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Summer of the Bagworm

My Dad's war to save a few trees

by Justin Robertson

Published in the July/August 2008 issue of Orion magazine




THREE SPRUCE TREES FORM A TRIANGLE just off the driveway. They aren’t planted quite far enough from one another, so their branches mingle, creating a broad canopy of shade for Big Cat and Raven to rest under when the heat index reaches 108. The trees are not beautiful. Perhaps because of their girth, their intrusions on one another. Their dull gray-green needles. Their unnatural setting, next to a garage, a driveway, a Toyota Camry, a house. But there they are, pushing up and out, each one competing to be the biggest, the fattest.

Before them is the driveway basketball hoop, standing maybe a foot taller. Beyond the spruce: a long, steep hill sloping away from the driveway. My childhood was shared with the trees. Before they reached their current height and width, and before I gave up on the dream of playing basketball, my awkwardly thrust air balls would sail over the backboard, over the small trees, and down the hill. And I would go tumbling after. As I grew, so did the spruce. Their growth spurts were awkward, typical of a western evergreen planted in Missouri clay. But they bested mine, and in time they made shooting hoops fun again, catching in their arms wayward basketballs and holding them up in the air, saving me from yet another turbulent trip down the hill and an arduous climb back up. Instead, a prickly jump into the stiff needles to retrieve the brick. One problem traded for another, less exhausting one.

COME SPRING, EVERY YEAR, the spruce trees become the focal point of dinner table discussions. It’s almost time to spray, Dad says through a mouthful of instant potatoes. Washing them down with a gulp of High Life, he swallows and then pushes out an audible breath of satisfaction, of a hunger met, of a battle ready to be waged. Then he nods and says, I saw a couple hangers already. Gotta get my ass in gear.

The first Saturday in April, after a week or two of talking about it, he wakes up early, barely sleeping the night before, thinking too much about the day ahead. When he does sleep, he surely dreams about it. He gets out of bed, puts on his “work clothes,” and drinks an oversized travel mug of coffee. During the week, his work clothes are a suit and tie and the work is driving all over Missouri, Arkansas, and Kansas, visiting his customers, making small talk, making sales. With a forestry degree in hand, his dream was to work in the Park Service. To promote conservation. Instead, he makes his living selling lumber. His mortgage depends on it. His family depends on it. He has been one of the top salesmen in the industry for over twenty-five years.

But this Saturday, his work clothes are filthy jeans, a well-worn pair of Pumas, a handkerchief, and a holey t-shirt. He heads out to the garage and gathers a green garden hose, an eight-foot ladder, a two-gallon jug of pesticide, a spray bottle with a hose attachment, a funnel.

During an episode of Batman, right before the final fight scene when he’s about to capture Two-Face, my mom asks me to get my father. It’s time for bacon and eggs. I stomp through the front hall and slam the screen door behind me. He stands at the top of the ladder, over the spruce trees, the garden hose spiraling up behind him. The handkerchief is over his nose and mouth, train robber style. He holds the bottle on the end of the hose like a gun, two fingers on the trigger, and a thick mist floats over the trees. I hold my nose and shout, Dad! And then, breakfast! He lets go of the trigger and the haze around him thins. His glasses are fogged over, his thin hair wild and sweaty.

The spray is supposed to kill bagworms. This is a new one. Malathion. He has previously tried the following: pyrethrum, bifenthrin, rotenone, acephate, bendiocarb, nicotine sulfate, diazinon. None has worked very well. Climbing down, he says, I think this one should do the trick. He says, I think I beat the worms this year. He says, what’s for breakfast?

