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OPINION: Bill Walton, Ode to a Blackfly

Surviving Black Fly Season
20170610 bleedingh walton

Well, you have driven me indoors - you and your thousand bloodthirsty friends. 

How am I to care for my modest vegetable garden, if every morning at ten, just when old Sol’s rays begin to warm the moist earth, you crawl out from under a dew-covered leaf and attack me?  Don’t you know that I have to work extra hours tending to greenhouse plants, fertilizing, weeding, picking off bugs and watering every single day?  If I did not cherish the thoughts of fall harvest, I would not be out there behind the cottage every morning at this time.  

At least I know that you will not bite me, here inside the cottage.  You can explore among the hairs on my arm all you want before you try to escape through the windowpane.  I see a few of your buddies already searching for a way out, but I will not free them or you.  If you were a beautiful black and yellow swallowtail butterfly or even a buzzing, bumblebee, or night-time moth, I would carefully pick you from that invisible pane and gently take you to the door and freedom. There is no charity in my heart for blackflies.  You are the early summer scourge of this land I love.                   

Oh, you’ve been made infamous in song and poetry, no doubt of that.  “I’ll die with the Blackfly pickin’ my bones, in North Ontario” was one of the better tributes to your ancestors.  People from the south, that land where you find it too warm to inhabit, cannot understand how swarms of blackflies could almost stop the construction work in northern swamps.  All the deet in the world is not much help for workers whose sweat washes their skin clean, ready for your merciless attacks. No matter how well we tuck our pant legs into woollen socks or wear bandanas around our sweating necks, you will find your way under a fold or up a sleeve and there bite out a chunk of our skin to feed on our blood.  Or how men, lost in the woods, are driven crazy by your buzzing, biting and itchy sores, can run wildly through the forest until exhausted,  trying to escape from some little insignificant being, such as you who still explore along my bare arm.  There is a memorial, of sorts, to you in a cemetery just north of New Liskeard that reads “Tormented to Death by Blackflies”.  Perhaps we should be thinking of an epitaph for you.

Yet, I admit you do seem to have some civilized rules that allow us to coexist in the north.  Why do you never bite when you are indoors?  Unlike your cousin the mosquito who will bite anywhere, anytime, you seem to have some rules or regulations.  I know that you are slug-a-beds, allowing me several hours each morning for my chores, before the day warms enough for your pleasure.  How else could I take my morning walk up to the birch-covered hill just behind the cottage?  How could I sit there and absorb the stillness, peace and quiet to recharge my inner self enough to get through another day?  You do not know what reassuring pleasure it gives me to see the sun spring up over the horizon each morning.  Or do you clear one bleary eye and peer out from under your leaf to see what greetings the dawn brings?  Do not think that I don’t appreciate your consideration of allowing me those first early, misty morning hours.  Those are precious hours to me - a time and space when I can consider how fortunate I am to live here in the northland.  It is a place so far from the crowded, noisy cities with their pollutions and tensions.  No wonder you prefer to live only in the country and forests.  Perhaps you are more intelligent than I have given you credit for. And the children, whom you often send home with bloodied legs, arms and hairline, welcome the siesta you take whenever the sun gets too hot.  You may come out again in the late afternoon for your supper, but by then the children are safely indoors watching cartoons or reading their summer story books.  The fact that you retire early is a mark in your favour, for how would we struggle against both you and the mosquito during long summer evenings? A smoky campfire will keep the mosquitoes at bay, and I suppose the smudge pots that we burn during the day discourage you a little, but you are persistent.  Yes, I can picture the balladeer who penned the Blackfly Song and how he must have hated you.  You look so innocent walking, exploring along my arm.

I suppose you must be proud to have a folk song dedicated to you.  May I call you ‘Blackie’?  Blackie, did you know that, many years ago, there was a night club named in your honour?  Yes, in North Bay, on Main Street, upstairs.  Well, I guess it was more of a coffee house than a night club.  It was the favourite haunt of folk singers - young balladeers like the Gateway Trio, could be found there most every evening.  I do not know why they named the club after you, unless it was some black humour that seemed to be in vogue at the time. So you do have a measure of fame, my little deadly friend.

