Prickly Porky and Grubby Gopher
All the way to school the next morning Peter Rabbit wondered who they would learn about that day. He was so busy wondering that he was heedless. Peter is apt to be heedless at times. The result was that as he hopped out of a bramble-tangle just within the edge of the Green Forest, he all but landed in something worse than the worst brambles that ever grew. It was only by a wild side jump that he saved himself. Peter had almost landed among the thousand little spears of Prickly Porky the Porcupine.
"Gracious!" exclaimed Peter.
"Why don't you look where you are going," grunted Prickly Porky. Plainly he was rather peevish. "It wouldn't be my fault if you had a few of my little spears sticking in you this very minute, and it would serve you right." He waddled along a few steps, then began talking again. "I don't see why Old Mother Nature sent for me this morning," he grumbled. "I hate a long walk."
Peter pricked up his long ears. "I know!" he cried. "You're going to school, Prickly Porky. You're a Rodent, and we are going to learn all about you this morning."
"I'm not a Rodent; I'm a Porcupine," grunted Prickly Porky indignantly.
"You're a Rodent just the same. You've got big gnawing teeth, and any one with that kind of teeth is a Rodent," retorted Peter. Then at a sudden thought a funny look passed over his face. "Why, that means that you and I are related in a way," he added.
"Don't believe it," grunted Prickly Porky, still shuffling along. "Don't believe it. Don't want to be related to anybody as heedless as you. What is this school, anyway? Don't want to go to school. Know all I want to know. Know how to get all I want to eat and how to make everybody get out of my way and leave me alone, and that's enough to know." He rattled the thousand little spears hidden in his coat, and Peter shivered at the sound. It was a most unpleasant sound.
"Well, some folks do like to be stupid," snapped Peter and hurried on, lipperty-lipperty-lip, while Prickly Porky slowly shuffled and rattled along behind.
All the others were there when Peter arrived. Prickly Porky wasn't even in sight. Old Mother Nature wasted no time. She has too much to do to ever waste time. She called the school to order at once.
"Yesterday," she began, "I told you about two little haymakers of the high mountains of the Far West. Who were they, Peter Rabbit?"
"Little Chief Hare, called the Pika or Cony, and Stubtail the Mountain Beaver or Sewellel," replied Peter with great promptness.
"Right," said Old Mother Nature. "Now I am going to tell you of one of my little plowmen who also lives in the Far West but prefers the great plains to the high mountains, though he is sometimes found in the latter. He is Grubby the Gopher, a member of the same order the rest of you belong to, but of a family quite his own. He is properly called the Pocket Gopher, and way down in the Southeast, where he is also found, he is called a Salamander, though what for I haven't the least idea."
"Does he have pockets in his cheeks like mine?" asked Striped Chipmunk eagerly.
"He has pockets in his cheeks, and that is why he is called Pocket Gopher," replied Old Mother Nature; "but they are not at all like yours, Striped Chipmunk. Yours are on the inside of your cheeks, but his are on the outside."
"How funny!" exclaimed Striped Chipmunk.
"Your pockets are small compared with those of Grubby," continued Old Mother Nature. "One of his covers almost the whole side of his head back to his short neck, and it is lined with fur, and remember he has two of them. Grubby uses these for carrying food and never for carrying out earth when he is digging a tunnel, as some folks think he does. He stuffs them full with his front feet and empties them by pressing them from the back with his feet. The Gopher family is quite large and the members range in size from the size of Danny Meadow Mouse to that of Robber the Rat, only these bigger members are stouter and heavier than Robber. Some are reddish-brown and some are gray. But whatever his size and wherever he is found, Grubby's habits are the same."
All this time Peter Rabbit had been fidgeting about. It was quite clear that Peter had something on his mind. Now as Old Mother Nature paused, Peter found the chance he had been waiting for. "If you please, why did you call him a plowman?" he asked eagerly.