The bagworms come every year in April. What appear to be dead, dried out husks hanging limply all winter actually contain eggs. When they are ready to hatch, the larvae crawl out the bottom of the bag and rappel on lines of silk to a lower branch. Then, they look for a nice spot to make a home of their own. Because the three spruce trees are so close to one another, the worms move freely among them until they locate the real estate they want. They spin their bags of silk and excreted spruce needles, effectively camouflaging them within the branches. The bags are an inch or two long and bulge in the middle and hang from the trees like Christmas ornaments. The worm stays inside, sticking its head out occasionally to eat more needles, making the bag wriggle about. The branch the bag hangs from is slowly ravaged by the worm. The needles that aren’t eaten die from stress, turning orange, then brown, then falling to the ground. Just one or two bagworms can destroy a whole branch, but the infestation is rarely so limited. The three spruce, every summer, become home to hundreds of bagworms. If not treated, the trees would be on the verge of death by fall.

The spraying occurs every couple of weeks, and then every week, joining his routine of lawn mowing, oil changes, weed whacking, deck staining, air conditioner repairs, and substantial amounts of beer consumption. I got shit to do, he says. Never enough time, he says. I wish I could fart around all day, he says. I wish I could. He sprays the trees from top to bottom. For hours in the fog. The pesticide soaks the spruce, dribbling in tiny rivulets to the ground. Some days Raven or Big Cat comes running out from under the trees, sneezing and shaking.

HE TAKES A LONG MOTORCYCLE TRIP, the thing that makes him happiest. When he comes home, the number of bagworms has quadrupled. Brown sacks, maybe three or four, hanging on nearly every branch. And he can’t sleep. Can’t stop talking about it. He shakes his head. Drinks a High Life. Malathion joins the list of chemicals that have failed. And he has failed. By taking a weekend off, he says, I killed those trees.

The needles are burnt looking. They lie on the ground, brown on one end, orange on the other. They pile up on the grass, suffocating the green blades. What the hell, he says. Now they are killing my fescue. Only one thing to do, he says. Make sure to get up early on Saturday. You’re helping me, he says.

I get up at six, knowing he has already been up for two or three hours. I come downstairs to find him in his white cotton underwear in the living room. Sitting in the La-Z-Boy, watching scratchy black and white public domain cartoons from the 1930s that flicker on the screen, illuminating and then blacking out the room from one image to the next. You missed a Popeye, he says, colorized and everything. We can get on the bagworms right now if you want. Then he nods at the TV and says, this is just a damn Betty Boop.

The light is just now coming up outside. It is cool and dewy and Bocephus our hound dog is running in big, looping circles, faster and faster. My father is dressed now, his dirty jeans covering his white Hanes, an old v-neck t-shirt exposing the top of a hairy chest. He grabs a bag from one of the trees, his thumb and forefinger squeezing, twisting, and pulling down from the thread that attaches it to the spruce branch. He drops the bag onto the driveway and crushes it with a worn Puma. He makes sure the bottom of the bag is sticking out from the side of his shoe so he can see the green goo spray across the pavement. So he can stain the driveway with bagworm splatters. So he can laugh when he gets a particularly juicy one. I do the same. Over and over. We do this for hours, breaking for lunch and bathroom visits, until the sun and the humidity get to us and we have to quit. I cannot count the number of bags still hanging on the tree. There are still too many. My dad tells me to get him a beer.

We do this several more times during the summer. Picking bags. Exploding them. And he keeps spraying. Spraying so much that Raven and Big Cat get sick for a while. Even Bocephus seems more hyper than usual, jumping and rolling and stumbling around until he vomits, then sleeping the rest of the day in the shade. When the malathion runs out or gets too expensive or when he just gets tired of doing it, we pick bagworms. Like others pick grapes or apples or blueberries, we pick bagworms. And then we squash them.

Most of the worms we kill are probably female. The female bagworm never leaves her cocoon. She stays a caterpillar her entire life, ugly and yellow and holed up. The male bagworm leaves his home, a furry moth body with see-through wings. He wanders around the spruce, stopping and impregnating the female bagworms through their cocoons, never seeing his mates. She lays the eggs and then dies. Her offspring rest dormant through the cold months in the bag, emerging the next spring ready to start the process again. By killing mothers and children, we are reducing the amount we will have to kill next year. Maybe, we think, next year won’t be such a chore. Maybe next year they won’t be a problem at all. But we know better. It is always the same.

