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Winter 1999, Volume 16.2

Essay

 

Linda M. Hasselstrom  photo of Linda Hasselstrom.

Badger’s Business


Linda Hasselstom (M.A. University of Missouri) earns her living by working on the family cattle ranch in South Dakota and from freelance writing and workshops in writing and publishing. Her nonfiction titles include
Windbreak, Going Over East, and Land Circle, and her most recent collection of poems is Dakota Bones.  She currently spends her winters in Cheyenne, Wyoming but her writing still centers on the ranch she now owns.

 

One fall day when my father was checking cattle over east, he saw a badger jogging through the buffalo grass. He’d always deplored "the kind of guy who shoots anything that moves," but he decided to kill the badger. Maybe he’d hit a hole with the pickup and bumped his head on the ceiling. As usual, his rifle was at home because he only used it to shoot varmints, usually skunks in the barn. Anyway, he tromped on the gas pedal and drove over the badger.

When he got out of the pickup, he knew the badger’s back was broken. Facing him, it snapped and tore chunks out of the sod.

"If he could have stood up, he’d have eaten me alive," he told me. "Then I realized I didn’t have any way to finish him off. As rocky as that pasture is, I couldn’t find a rock bigger than my fist." He shook his head. "The tamping bar is long enough and heavy enough, but I’d left it where I was fixing fence at the well. And all the time I looked for something to hit him with, that poor devil was trying to crawl after me, growling. Finally I got the shovel out of the truck."

He glanced sidelong at me and shook his head, wincing. "Too light. Bounced off his head. Didn’t seem to have any effect at all. He just snarled and dug his claws in, trying to get at me." My father stared through the windshield as if the badger was sitting on the pickup’s hood.

"I kept hitting him until I had to stop for breath. I thought I’d die before I killed him, but I went at it like a job. After he slowed down a little, I used the edge to chop at his neck." He shut his eyes and shook his head. "That will be the last time I ever bother a badger." Sun shone on his black hair, threaded with white, like the pelt of a badger.

My husband George killed a badger, once, too, but he used a better tool for the job. In rendezvous camps where we went during the summers, most men wore some kind of fur hat: an entire fox hide, sometimes, with the ears erect and paws dangling. After George trapped two skunks, he tanned the hides to make a hat for his son Mike. Later he bought himself a bearskin hat—but he really wanted a badger pelt.

He and I were nearing home one day when a gray shape bolted across the highway and dived into the ditch. "There goes my hat," George mumbled, grabbing his pistol.

Hearing our brakes squeal, the badger glanced over his shoulder and waddled faster. We both ran, George circling to head him off. The badger had nearly reached a hole under a limestone shelf when George jumped in his path and he wheeled, hissing and snarling.

Badgers are smaller than their cousins the wolverines and martens. Their baggy skin makes them look clownish, but there’s nothing funny about facing one. I’d rather kick a Doberman. This badger spread himself over the ground like a gray mantle and snapped. The blades of his claws slashed earth. Panting, George stepped back and aimed.

"Don’t!" I yelled as he fired. The badger lurched forward, his striped head leveled like a spear point, shoulders quivering with muscle. He hissed so loud I looked behind me for a snake.

As the badger lunged again, George backed another pace, saying, "I wish I hadn’t started this, but now he’s wounded." He fired and retreated as the badger crawled toward him. Fired again. Finally the creature convulsed, claws gouging George’s boot before the brilliance faded from his eyes. George shook his head and reached for his skinning knife.

He never made a hat. The hide lay in a trunk until I rediscovered it five years after he died. Unfinished business. Our dead, interrupted in the middle of daily routines, drop everything and we survivors come along behind tidying up. Even when we’ve removed their discarded belongings, their physical traces, the dead may linger. With prayers and apology I gave the badger hide back to the high ridge, knowing neither the badger, nor George, were finished with me.

He could depress the hide off a dead skunk.