"I'm coming to that all in due time," replied Old Mother Nature, smiling at Peter's eagerness. "Grubby Gopher spends most of his life underground, very much like Miner the Mole, whom you all know. He can dig tunnels just about as fast. His legs are short, and his front legs and feet are very stout and strong. They are armed with very long, strong claws and it is with these and the help of his big cutting teeth that Grubby digs. He throws the earth under him and then kicks it behind him with his hind feet. When he has quite a pile behind him he turns around, and with his front feet and head pushes it along to a little side tunnel and then up to the surface of the ground. As soon as he has it all out he plugs up the opening and goes back to digging. The loose earth he has pushed out makes little mounds, and he makes one of these mounds every few feet.
"Grubby is a great worker. He is very industrious. Since he is underground, it doesn't make much difference to him whether it be night or day. In summer, during the hottest part of the day, he rests. His eyes are small and weak because he has little use for them, coming out on the surface very seldom and then usually in the dusk. He has a funny little tail without any hair on it; this is very sensitive and serves him as a sort of guide when he runs backward along his tunnel, which he can do quite fast. A funny thing about those long claws on his front feet is that he folds them under when he is walking or running. Do any of you know why Farmer Brown plows his garden?"
As she asked this, Old Mother Nature looked from one to another, and each in turn shook his head. "It is to mix the dead vegetable matter thoroughly with the earth so that the roots of the plants may get it easily," explained Old Mother Nature. "By making those tunnels in every direction and bringing up the earth below to the surface, Grubby Gopher does the same thing. That is why I call him my little plowman. He loosens up the hard, packed earth and mixes the vegetable matter with it and so makes it easy for seeds to sprout and plants to grow."
"Then he must be one of the farmer's best friends," spoke up Happy Jack Squirrel.
Old Mother Nature shook her head. "He has been in the past," said she. "He has done a wonderful work in helping make the land fit for farming. But where land is being farmed he is a dreadful pest, I am sorry to say. You see he eats the crops the farmer tries to raise, and the new mounds he is all the time throwing up bury a lot of the young plants, and in the meadows make it very hard to use a mowing machine for cutting hay. Then Grubby gets into young orchards and cuts off all the tender roots of young trees. This kills them. You see he is fond of tender roots, seeds, stems of grass and grain, and is never happier than when he can find a field of potatoes.
"Being such a worker, he has to have a great deal to eat. Then, too, he stores away a great deal for winter, for he doesn't sleep in winter as Johnny Chuck does. He even tunnels about under the snow. Sometimes he fills these little snow tunnels with the earth he brings up from below, and when the snow melts it leaves queer little earth ridges to show where the tunnels were.
"Grubby is very neat in his habits and keeps his home and himself very clean. During the day he leaves one of his mounds open for a little while to let in fresh air. But it is only for a little while. Then he closes it again. He doesn't dare leave it open very long, for fear Shadow the Weasel or a certain big Snake called the Gopher Snake will find it and come in after him. Digger the Badger is the only one of his enemies who can dig fast enough to dig him out, but at night, when he likes to come out for a little air or to cut grain and grass, he must always watch for Hooty the Owl. Old Man Coyote and members of the Hawk family are always looking for him by day, so you see he has plenty of enemies, like the rest of you.
"He got the name Gopher because that comes from a word meaning honeycomb, and Grubby's tunnels go in every direction until the ground is like honeycomb. He isn't a bit social and has rather a mean disposition. He is always ready to fight. On the plains he has done a great deal to make the soil fine and rich, as I have already told you, but on hillsides he does a great deal of harm. The water runs down his tunnels and washes away the soil. Because of this and the damage he does to crops, man is his greatest enemy. But man has furnished him with new and splendid foods easy to get, and so Grubby's family increases faster than it used to, in spite of traps and poison. Hello! See who's here! It is about time."
There was a shuffling and rattling and grunting, and Prickly Porky climbed up on an old stump, looking very peevish and much out of sorts. He had come to school much against his will.