I must thank you, Blackie, for never coming out on the lake when I paddle my canoe.  It may be that you are afraid of being caught in the wind, for I know you are not a strong flier, or perhaps you just don’t like being out in the open where a warbler or fierce dragonfly could have you for lunch.  How could I enjoy those hours spent paddling along the lakeshore, looking for a smallmouth bass among the lily pads?  Or could I float along, accompanied only by a lonely loon, looking for that perfect photo opportunity?  The peaceful reflection of the white pine on the barren rocky point would not be nearly as beautiful if I had to pause to swat at you, or spray some smelly chemical on my body - an acrid stench that would hide from me the scent of forest and lake.  For it is these images and times that make northerners different.  And I suppose putting up with you helps shape our character a little.

I hope because you have stopped walking among those hairs that you are not thinking of breaking the rules and biting me, Blackie?  I was telling you how you may have helped shape our northern character.  Many would-be philosophers and critics have speculated that it is the cold isolation of long harsh winters that brings out that survivalists’ mentality that is oft written.  Yet what of the summer, our most important season? Did these chair-bound philosophers ever consider that surviving in the summer can be as trying as hibernating through the winter with only some raw booze to warm the soul?  Do they think that the mighty moose finds the summer easier than winter?  You little black devils can drive a 600 kilogram moose to distraction, forcing him out to the highways where a little breeze or the stink of diesel engines keeps you back in the swamp.  Do they believe that we writers can formulate our ideas of literary thought when you are distracting us, biting us, as we try to pen images that reveal our northern psyche?  The real survival test is in blackfly season, not winter.  Oh, I love this land in the winter - it has its own spectacular moments - fresh snowfall, animal tracks that inscribe stories to be seen only before the next snowfall, the northern lights, the silence. The imagined drama of the snowshoe hare whose tracks end just where the wings of a Great Grey Owl have slashed the snow.  The eerie moonlight shadows that flit across the ski trail in front of me as a lone wolf howls beyond the sleeping swamp. You miss all of that.   Perhaps that is why you are so mean in May.

And, Blackie, you have no idea, I’m certain, of the effects you have on young wooing couples!  Later, in the fall, young people can slip away into the woods for secret trysts without the bother of biting flies.  But it is in spring and summer when the passionate blood flows and young lovers seek out quiet forest bowers.  Nothing cools the passion as much as sharing a blanket or fern bed as biting buzzing blackflies or whining hungry mosquitoes.  I know it would be difficult to pass on the temptation of all that bare, exposed tender flesh, but could you not wait a few moments for your meal while lovers tend to their passionate needs?  What chance of summer love does the young tourist camp worker have with the beautiful young ladies from the south when you are around?  They may have the most beautiful setting, songbirds singing lullabies for them, gentle breezes lapping the water against the shore, and parents gone fishing, but with you acting as chaperone, they have no hope.  Oh, they could escape you by taking a romantic paddle in a canoe, but even you know that some things cannot be done properly in a canoe, (Pierre Berton’s opinion to the contrary) even by desperate tourist camp workers and willing young ladies.

Maybe I owe you an apology, for when I ponder what makes this place so special, it is the lack of people.  People who cannot stand snow or blackflies will never invade our land.  They think it not worth the struggle.  Young lovers from the south will never mate successfully with you nearby. Hordes of golfers will not overrun our courses when you guard each green.  The brook trout is safe from fly fishermen who have to wear mesh nets over their heads and cannot possibly see where to carefully cast their lines.  Rich young demigods from Bay Street will not expose their luxury cars to swarms of little ones who voluntarily smear their bodies across the grill and fine paint works. So for all this peace and quiet, I thank you, Blackie.

Hey!  You bit me!

Damned gnat.


You’re not.