Rants from the Hill: The leprechaun trap


"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert.

Rants from the Hill is now a podcast too! Check out our first episode, an audio performance of this essay, here. Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or through Feedburner for use in another podcast reader.

It all started when I made a small mistake on Mother’s Day. It was an honest mistake—one anybody might have made. As a gift for my wife, Eryn, on her very first Mother’s Day, I bought a garden gnome, which I gave to her along with a very romantic expression of my love and appreciation. So complete was my naiveté at that time that I honestly believed I had done something wonderfully thoughtful.

First, the gnome was not plastic but rather cast iron, a 70-pounder the size of a small child that had to be moved with a wheelbarrow and had cost me good money. This wasn’t a gnome that said “Hey, enjoy this until it breaks or we divorce, whichever comes first,” but rather: “Honey, this gnome, like our love, is built to last.” Also important in my defense, the weighty gnome was not standing, in that awkward lawn jockey pose into which so many gnomes are unhappily forced, but instead was fully supine, cradling a cork-topped bottle of hooch in the crook of his arm. He was sprawled out with feet crossed, reclining coolly on one elbow, with his head cocked, and bearded face wearing a mischievous, come-hither grin. In short, the gnome was kind of sexy, which seemed perfect. Having now been married more than a decade, I see the error of my ways. However, I still maintain that the gnome, which to this day reclines, rusty and drunken, in the dappled shade of a bitterbrush bush, is a quality gnome.


For our young daughters, the year is a necklace strung with the sparkling beads of holidays—holidays that I find both annoyingly frequent and often unforgivably obscure. For example, I was ignorant of the (actually copyrighted) holiday Hoodie Hoo Day, which is celebrated each February 20 by people who go outside precisely at noon, wave their hands over their heads like fools, and shout “Hoodie-Hoo!” And how can I support Middle Name Pride Day on March 10? Can’t we just agree to be ashamed of our middle names, which should remain unspoken except when parents chastise children for their abominable behavior? I see now that holidays were invented primarily for kindergarten teachers, for whom the year would be tediously long without them. In retaliation, though, I’ve begun insisting that my daughters help me celebrate some obscure holidays that are more compatible with my own sensibility: Do a Grouch a Favor Day on February 16 (needless to say, I receive rather than give), Defy Superstition Day on September 13 (my answer to evangelicalism), and Hermit Day on October 29 (which I desperately need to celebrate after being subjected to so many other ludicrous holidays throughout the year).

Recently we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday that everybody in my family can get behind. While I’m not entirely comfortable commemorating a guy who killed snakes and talked pagans out of their perfectly serviceable native polytheism, I do recognize the solid common sense in appropriating this religious holiday for the noble purpose of drinking Irish whiskey. This year our five-year-old daughter, Caroline, having noticed the garden gnome, asked me if it was a Leprechaun. I explained that it was instead a quality gnome, adding that Leprechauns only sneak around on the night of March 17. “Do they come all the way from Ireland?” she asked. “They’re descended from Irish Leprechauns who came to Nevada during the 1840s looking for a pot of gold,” I replied. “They’re all over the Great Basin now, and pretty much westernized, too—roper boots, big belt buckles, Stetsons . . . green Stetsons.” “Does Old Man Coyote eat them?” asked Caroline, who has lately become obsessed with predation. “Nope. Leprechaun is a trickster, like coyote, so they just play tricks on each other.” She frowned. “But,” I continued, trying for a quick recovery, “mountain lions love to gobble up Leprechauns.” Now Caroline flashed a wide grin. “Cool! I bet they crunch ‘em right in their little necks and shake ‘em hard!” Eight-year-old Hannah, whose credulity is matched only by her nerdiness, chimed in enthusiastically, “So, Leprechauns are non-native invasive exotics!” “Exactly,” I said. “Just like your mother. Mommy came over the Sierra from California, trapped me, and then started having you mischievous little Nevada babies.”

Hannah, who has watched me live trap everything from packrats, to California ground squirrels, to cottontail rabbits, now asked if we could trap a Leprechaun. “No problem,” I replied, “but you girls will have to help me build the trap.” The next week was incredibly fun. Hannah first used graph paper to devise a floor plan for the Leprechaun trap, which we would construct from a cardboard vacuum cleaner box. She also insisted that we call it the Leprechaun “Lounge,” which, she astutely observed, sounded welcoming. I was impressed that Hannah included in her architectural design a porch, which seemed a generous addition to a trap. Caroline was also generous, suggesting that we add a potty. “You know . . . just in case.” Each evening the girls added something new to the trap: a pile of gold coins, which they made by wrapping quarters in aluminum foil and coloring them with a yellow highlighter; a little doll’s bed, in case the incarcerated sprite got drowsy; and, of course, green things, which aren’t easy to come by in the high desert. Ultimately the girls settled on a twig of juniper, a small plastic dinosaur they call Braucus, and a cup full of mini-marshmallows, which had been soaked overnight in green food coloring.

At some point in our discussions of Leprechaunalia, I mentioned that the wee fellows are awfully fond of Irish whiskey, which prompted the girls to beg that I raid my liquor cabinet on their behalf. I soon discovered, however, that I had no Jameson or Old Bushmills, but only fifteen-year-old Redbreast, which is a whiskey so fine and rare that I once refused to share it with my own mother, whom I love very much. Yet here were these kids demanding that I put my liquid gold in a cardboard box while we snoozed away the night of March 17. Because their track record with cups of other liquids suggested that my quality hooch would end up on the ground, I insisted upon being the one to place this delicious bait into the trap. Just before bedtime we set up the Lounge outside the slider door. Reluctantly, I poured a glass of the precious Redbreast, and carefully slid it into the Leprechaun trap while the girls looked on enthusiastically. We then nestled into our sleeping bags on the living room floor, where we began our stakeout of the trap. After twenty minutes of vigilance both girls fell soundly asleep, and of course I got to thinking. The girls were cute, the trap was cute, snuggling in the mummy bags was cute. Fine. But now the girls were asleep, and my quality liquor remained in serious danger. The wind ripping down off the Sierra might well upset the trap, and in any case it was a cinch that field mice and kangaroo rats would scurry in and stick their whiskered faces into that glass. Even evaporation seemed too cruel a fate for such quality booze.

At last I snuck out of my mummy bag, creeping on my hands and knees so as not to wake the girls. I eased the slider open and crawled over the sill and out into the dirt, pausing momentarily to wonder if it was warm enough yet for scorpions to be out. Holding the Lounge’s trap door open with one hand I reached in slowly with the other, groping for the precious glass. But just as I did this I suddenly heard little Caroline’s voice behind me, like Cindy Lou Who: “Daddy?” “I’m just checking the trap, honey,” I said, as I walked back inside to snuggle her into her bag. Caroline was soon fast asleep, and I snuck back outside and finally retrieved the tumbler from the Leprechaun Lounge. Carrying the liquid bait that so far had attracted only me, I shuffled over to the rusty gnome and proposed a toast to St. Patrick. The gnome reclined, smiling broadly, as the night breeze whispered through the juniper and bitterbrush, and a memorable conjunction of Venus and Jupiter faintly illuminated the glowing elixir in my raised glass. It was a quality moment and, frankly, kind of sexy.

In case you forgot, Rants from the Hill is now available as a podcast! Listen to the first episode here, and subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or another podcast reader.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.

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Image courtesy Flickr user Grant Williamson

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