At some point in the last 20 years, ticks have moved up on the Most Feared Insect ladder, thanks to the spread, and the greater understanding, of lyme disease. Early on, lyme’s vagaries and a lack of medical advancement made for a tricky diagnosis; after standard blood work came up blank, doctors would tell men to suck it up, and women that they were hormonal.
Thankfully, we have a better handle on it today, and while the disease is still terribly problematic, we at least know what we’re up against, and someone who contracts it has a far better chance of being properly diagnosed and treated.
But even though, rationally, I know this knowledge is all for the good, my emotional side pines for blissful ignorance, when ticks were of no more concern than congressional oversight committees. It’s kind of a Wile E. Coyote situation, in which he walks off a cliff, and as long as he doesn’t know he’s walked off a cliff he’s fine — he keeps walking on air, until he looks down and sees where he is, and which point he plummets to the bottom of the canyon.
I’d always viewed ticks as benign, but now I have to put them into that “one more thing to worry about” category, which is already quite an overcrowded field. After a recent hike in Essex County I picked two of the bastards off of me, and of course it happened in the middle of the night when everything seems more dramatic than it is. So where previously, I would never have given it a second thought, I instead lied awake for an hour wondering, “Am I doomed?”
Although I have to admit, I was still somewhat mystified by all the tick-defense mechanisms I was seeing hikers employ in the field. I’m not always up on the latest fashion trends, so when I saw everyone tucking their pants into their socks, I figured it was either a Rastafarian statement, or the adult equivalent of teenage boys who wear their pants at half-mast.
I also didn’t get the white clothing, which I was told was an anti-tick measure. At first I assumed that maybe ticks were really fashion conscious and they wouldn’t be caught dead in white until after Memorial Day, but then someone explained that it was just so you could see them better after they make the leap from the tall grass to you.
And I know it sounds gruesome and terribly out of touch in today’s America, but as little boys growing up in the woods 40 years ago, ticks were not only viewed as harmless, they were also kind of cool in the way they would latch onto you. They had something else in their toolbox besides the common bee sting or bug bite. We admired that.
Ticks were almost fun. To a little boy, ticks were scabs without the mess. You could enjoy picking at them, and when they came off they were all kind of self-contained, with no blot of infectious ooze that would send your mother running for the mercurochrome. [Millennial explanatory note: Mercurochrome in the ’60s and ’70s was the SOP treatment for any flesh wound, the exterior equivalent of Robitussin. It came in fluid form, and its defining characteristic was its searing, neon orange coloration that wouldn’t wash off for weeks and could not be looked at directly without snow goggles. In fact, the reason we kids didn’t take more injury-producing chances, is that we didn’t want to show up for school looking as if we’d just walked through a failing nuclear power plant. Today, mercurochrome is considered to be one step away from Civil War medicine, in which venereal diseases were treated with raw arsenic. It is no longer legal in America, although I think you can still buy it in some Third World nations.]
Our parents did warn us about ticks, in the half-hearted way that modern parents warn their kids about weed. And there was a whole battery of occult steps you were supposed to take if one grabbed ahold of you, including painting it with clear nail polish and removing it with tweezers. Some Gordon Liddy types, ex-military as a rule, like to burn them off. They took pride in the art of positioning the flame so that it would fry the tick, but could still be withdrawn just before their skin began to bubble.
In this sense, ticks might have provided the only form of parasite eradication that bordered on sport. But we can no longer think of them in this way, which is kind of a shame. Having just finished Lost City of the Monkey God and seen how, spoiler alert, microscopic parasites can bring down great civilizations, I now understand that not all organisms capable of bringing down our society are holding elected office.
Photo: Adult Female Deer Tick, courtesy Agricultural Research Service.