The Poetry of Wood Ticks

The Poetry of Wood Ticks

AS I GRAB its fat little body with my designated wildlife-removal tweezers, as I pull slowly and evenly on its thorax so that its mouthparts disengage smoothly, as I hold my son down in the chair with one hand and say, “Sit still, this will be over in a minute,” I am struck, once again, by the magnificently sensible design of wood ticks.

Little mouth, big stomach, and no pride whatsoever. It’s a combination that makes survival easy, if somewhat unattractive. Once you’re willing to be hated and don’t care who you offend (much less who you eat), life simplifies itself pretty quickly. No menu, fashion, or etiquette concerns—just pleasing yourself, to the point of parasitic selfishness. How much more could we all get done in a day if we were willing to look disgusting, be oblivious to the disdain of others, and display the worst table manners possible—eating right out of your host’s bloodstream?

Chow down, bloat up, procreate, and die—ah, that’s the life. The lowly wood tick has a thing or two to teach us.

Okay, the thought of consuming blood for lunch is initially disturbing. But vampires do the same thing in films and are thought of as romantic, tragic figures. It’s all in how you look at it.

And here’s a plus: at the onset of summer, every other type of female on the planet is trying to look thinner, but not the lady tic. Oblivious to beachfront fashion pressures, she’s content to latch on to anything furry, even an eight-year-old’s right ear, and hang there until she puffs up like a grape. She possesses a sense of style admirably too self-assured to ever be troubled by anorexia.

Wood tick procreation, however, is no elegant thing. The male is more to blame for this than the female, which is not a newsflash in any species. Never a discriminating fellow anyway, when it comes to making even more little bloodsucking mites, he simply…er…um…pierces whatever part of her anatomy happens to be nearby—stomach, back, what have you. The female has no particular body part assigned to reproduction: The male just (literally) picks a spot. I discovered this fact years ago while reading a deservedly obscure little tome on insect anatomy. It made me too queasy to continue reading, so, sadly, I cannot tell you how the little buggers actually find their way out into the real world. But they do, and off they go, in search of the soft, fuzzy earlobes of Little League baseball players, just as did Mom and Dad.

Life may not be complicated for a wood tick, but its death is a hotly debated affair. Should it be crushed with a teaspoon on the kitchen counter and then buried in the garbage, wrapped in crumpled Kleenex? Must it be burned with a match until the exoskeleton blackens and the swollen belly pops like a kernel of overheated corn? Ought it be suffocated with petroleum jelly and squished between a fingernail file and a narrow-ruled notebook during math class? The flush-it-away disposal approach quiets the worry of sudden resurrection in the wastebasket, but spawns legends of the antennae of giant ticks wiggling up out of storm sewers. Wood tick demise rouses complicated feelings in the most serene of humans.

It’s just a bug, you say? I disagree. In every creature exists a microcosm of the universe, a miniature depiction of the Truths of Life. Does the wood tick toil? It does not, and yet it thrives. It seeks not therapy, nor the approval of others. It exists, stubbornly, resolutely, against the wishes of most creatures on the planet and despite its own bizarre mating process. It is a study in perseverance and self-actualization. The lessons it teaches are simple and true. Walk through enough tall grass, and an irritation or two will find you. When something creepy is stuck right onto you, all the screaming in the world won’t make it fall off. And everyone needs someone who loves them enough to check between their toes and through their hair follicles at night, searching for brand-new freckles, with legs.

I have it now, in the stainless-steel, slant-edged grasp of my tweezers. I fix it to a bit of masking tape, immobilizing it so it will not jump ship to the dog, the cat, or my sheepskin-lined corduroy jacket. In a moment, I will drop a size thirteen Air Jordan gym shoe on it in a swift, humane, and respectful gesture.

But first, I will pause to consider this first wood tick of summer. There will be more, if we have fun, play hard, spend time together, and go barefoot often. They will become the stuff of family myth, the never-forgotten memories of cabin vacations and lakeshore picnics. They bind us together, in tales of mutual horror. They make us feel superior to folks who deal only with cockroaches or scorpions. And they remind me, holding a bottle of rubbing alcohol and standing here in the fluorescent light over the kitchen sink, that the nature of life is multifarious indeed. I owe the lowly wood tick a solemn debt of gratitude.

Now, where’s that shoe?

This appeared in Mpls/St. Paul magazine in July, 1996. The earlobe belonged to Ian Anderson, who is now considerably hairier.

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