–John Hasselstrom

Perched on a limestone outcropping, I watched the sun drift behind the Black Hills. Fire dwindled to a peach glow, the last warmth brushing my cheek. Sighing, the prairie settled into darkness as I rose and stepped off the rock. Light shone from the tips of tall grasses, but I hurried waist-deep in black shadow. Since George’s death, my parents called each night at sunset to be sure my doors were locked so the world couldn’t get in.

The contoured ridges near Windbreak House are so familiar I can walk with my eyes shut, but I was in a neighbor’s pasture two miles away. In the dregs of daylight, my eyes widened, enhancing my peripheral vision. Every object seemed to reflect the stars. To keep stickers out of my shirt sleeves, I held my hands outstretched, brushing the heads of grasses. Later, I’d pick grass seeds out of my socks and pant legs.

Then my right foot fell on air instead of earth. I plunged forward and hung suspended as my elbows smacked into the dirt. My left leg was doubled up to my hip. My right leg hung in space. For an instant I pictured myself skidding down a tunnel while I clawed at dirt walls. Maybe I’d dropped into an uncovered well. Buried alive.

I looked down. The cavity was wider than my body. I struggled to pull my leg out, trembling as if I believed something down there could rip my foot off. Likely a badger dug the hole hunting a ground squirrel.

Sitting on the hole’s edge, I rubbed bruises and scrapes, peering down in the ebbing light. Nearly four feet below, the bottom was as wide as the top. On two sides gaped dark openings, maybe the original tunnel of whatever animal the badger had been after.

I stood up, warily testing my legs. Three more craters lay in an arc ahead. Tiptoeing around them, I recalled a story told by Terry, a drawling Southerner in our muzzle-loading rifle club. He’d gone with a shotgun-toting friend to hunt turkeys in the Black Hills. Meandering through the trees unarmed, Terry spotted a badger hustling away and chased it, yelling for his buddy. The badger started to dig, half his body underground in seconds. Terry grabbed his stubby tail, yanked and threw in one motion, hollering, "Shoot! Shoot!" He let the silence build before concluding, "First time I ever saw a badger shot on the wing."

Piles of dirt beside fresh excavations in our pastures suggest that badgers, like furry bulldozers, roam the darkness every night. Waddling the darkness in his baggy suit, Badger looks like a clown when he’s busy sniffing out supper. He can close his nostrils and tiny ears when digging for ground squirrels and rattlesnake hors d’oeuvres. If a burrow is vacant, a badger may dig inside to wait for the resident’s return.

Yet I rarely see live badgers. Was I missing them? Asking my neighbors, I got few sensible answers. First they’d denounced badgers for digging holes that can break a cow’s leg or trip a horse. Then they’d bluster about shooting any badger they saw, "No matter what you God Damned Environmentalists say!"

"But have you ever seen one?" I’d persist.

Eventually, almost everyone said no. A keen sense of smell warns a badger of danger so efficiently even determined naturalists have trouble sneaking close. Yet every year I see dead badgers on the local roads. I suspect badgers have learned to be nocturnal. Irascible hermits, silent sentries, they live underground and patrol in darkness, living unobserved on the fringes of our lives.

At work a badger, descending into solid ground in minutes, looks like a snarl of fur in a sandstorm. With his curved front claws, Badger tears topsoil into chunks small enough to push under his belly. Cornered, he pivots to face danger with legs braced and claws extended.

I’ve spotted badger dens on the banks of running streams as well as above gullies that only run water once every five years. I’ve seen the unmistakable oval shape in uncultivated areas such as railroad rights-of-way and in irrigation or road ditches close to my unsuspecting neighbors’ houses. In this city, I found a badger conducting business in a busy park, five feet from an asphalt trail traveled by dozens of unsuspecting runners and bicyclists. Park employees routinely poison ground squirrels, so I’m not sure what he eats. Two miles away, another—undisturbed and apparently undetected—lives next to a military hospital.

