At this time, with two wars raging in the Middle East, a crippling recession that shows no sign of abating and global warming threatening all life on the planet, it would seem insensitive and self-indulgent to dedicate this week's column to a subject as mundane as my backyard, but here goes anyway.
You see, unlike the duration of the recession, which I can't pretend to have any influence over, the goings-on in my backyard I absolutely can delude myself into believing I control. That's because, as a modern day suburban American male, I look upon my yard as my exclusive domain, much in the same way feudal European lords viewed their fiefdoms, albeit with somewhat less concern about, say, marauding Visigoths.
In fact, today's suburban homeowner is more likely to confront an even more imposing scourge than roving barbarians - a diabolical, insatiable and remorseless foe that can't be reasoned with as it seizes control of any patch of land it can get its dirty paws on. Of course I'm talking about squirrels.
Mind you, I didn't always view squirrels as the enemy. Before becoming a homeowner I actually enjoyed watching the furry critters frolic in the trees. Sometimes I even joined them in that squirrel dance where you chase them around the tree while they try to stay on the opposite side of the trunk, until they eventually get irritated and climb up onto a branch to chitter little squirrel obscenities down at you.
Frankly, I always thought squirrels got a bad rap from homeowners who, after blowing hundreds of dollars on elaborate squirrel-proof bird feeders, discover that "squirrel proof" actually means "proof that squirrels are smarter than the people who make these bird feeders." For some reason, we decided that only the stupider members of the animal kingdom deserve handouts, and if that meant squirrels got a raw deal, well, they should have hired a better publicist.
My sympathies toward squirrels ended, however, when my wife and I moved into a house with fruit trees in the backyard. Here in California it's commonplace to have fruit trees, which not only spruce up the yard, but are also ideal for anyone who appreciates the ability, at any time of day, to walk out the door and, within just a few steps, enjoy the indescribable sensation of stepping on a rotten piece of fruit.
Of course, readily available fresh fruit offers other benefits as well. My wife and I have agreed, for different but equally compelling reasons, to plant even more fruit trees in the yard - she out of concern about getting basic sustenance in case of a financial collapse or environmental catastrophe that brings the basic functions of society to a halt, and me because I'm too lazy to go to the store every time I want a slice of fresh lime for my margaritas.
The main obstacle to our enjoyment of all this fresh fruit, however, is my old dance partner, the gray squirrel.
Take, for example, our apricot tree. Last spring I watched closely as the little green fruits sprouted up all over the tree's branches, and eagerly awaited the day we would have hundreds of apricots to, um - wait, what do you do with apricots? Can them? But then, on the day my wife and I had agreed to do the picking, I grabbed a basket and went outside only to find that, in the span of 24 hours, the tree had been stripped bare of any fruit.
"Give me back my apricots, you vermin!" I angrily shouted up into the trees, but the squirrels didn't respond, with the possible exception of the one who started urinating.
Well, this year I've taken aggressive action. I painstakingly wrapped almost the entire tree with a protective nylon mesh netting. By doing so I have guaranteed that the squirrels will not eat most of the apricots, albeit only because in my bumbling, ham-fisted efforts to wrap the branches, I probably knocked more than half of the unripe apricots to the ground.
What's really sad is that I'm not sure the netting will even work. Occasionally, in between cursing and attempting to extricate an arm or leg I'd somehow lashed to the tree, I'd see one of the squirrels watching me, perhaps wondering what led me to believe that thin nylon strands would pose any trouble to animals with teeth strong enough to pop open acorns. I could almost see them thinking, "He does know that netting is made by the same company that manufactures all those 'squirrel-proof' bird feeders, right?."
Nevertheless, I remain optimistic that my labors will prove worthwhile when the 75 or so man-hours I've put into this project result in a harvest of about $4.50 worth of apricots.
That ought to show those squirrels who's boss.