow wild and be the landscape around our house, with maybe sheep or goats or horses to mow it. Of course when we planted it there was just dirt and seeds. We watered to germinate the new seeds. (It would have been more correct to have seeded in winter and let the rains start the seeds for us, but we wanted our “lawn” now. We also wanted some cover before heavy rains came.)

      I looked out at the smoothly graded field and saw a few mounds of dirt sticking up. Gophers had started to dig and left little piles next to their holes. Gophers and their dirt piles are small and I didn't think much of it. The next day there were a few more. And then more. Where the piles of dirt were, the seeds didn't germinate and grass didn't grow. They're just little critters, so I thought it wouldn't matter. But after a few more months of their piles, it looked like all the field was gopher piles with no grass. They'd killed our whole lawn.

      I was kind of discouraged and a bit angry. I thought I'd like to kill the little #%*^?@s! But then that would be contrary to my thoughts about getting along with nature.

      I walked out into the field. I looked at the little piles of dirt. They were amazing. They were perfectly sorted bits of dirt the size of gopher hands. Earth worked more perfectly than any gardener could hope for. Wait, I thought, “these guys are my helpers.” Of course they're not doing it all. I'll have to do my part. I spread out the piles of dirt so they wouldn't kill the grass. I picked up the rocks they had brought up from below and went into the house. The next day I came out and there were more piles. I went around spreading them around and taking out the rocks. We were gardening together. They do their part. I do mine.

      The soil grew softer and richer. The gophers were tilling it from below, opening up the soil, letting in air, stirring in the organic matter from on top, taking out the rocks.

      Most of the grass grew wild, but one part, next to the dining room, I mowed in conventional fashion to make a smooth lawn. When the previous owner bulldozed this area, he removed the topsoil and all that was left was hard, rock like subsoil. When I seeded it, I didn't have the money or energy to till it, so I just sowed the grass seed on top of this hard dirt. Of course now I was regretting it. Would the grass grow in this shallow rocklike soil? And how can you till it once the grass is sown? But my helpers were doing it. In contrast to most gardeners, they could actually go underneath the lawn, tilling the soil down deep, softening, aerating and sifting through it grain by grain. My grass was thriving. The whole field was growing. What was once hard rocky impervious soil was now soft, deep, absorbent and fertile.

      The gophers are my pals, my helpers. All I have to do is my part. I'm thankful these guys are there to help me. They're tireless and meticulous. Of course sometimes I wish they would take a day off (they don't). But my garden is flourishing. I love 'em.

When I was writing this, my wife started reading it over my shoulder, “The Gophers and Me.” She asked, “You are the author?” The way she said it made me realize I should put right here at the end:

Huck Rorick, Author

March 1998

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