I once saw a badger crossing a highway like a big furry centipede. The hair on his sides brushed the asphalt, hiding his fast-moving feet. I grabbed my camera and jumped out of the car. While I fumbled with the shutter, he spun to face me and hissed. A student writing to me about an ornery teacher we both knew once said, "When he doesn’t know the answers, he bluffs like a badger." Bluff can work, if the stakes are high enough and you’ve nothing left to lose. I raised the camera but the badger ducked under the fence. I rolled under the wire and ran hard, but all I saw were surging waves of tall grass marking his route.

As a child, I raised chickens and rabbits for 4-H projects. Whenever a hen hid her nest outside the chicken house, under a tree or in an old tire, I found it and watched for the chicks to hatch. Several times, both nest and hen vanished, leaving only feathers and shattered shells.

Later, I nurtured my rabbits in a cage my father built, a sturdy house with a wood floor on one end raised three feet off the ground. Twice I found the wire mesh ripped and nothing left but wisps of fur. When I moved the cage into a chicken house with a concrete foundation, the rabbits survived long enough to win blue ribbons at the county fair and attain their destiny as rabbit stew.

Riding horseback in a pasture looking for cows, farsighted George once spotted two baby foxes playing at a den entrance on the south side of a ridge. We told no one. Foxes and coyotes sometimes share badgers’ dens and some neighbors trespass to shoot either. Like a homeowner refusing to admit the family takes in lodgers, a badger may wall off the part of a den used by other predators.

Near a particularly ugly housing development in raw prairie, I’ve seen craters large enough to swallow a child. Screened by tall grass, I watched toddlers romp and thought how horrified their mothers would be to see me—or a badger—crouching there. Perhaps the children are Badger’s gauge to peaceful hunting while they eat supper. Maybe he’d like to join in their play, turning somersaults and playing leapfrog. Naturalists have seen them playing king-of-the-castle and shuffling in a group dance resembling the twist.

Once a seven-year-old boy lost from his family’s home in Manitoba lived contentedly for two weeks in a badger’s hole, nibbling leftovers. He emerged unharmed. How did it feel to sleep curled against a badger’s thick fur, to hear that voice murmur gently instead of hissing?

Limping a little after my tumble, I edged around the patchwork of holes, anxiously testing each step before committing my full weight. Maybe while I sat on the limestone outcrop watching the sunset, a badger prowled below. Knowing of his traps, I would walk wide around the area at night. In the dying light, I swung my head from side to side, hoping to see the digger as I scanned the ground ahead for more holes. I looked with special care the east, toward a rough field we cut for hay one year when I was a teenager. There depressions in the limestone often hold water through June. Chunks of rock lie like booby-traps in the grass, breaking sickle blades. When I was mowing there, with days getting longer and hotter, I shifted my 420 John Deere into fourth gear and speeded up on every level strip. Several times the tractor jolted, nearly catapulting me from the seat. The engine stalled and the mower fouled and quit. After I slammed the lever into neutral, I’d look back to see the mower’s tiny rear wheel stuck in a large hole. Sometimes I could dislodge it by shifting to low and pulling ahead slowly. Other times my father had to help me pry and lift it free, tripping and stepping in more holes while we worked.

"It’s like a mine field," he’d mutter. "Badger’s work." He carried his .22 in the pickup for a week and never saw a badger.

One of our best pastures has been infested with prairie dogs for years. Even on days when I’m a Rabid Environmentalist, I find little good to say about prairie dogs. A dozen times, I’ve tumbled into the cactus after my horse tripped in a prairie dog hole and came up lame. Cows and calves often limped after we sorted cattle in the dog town.

"I don’t want to kill them all," my father said. "They’ll probably last longer than the human race anyway. All I want to do is save a little grass for the cows." We used them for target practice and invited neighbors to do the same. On the advice of a wildlife biologist, we shut cattle out of the pasture so grass would grow tall to provide cover for coyotes. The prairie dogs seemed to multiply faster than usual and grew so fat and sassy they didn’t bother to hide when we drove past.

