On Words and Gophers

I've been thinking about the words I use a lot lately. Someone said to me recently, "I found your blog and read right through it. Your style is so simple. It is so accessible." At first I thought that was a snide remark about oversimplicity, but I've decided it's a compliment as the person who told me that doesn't deal in snidery. That remark, highlighted by the lessons on precise and meaningful diction that I'm teaching right now in my AP English Language classes, has led to a few hours of stylistic reflection on my part.

(An aside that isn't really an aside: As an English teacher, the books that I teach and have taught are deeply tangled into the roots of my consciousness. Scout, Jem, and Atticus live in my head and heart almost as intimately as my family does. E.B. White's Elements of Style and Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," as this post clearly proves, guide my writing daily. As for Hamlet, scholarly critics be damned—the dude was crazy. In no stretch of morality or right-mindedness is Ophelia's love, sanity, and ultimately, life a reasonable sacrifice for revenge. Understanding his illness makes the story much more tragic to me. If I didn't think he was crazy, I'd think he was an ass, and if I thought he was an ass, I wouldn't care about him. Recognizing his pain is the heart of the story.)

Since the original goal of this blog was to maintain accountability while developing my writing skills, a necessary task for a writing teacher, the prose I create here is important to me. (Thankfully, this site has grown to do more than just allow me to practice writing, but has also given me a space to follow food from the seed to the soil to the table, reflecting on and sharing that process.) Upon rereading posts, I sometimes do see a style that is so simple it crumples into flatness and dissolves against the computer screen. But in occasional posts, I have found a rare turn of phrase, lively image, or idea of which to be proud. When I have come across those few moments where I'm practicing the lessons I teach to my students—specificity! strong verbs! purposeful syntax!—I find my favorite aspect of them to be the words that I chose.

While words paint pictures in my head, the natural world feeds me literally and emotionally, and often I have a hard time balancing my need to be outside or in the kitchen with my need to have my head in a book or my fingers on a keyboard. Someday, our oak tree will have a swing under it, and I will read pleasant afternoons away with the characters in my head and the sounds of the birds as company. You bet I'll someday blog from the oak tree. I'm already beginning to blog from the kitchen counter while I cook.

Unfortunately, sometimes words and nature come together in less pleasant ways, in ways I wish they wouldn't: gophers.

These damned gophers are pissing me off. Since I've dug so deep and lined each vegetable bed with hardware cloth, the veggie beds are safe, at least for now. When I planted the fruit trees I've put in so far, I've built large cages of hardware cloth to line the hole with before planting each. I've been hesitant to plant the fig trees though, because according to local lore, fig roots are gopher-crack, and I'm not sure they won't nibble their ways right into the death of my trees. Right now, I'm crossing my fingers in the hope that all my precautions will work on the food plants, but there's no precaution I know for grass. For years, I've argued that lawns are wasteful, that they drink more than their share, and that I don't want a large-lawn yard, but we purchased just that, and while we're whittling away at the lawn, shaving areas off for citrus and other edibles, part of the lawn remains. And that part of the lawn is bumpy. Really bumpy.

I can deal with the bumps and the mounds of fresh dirt by growling and shaking my fist, but if all my work put into protecting my fruit trees and vegetables ends in failure, I think a pellet gun may be in order.

And so, I aim wholeheartedly to use the words that show the work, that have dirt under their fingernails. I dig and shovel heavy soil to make room for a garden; I do not cultivate. If I come to make the decision that I do not want to make, that I hope I don't have to make, in order to save what I grow from the gophers, I will not exterminate them. I will kill them.

To use any word weaker than kill ignores the heart of the story.


Anonymous said…
Is a 'gopher' what we in the UK would call a 'mole'??
Anonymous said…
Well, I move them. Not with essays, poems, or sonnets, but with mothballs. (Down the holes, and they've never come back.) Some say it's an old wives tale, but some old wives, apparently, knew their stuff.
pam said…
All you need is a cat or two. Really.
Anonymous said…
I know this isn't a help in making the decision to kill any easier, but one of my fondest memories of my mother as child were the mornings she would come in to wake me up, look out the window and scream "goddamn woodchucks!" Then she would dart down the stairs in her pajamas, grab her pellet gun and stand on the back porch shooting the varmints. For some reason its such a strong, and yet simultaneously funny memory for me. She of course denies ever having done such a thing :-)
Wendy said…
I love your writing style. Always have.

May have to reread Hamlet. I've never had any time for the play at all as i always thought of the protagonist as an utter arse. Shall try again with more compassion.

In response to Soilman above: no, gophers aren't moles. They're bigger and they look more like squirrels (without tails) or prairie dogs.
Christina said…
Hi Soilman: No, they're not the same. But, if you'd like to see the frustration a gopher can cause, I highly recommend checking out Caddy Shack.

Altadenahiker: Mothballs! I'll give that a try. I've been dumping used "Feline Pine" cat litter down the holes, which leads them to leave that particular hole, but they've just been popping up elsewhere. I hope the mothballs work for me.

Pam: The cats are not doing it. Neither are the coyotes, neighborhood dogs, or hawks. They're pretty tough, these buggers.

Ann: It's a pretty funny image and it definitely made me smile. It reminds me of my dad. He sits up in the room above his garage with his air gun and picks them off from a distance. My dad, a former fighter pilot, has insanely good hand-eye coordination and spectacular aim. I don't know that I would be quite as successful as him.

Wendy: Aw shucks. You are the sweetest person ever. I didn't like Hamlet when I first read it either, but as I experienced people close to me suffering from mental illness, my whole understanding of it changed. My whole understanding of Shakespeare, in fact, changed. Man, that dude really GOT people. I can't believe it.
Christina said…
Er, Caddyshack. I guess it is one word.
Anonymous said…
Simplicity and accessibility matter so much more than ANYTHING else. I love EB White but I've never read the Orwell (whom I adore). Off to purchase a copy today.

Christina, Christina. Your words and turns of phrase are some of the best I've read.

Words that have the dirt under their fingernails - do what you must, I say.
Anonymous said…
Caddyshack! Huh that one tickled me fancy!

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