The trusty old 4020 tugged and chugged, jerking and jostling at the rip of each stubborn alfalfa root. It was a dusty, bone-jarring job and progress was painfully slow, which gave me time to think.
Plowing alfalfa is an arduous task. Certainly it would be a form of torture were one afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder.
Alfalfa is a crop which is difficult to establish, yet is tough to eradicate when you wish it gone. It's like a problem child who won't wake up in the morning yet can't seem to wind down at bedtime.
It was Sahara-hot and dry that spring when I slowly but inexorably broke those 25 acres of alfalfa. The dirt was hard as anthracite coal, yielding only reluctantly to the plowshare. I had heard that the soil offered so much resistance, you could pull up the plow and fry a T-bone on the moldboard.
This alfalfa was ancient, with roots fatter than my thumb. I had heard that alfalfa roots can reach down as far as 20 feet, but these seemed uncommonly tenacious, as if they had burrowed through the core of the planet and had emerged, tangled and frog-belly yellow, somewhere in China.
One afternoon, as I rounded the far headland, a small movement in the furrow ahead caught my eye. I idled the tractor and hopped down to investigate.
A small creature was furiously digging in the dusty, crumbly soil. I immediately recognized it as a member of the species Gopherus Polyphemus, otherwise known as the common pocket gopher.
It should be noted that this animal got its name not because it's a fun thing to carry in one's pocket, but for its cheek pouches. Pocket gophers have a personality roughly similar to that of the Tasmanian Devil.
One never sees a pocket gopher out in the open. I watched with fascination as the little critter doggy dug and then, using his forehead, tried to form the crumbly dirt into a tunnel. Each attempt inevitably resulted in a tiny landslide, negating all his efforts.
Burns's mouse sprang to mind, along with all that "best laid schemes o' mice an' men" business. But it was spring, not December; this was a gopher, not a mouse; and I am neither Scottish nor a poet.
As I watched the gopher -- the endless cycle of furious digging followed by the inevitable little avalanches -- my first instinct was to name him Robert. But then another hero came to mind, one that was no less epic, no less tragic. His name is Sisyphus, I decided.
Looking down upon Sisyphus from my god's-eye point of view, I saw how unsuited he was to life on the surface.
His feeble eyes, adapted for a life in subterranean tunnels, seemed overwhelmed by the blazing sun. He had few defenses save for the sharp claws on his forepaws which were made for digging, not fighting. I was amazed that he had not already become a meal for the red-tailed hawk I had seen floating lazily on the afternoon thermals.
I at first considered transplanting him to a safer spot, but then thought: No. This little varmint and his kin were to blame for the rough condition of this alfalfa field. Their relentless digging and their black, sticky, cow pie-shaped mounds -- which could plug even the sharpest sickle -- had turned a baby-smooth field into a landscape as tortured as the dark side of the moon.