Then a badger moved into a bumpy hayfield next door. Two months later, the prairie dog town looked like a bombed city, entrance mounds scattered like shrapnel. Fortresses adequate against humans and coyotes were no match for Badger. He reduced the little rodents’ numbers more than we had in two years. Unfortunately, he left bigger holes, doing more damage to the grass. Nature’s cycle must be missing some essential element. Maybe we still didn’t have enough hawks and owls.

Walking home in dusky light that evening, I knew a badger prowled nearby but I didn’t see him. His shaggy coat is perfect camouflage for a prairie evening, fluctuating from gray to mottled brown with a yellow undertone. Straining my eyes, I looked for the white stripe running from his collar to the tip of his short, pointed nose, for his piratical black cheek patches. When I stumbled over a rock and threw my hands up to catch myself, I grabbed a barbed wire and knew I stood at the fence dividing our pasture and the neighbor’s.

Unlike skunks and raccoons, badgers don’t panhandle from humans by invading barns to tear open sacks of feed. They rarely slaughter domestic animals, though a hungry badger will eat anything that doesn’t eat it first. Dessert may be chokecherries or plums in season.

One winter day, we went into the barn and found dozens of fifty-pound paper sacks of cattle cubes ripped open. Thousands of cubes, easily a hundred dollars’ worth of winter feed, were scattered and covered with excrement and urine. Stocky and bowlegged as a weight-lifter, a twenty-five pound badger no bigger than a beagle would be strong enough to move the feed sacks. I didn’t believe this destruction fit a badger’s tidy habits but Father disagreed. After we fed the cows, he got a hammer and a few old boards and went around the barn trying to cover holes. The next morning, another dozen sacks were ruined. "I think it’s hopeless," he said. "A badger could tear that barn down if he wanted in."

The next night, I crept to the barn at midnight with my .22 rifle. When I snapped on the flashlight and opened the door of the feed storage room, a huge raccoon turned to face me. I fired twice and flipped the body over: a female, dead. I went back to bed.

In the morning, I dragged the corpse outside just as my father arrived. "What happened?"

"I shot her last night—a nursing female. She probably has a dozen kits stashed in here somewhere."

"I hope they starve to death," he growled. "At least she won’t be feeding them cake every night."

That night, I returned to the barn. This time when I shone the light inside, three tiny goggle-eyed faces turned toward me: baby raccoons. One by one, they put their paws over their eyes. Groaning, I shot them anyway. I’d learned from experience that once they learned to forage in human storage areas, they’d never go back to natural nourishment.

Climbing between the barbed wires, I walked past the tall cedars in front of my parents’ house. Through the lighted window, I saw them sitting at the round oak dining room table, watching the early news. They called me each night as soon as it was over to ask if my doors and windows were locked and I was in for the night. If I went anywhere away from the ranch, they insisted I leave them a note saying where I was going and how long I’d be gone.

Walking up the last long slope to my house, I could barely see the outline of my windbreak trees. The snow fences built out of railroad ties loomed like a fortress against the stars. On my left stood the black mass of the ridge where I’d met a badger, probably king of that particular hill. In summer or fall, my normal waking ritual is to look for prairie fires. Usually, my house overlooks an empty dam with a muddy spot in the bottom, but after heavy spring rains turned it into a lake, I learned new customs. Each dawn, I glanced out the window to see if the water was calm or ruffled. I sometimes ate breakfast on the deck with the binoculars and bird book. I renewed my acquaintance with herons and several varieties of ducks and discovered birds new to me: snipe and rails.

The snipe seemed to fly around the house all night, jeering because I couldn’t see him. When I admitted to dinner guests that I hadn’t seen the bird, we all spent a half hour walking three abreast through the tall grass, swatting mosquitoes. At one time, two of us agreed that it was between us, in a space no more than twenty feet square. Carefully, we moved forward, eyes straining. As we met, the snipe called from a gully a half-mile away. Bleeding from deer fly bites, we staggered back to the house for hydrogen peroxide and gin.

