C.W. Gusewelle is away this week. His regular column will return. In the meantime, here is one of his favorites.
The common wood tick (also called the hard tick, the dog tick and, less often, Dermacentor variabilis) is not an elegant creature.
But he is durable. You will have to give him that.
Each spring for well over a century, the settlers of our southern forest have been setting the woodlands afire in persistent faith that it will kill the ticks.
The wildfires rage. Houses burn. Horses go mad. Valuable timber stands are scarred and destroyed. Wildlife is driven out. But spend several hours marching on foot across the smoking wasteland of gray ash and you will come back clung over by ticks.
In the stretch of hills I know best, the stream courses and early wagon roads are dotted with the stone footings of vanished dwellings. Some of these homesteads, it may safely be supposed, were consumed by fires set to kill the ticks. Habitation has thinned. And still there are ticks — in multiples of multiples of human numbers.
I have read that the tick has been known to live three years without food or drink. I take my hat off not only to the tick but to whichever scientist it was whose patience and constant observation we have to thank for that astounding piece of information.
Can you imagine the resourcefulness, the sheer chutzpah it would take to secure a federal grant to spend three years watching a tick do nothing?
Perhaps more amazing even than the tick’s ability to withstand hunger and thirst is the reaction this insignificant creature is able to arouse in soft-skinned city people meeting it for the first time.
Upon discovering that the thing is on them and, worse, that it is attached to them, the fact is made known in whispers. The afflicted count it no consolation that this tick — their tick — may have waited three years for a drink.
A transport of shame and revulsion overcomes them. They speak of their condition as one might discuss a social disease.
Closely related persons of the same gender withdraw into the next room and lock the door. There is a long, speculative silence. Presently the door is unlocked and an emissary is dispatched.
Angel Pie has a tick.
This vouchsafed in a low voice, eyes averted, the face of the bearer of the news flushed with humiliation.
“Has she? Well, that’s good. Ticks only go for warm-blooded animals, so it must mean that Angel Pie is hot-blooded.”
I’m serious. She has a tick. It’s a small one.
“Yes. They all start small.”
What should I do? She’s in a state.
“Pull it off.”
The emissary is recalled for consultation. Then emerges again.
She says she can’t pull it off.
“All right.” Taking a step toward the closed door. “I’ll do it for her.”
No! Wait a minute!
Invariably, then, the tick is gotten off unaided.
Covering a tick with petroleum jelly is rumored to cause it to release its grip. A daub of nail polish is said also to be effective — the more expensive polishes, naturally, producing a superior result. Some advise holding a lighted match near the parasite, although, depending on location, the consequence of that can be tragic.
Country people, after a century of failed burning, have no faith in these measures. And I have spent enough time among them to adopt their casual attitude, which is that ticks, like morel mushrooms and wildflowers in bloom, are simply part of the natural order of the season.
Some come off in the bath. Some you have to pull off. Most of the others, after enough time has passed and they have achieved sufficient size, sooner or later come out in the comb.
You would be surprised how the explanation of this reduces the congestion of weekend visitors at our cabin at the edge of the woods.