Sunday, March 28, 2010


They say humans were originally tree animals, but I have a hunch that we enjoyed a good burrow, too. Today there was a long story in the GF Tribune about a new pack of wolves that has moved onto the rez and expanded to fourteen individuals before Art Carney, the wolf and griz man for the tribe, set about making some changes for the sake of the ranchers. A few wolves around are not a problem. A pack of fourteen -- even if they were feral domestic dogs -- are big trouble, a money sink. What impressed Art was that the wolves had found a burrow that had stood empty for twenty years, since an earlier pack was eliminated. (Art has been here a long time.)

How did they know where to find it? If you pay attention to holes in the earth, it’s not so surprising. I get the blog feed for, whose idea of fun is to take his terriers (earth dogs) out into the country and chase varmints (ground hogs, raccoons, foxes) down their holes -- then dig them back up. He explains about “pipes” (the tunnels) and differences in the burrows of different animals and how they swap them around, some enlarging the pipes and others making more side-tunnels with hidden exits. He knows some of these holes and after digging out whatever is in there this time, he always fills them back up -- not to eliminate the hole, but enough to keep from stepping in them and breaking a leg. But anyway there are few horses galloping around where he is.

The most important feature for bears when they look for a hole for hibernation is the exposure. They want a north-facing entrance so it will drift over with snow that won’t melt all winter and not wake them up too early. Another critter might prefer a southern entrance, so the sun can lend warmth for cubs. The next thing is the kind of soil, which is better if it’s easy to dig. But it’s also good to have a big tangle of tree roots or a pile of boulders so that a bear can’t dig out a marmot. Wolves might like to be along their network of trails, shared by both predators and prey, and in a place where lifting one’s nose in the air would supply a lot of good info about what’s going on, which would mean close to an updraft, maybe one shaped by a nearby coulee.

When the big devastating meteor hits smashed into the earth 65 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs, part of the reason the mammals survived was that they could jump down their holes and eat roots. In the Fifties when we all thought the atomic bomb would drop any day, people built quite elaborate bunkers in their backyards. Even in Nanking the people dug holes in their backyards in hopes of surviving the bombing that always precedes invasion. In London the subways became vast bedrooms during WWII. Even now, individuals will take refuge in such tunnels, looking for alcoves and crannies where a person might survive unnoticed. And the warhead missiles live in holes.

Later today I should go under my house to connect the garden hose. There’s no basement and whoever dug out the crawl space enough to put a hot water heater down there turned out to nearly have destroyed the house. It’s clear that some of the driveway and the garage slab both slumped and the sink wall in the kitchen has been rebuilt with a beam overhead to take the weight of that side. It took me a while to “read” this past damage. Under the house is where all the footnotes of construction are: wires and pipes that supply the phone, the lights, the electrical outlets, the water in and the sewer out.

There was once a very big tree too close to the east wall of the kitchen, so one side of the crawl space, where the mighty roots were, is not dug out. When it was cut, the stump was left even with the ground and it is gradually rotting. In summer I often leave the trapdoor down to the space standing open and the tiny bit of light that filters down makes the roots start growing again. I’ve never been able to make my garden hose hookup down there stop leaking -- not sure why -- so I just keep a bucket under the leak and empty it occasionally. There is a sump pump in case a pipe breaks, which has happened twice, the second time when the house was empty, so no one noticed and it filled up enough to float the kitchen floor just slightly, popping the nails up that held it to the joists, and cracking the hard asbestos tiles which are illegal to remove without special procedures. When I can afford it, I’ll put something flexible on top. Sheet vinyl or one of those “floating” floors.

The surfaces of the planet rise and fall, except much more slowly than water. The old cities gradually submerge beneath the sidewalks, and then new cities are built on top of them, but then people realize that there was something deeper and, like terrierman, spend a lot of time and energy digging it back up. Part of the reason this is good fossil-finding country is that the earth-level is going down, eroding under cultivation, irrigation, excavation, and wind. As it goes down, an ancient stone spinal column becomes obvious by its regularity, a skull emerges from the side of a widening coulee. The water brings to the surface the old bitter chemicals of the sea, the salt and the alkali, making the ponds white around their verge, allowing only the beet-colored growth of certain adapted plants.

In Valier we are constantly struggling with the subterranean infrastructure. People forget to make maps and jack-leg in pipes with no plan. Jerry Sullivan, who makes his living digging up, repairing and reburying stuff, has a lot of knowledge in his head, which makes him valuable on the town council but also powerful. And I? I burrow in my books, feeling along like a star-nosed mole seeking earthworms. I eat ideas.

1 comment:

Lance Michael Foster said...

Underground is a great place to live when it is too cold or too hot.

I lived in the corner of my parents' basement when I was a teen and into my young adulthood during those times when I returned home. Cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter. Quieter all around.

No walls, only one hanging light bulb. Surrounded by my boxes. My cave.

My grandpa told me back in the old days, poor folks used to make a sort of house-cave to live in called a dugout. His brother's family on the reservation lived in one under the railroad bridge. He and grandma lived in a little cabin in a hollow (a ravine or gulch off the Missouri River).

If I could afford a little land somewhere, I would start with a dugout and work my way towards a cabin someday.