One Sunday afternoon, I resolved to walk around the lake, trying once more to sneak up on the snipe. Then I’d climb the ridge to photograph my home and the ephemeral lake from a distance. We save the ridge pasture for bunches of cattle we need to keep close to the corrals. It’s too rough to check with pickups, so I ride or walk there regularly. Sometimes, I’d glimpse a quick movement at the mouth of a den or see fresh tracks, but I’d never seen a badger there.

Ordinary prairie wonders filled my climb. Redwing blackbirds dived past my head, safeguarding a teacup-sized nest hung on brome grass. Nearby, another nest lay on the ground, pale green egg shells broken and licked clean by a badger or raccoon. Frodo, my Westie, splashed in the lake, sending killdeer skipping away on brittle legs, until water plants dangled from his ears.

High on the slope, I saw what my father called a fairy ring, a circle of grass greener than usual, strewn with manure from cattle, deer and mice feeding there. Yucca blooms burst white, regal on stiff stalks, swaying in the breeze blowing down off the hill.

I stepped around a shoulder of rock toward a bare patch of ground visible from my deck and paused, expecting to see spider silk webbing the entrance of an abandoned fox or coyote den.

Instead, between one breath and the next, my gaze met the calm eyes of a badger. He flattened himself against the ground, opening his mouth and growing large as a bear.

Frodo’s tags jingled. In Scotland, Westies—bred with short legs and strong jaws and necks—are sent into badger dens to drive or drag the badgers out. A Westie puppy may be tossed into a barrel with a young badger to test his fighting spirit. I’ve always suspected Frodo’s broad stubborn streak was part of the breeding plan: any dog meant to fight badgers needs perseverance. Though he’s attacked pit bulls and malamutes without hesitation and survived, I feared ancestral memory would get him killed. I turned and snatched him up.

When I looked again, the badger was gone. I scanned the hillside. A faint track in the clay pointed toward the hole, but it looked too narrow for the wide body I’d seen. Fur must make Badger slick as a watermelon seed. The level shelf around the den entrance was clear of weeds and stones.

Through binoculars, I spotted other holes on the ridge by the fan of light-colored clay spread in front. Close up, I inhaled a heady odor. I’d seen other mounds littered with leftover bones and rattlesnake rattles but the earth before this one was bare except for tracks. Perhaps wise badgers carry away the scraps so as not to betray a lair to snoopers like me.

How can a big meat-eating predator remain so obscure among people who observe the prairie every day? How can we fail to see what is before our eyes?

I’ve learned some badgers live communally in a main dwelling, a sett, hundreds of years old, extending sixty feet into a hillside. Each badger in the clan may occupy a separate apartment, but they cooperate to hunt and play and raise a single litter of cubs each year. They don’t hibernate, but doze during cold weather, surviving on fat reserves when they can’t hunt. On nice days, they wake to air the bedding outside the den, like housewives shaking blankets.

On the south side of the ridge that day, I discovered evidence either of a badger family castle or a lone badger with a liking for space. Several holes marked by piles of earth or gravel lay in a line a quarter-mile long. Nearby I found bits of bloody bone, scraps of fur, or blood and matted grass. The ridge may be the ancestral stronghold of a badger family with older ties to this land than mine.

I added another phase to my dawn ritual. Before training the binoculars on the lake, I raised them to the hillside, trying to catch Badger returning from his night’s hunt. I never did.

After becoming a widow, I was pleased to learn badgers bury their dead. Like most bereaved, for a time I wished to be closer to George even if I had to die to do it. So I was intrigued to learn badgers may wall up a mate inside an unused chamber in the home den. One naturalist saw a sow badger emerge from a den uttering an eerie moan and begin digging in a nearby rabbit hole. Soon, a large boar arrived. The two touched noses and the sow bobbed her head and made a whistling sound. The boar copied her. Both went into the den and emerged dragging a dead badger. Together, they maneuvered the corpse to the rabbit hole, stuffed it inside and covered it with earth. When the female went back into her den, the male departed.

