A Self-Reliant Man

By Hans Tammemagi


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A large maple — we call him the Captain — commands the backyard and provides welcoming shade for our deck. His leafy limbs rise high above our two-storey house and his girth and rugged character suggest solidity and permanence.

Late one afternoon, while enjoying our daily sundowners on the deck, my wife announced, “Honey, the Captain looks sick.”

“Don’t be silly, dear. Look at that fine foliage, he will outlast us by a century.”

“This side is okay,” she answered, “but the branches on the other side are dying. If you would do some yard work once in a while, you would know.”

Later, when I snuck out to inspect, I discovered a gaping wound pockmarked with holes that had been pecked and drilled by tiny creatures who had decided the Captain would make a comfortable place to hang up a shingle. I could imagine an insect coming home to his family. “Martha, quick, pack up the kids and belongings. I’ve just found a great place. We can move in right away, and get this, we can eat the walls and floors.” Based on the pile of sawdust on the ground, there was no shortage of tenants.

After that, my attention was riveted on the Captain. I watched with a heavy heart as a constant flutter of woodpeckers and other birds with enormous beaks attacked that poor defenseless tree. My ears reverberated with the constant tap, tapping. And the insects! It was like the invasion of Normandy, the Great Exodus and Macy’s Christmas Parade all rolled into one as swarms of bugs, many of them with suitcases and a line of kids in tow, scrambled to stake a claim in this hot new property.

“What are you going to do?” asked my wife.

“I’ve been thinking,” I responded, picturing myself as a knight setting off on a crusade.

Next day, I invested in a large can of insecticide, which the sales clerk assured me had a pedigree going back to war-time nerve-gas laboratories. Quietly giving thanks for being a human with our coteries of brilliant chemical scientists, instead of a brainless insect, I rushed home.

I aimed the spray can — about the size used to paint aircraft carriers — at the open wound. A cloud of insecticide emerged that was so large it showed up on weather radar. After my paroxysm of coughing subsided, I happily noticed the constant motion of bugs had indeed slowed.

“You must be very proud of me,” I said to my wife while downing a celebratory sundowner that evening.

“You shouldn’t drink so much, dear. Besides, are those pustules breaking out on your arms and neck? And your hair loss has accelerated. You should see the shower drain.”

A week later, the insect situation was even worse, with millions of bugs carrying on as though it was a giant opening sale. I’ve read that insects have developed immunity to most pesticides. Scratching at my pustules, I wondered why humans haven’t the same ability.

For the next week, I spent hours on the internet, and phoned every tree doctor within 50 miles. Finally, the secret was revealed: a special compound that looked like tar and whose cost was so high it must have been developed by NASA. I gritted my teeth, opened my wallet and procured the special tree preservative.

Next evening, I sipped my sundowner with special contentment. It is satisfying to know you have tackled nature in its rawest and emerged the winner.

“Don’t ever track tar onto the deck again, and why did you wear your good clothes? And do you ever stink!” My wife’s words interrupted my reverie. “And you’re lucky the insurance is covering the flood damage from the plugged drain,” she added.

I was heartbroken to learn the special compound had been developed for southern trees. When I called the company I heard a muffled voice at the other end. “Hey, Harry, turn on the speaker phone. This stupid Canadian used the compound on a maple.”

Determined, I next tried cement, but if you’ve ever tried to place wet cement into a vertical spot you will understand this is a delicate operation. Several times, the cement ran down the trunk and into my shoes. Why I hadn’t had the sense to wear old ones, I don’t know. But, eventually, I managed to cement up the hole.

A few days later, my euphoria was dashed. Nursing a sundowner, I tried to explain that with so many gnawing, chewing bugs, it was just a matter of time before they tunneled through to the deck side. “Yes, I noticed leaves are dropping from the Captain almost as fast as hair from your head,” my wife responded.

A month passed and fall was in the air. As we sat with our sundowners, squinting into the sun, I said, “You know, it’s not really so bad without the Captain. We may have to wear visors though.”

“Yes,” responded my wife with a sigh, “I suppose we’ll get used to life without the Captain. But you better wear a cap to hide your bald head. And I don’t know what we’ll do with those pustules.”

I looked at the great corpse of a tree lying on the lawn, and thought it’s not whether you win or lose but how you fight the battle. I turned to my wife and said, “You know, instead of hiring someone, I’m going to buy a chainsaw and cut up the Captain myself. I enjoy being a self-reliant man.”

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