And I often wonder, what’s the point of them? To kill our spruce? That would be an odd purpose. And then I think of other pests that hurt or kill their hosts. Of deer ticks and hookworms and lice and the flesh-eating virus and I think, what for? How can I understand something that thrives off the destruction of another living thing? But then I think, maybe the bagworms are not trying to kill the spruce. Not on purpose, anyway. One bagworm alone cannot kill a tree. But as a group, as a neighborhood, as a town, as a metropolis of bagworms, they will kill. And then I see my dad and me stepping on bagworms, my dad selling lumber, and I realize that to live is to kill.

The bagworms are resilient, though. Killing a couple hundred or so here and there does little to stop them. The scientific name of their family, Psychidae, is appropriate. The prefix psych- means of the mind, or mental. That is how they beat my dad every year. They are lodged in his brain. They outwit him before he has even begun the fight. Because he will always miss some. It is inevitable. Some hiding close to the trunk, deep within the branches. Others right at the end of a branch, in plain sight. Once one bagworm is spotted where none had been before, the eye will suddenly discover dozens. And one bag can have hundreds, thousands of eggs. So damn many of them, he says at dinner one night, a chicken leg in his hand. He tears a hunk off the drumstick with his teeth and then, with his fingers in his mouth grabbing at a piece of gristle, he says, they must fuck like jackrabbits. Mom says, let’s talk about something other than the bagworms tonight.

I COME OUTSIDE ON A MUGGY JUNE NIGHT and find my dad in a lawn chair on the driveway, backlit by the bare bulb in the open garage, facing the three spruce. He has been drinking, several beer cans crushed flat into the pavement around him. He holds a pellet gun up, aims it toward the trees. He pulls the trigger and then laughs and says, got me another bastard. My shadow falls on him and he looks at me with drunken eyes and says, that was number thirty-four. He hands me the air rifle. Don’t pump it up too much, he says. They pop pretty good with just a couple pumps. He cracks open another High Life and watches me shoot a bag off the tree. He looks proud and shouts, thirty-five!

Come Fourth of July, I half expect some sort of firecracker assault on the bagworms, but he has returned to the tried and true method of death by sneaker. In August he starts spraying again. Once or twice a week. Big Cat and Raven have learned to avoid the trees when the ladder and garden hose come out. By September he feels like quitting. Six months of fighting. Six months of losing. One tree has lots of problems, six or seven branches either dead or dying. Mom asks Dad whether it is the bagworms that did it or all his chemicals. And he looks at her and it is obvious that thought has never come to him. But he shakes his head and says, no, I know how to follow the instructions on a damn bottle. He says, I know about trees.

Close to October, when the leaves are beginning to change and the air gets crisp, the fight is nearly over for the year. We spend an entire weekend picking bagworms. Instead of squashing them, though, we collect them in buckets. He says, we have to get them all this year. He says, just one of these bags could have a thousand eggs in it. He says, been a hell of a summer, hasn’t it? When we think we have them all, we take the buckets over to the brush pile. He pulls a fire starter out of his pocket, lights it with a kitchen match and shoves it into a cranny in the pile of dried out limbs. Soon the flames spread and grow and dance above our heads. The heat is intense, burning our faces and arms. We grab the buckets and toss the bagworms onto the fire. They crackle and hiss and shrivel and melt. He stands there, his arms crossed over his chest, smiling.

A few weeks later, he learns something new about bagworms. He reads that there is a wasp that lays her eggs in the bags. When the wasp eggs hatch, the larvae devour the worms, stopping the cycle better than any pesticide or pellet gun or pair of Pumas ever could. Mom is concerned about this new plan. She says, so we’ll have wasps everywhere next summer? He says, anything is better than the bagworms. Once I get rid of them, he says, then I’ll worry about the wasps. And then whatever gets rid of the wasps, he says, I’ll worry about that.

To get this wasp, he learns, he just needs to plant some daisies near the spruce. It is too late this year, but he has a good feeling about this. Next year, he says, I’m gonna win.

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Justin Robertson teaches English at Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Wyoming.

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