Other scientists have seen dead badgers pushed out of dens and covered with loads of bedding topped by earth and stones. One sow dug a ditch around her dead mate and his bed, throwing excavated dirt on top, tamping and smoothing. When she finished, the mound looked like a prehistoric round barrow grave.

Eavesdropping, I recently heard of a rancher who liked badgers so well he left specific instructions for his funeral. His family grumbled, but carried out his wish: they cremated him and buried the ashes in a badger hole.

When I finally limped up the front steps of Windbreak House that night, every muscle ached from my fall into the badger hole. The phone was ringing. Yes, I replied to mother, my doors and windows were locked. Yes, I’d checked the closets for burglars. My mother didn’t like to think about rapists but if I didn’t answer her sunset call, she’d stand at the back door shrieking until my father interrupted his chores and drove to my house. Using my hidden key, he came inside and moved cautiously through the rooms, then reported to mother that I was missing. All evening, they’d puzzle over the mystery, unable to imagine any reason I might go out at night. If mother saw my headlights when I came home, she’d run into the driveway and wave until I stopped and followed her inside. There I’d remind her that I’d stopped that morning to tell her about my appointment in town and left a note on the dining room table.

"She did not tell me," she’d say, shifting stacks of old magazines and scratch paper. "And I can’t find a note. She’s just trying to make me look forgetful."

"She shouldn’t be out alone after dark anyway," my father would say.

"Early to bed, early to rise" is either law or religion in my neighborhood. Females without male supervision are as rare as badgers and just as suspect. Stunned by widowhood, I wanted to relearn the habits of life alone, rediscover my courage. My father gave orders I hardly noticed. I often did what he suggested because it was simpler than thinking. He thought I was obeying him, as I did in childhood.

After my parents’ phone call at dusk, I drew my shades to hide the house lights from anyone on the highway and went outside to walk, reflecting that the prairie’s darkness was probably safer than my house. I took a watch along so I could be back inside when my father called after the late news.

"I see your light’s still on," he’d say each night. "Get to bed so you can get up before noon and get some work done."

Repeatedly, I pointed out why a middle-aged woman shouldn’t have to call home or leave an itinerary. And that I’ve rarely slept until noon. "Your mother worries about you," he sometimes said. I knew very well my mother was asleep, secure in the knowledge that if anything went wrong, my father or some other man would fix it for her. They always had.

After a night walk I felt serene and animated. Without my parents’ surveillance, I might live happily alone on the hilltop for the rest of my life. When warm winds and a full moon sent me out to skip through the grass at midnight, I imagined badgers holding a cotillion on the ridge above me. The old king badger might be sitting at the entrance to his burrow, nodding his grizzled head.

Once or twice I was startled by a shriek that cracked the darkness. Sounds common to daylight can be unsettling at night, but the din was neither coyotes or owls, nor was it the bobcat or mountain lion that travel the draw below my house. Maybe the big badger from the ridge was advertising his dominion. When the dog raced off into the darkness around the dam below the house, barking, I always hoped he wouldn’t meet anything he couldn’t outrun.

Often, just as I drifted off to sleep listening to the night sounds on the pond—to frogs warbling, a killdeer calling questions—a duck squawked. By the time I raised my head, ducks were flapping into the sky as something large splashed through the shallows. In the morning, I’d find Badger’s tracks amid broken turtle shells. Claw marks revealed where he snatched a frog. Tumbled rocks and driftwood showed where he scratched for mice and moles. Splintered eggs. A few feathers. Just patrolling his property, taking his compensation as the land’s lord.

I slid into sleep and at once the phone rang again. I lunged out of bed, stumbling through the dark house, to pick up the receiver, trembling.

"Just wanted to be sure you’re in," my father said. "Sleep well, child."

 

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