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Faith in Vermont: Of Ticks and Fear

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Posted on August 23, 2016 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



“Mommy, is that a tick?” my seven-year-old daughter asks.  She’s looking in the bathroom mirror, pointing to a small black speck under her chin.

Our family’s move earlier this month from the woods to the fields has not only entailed a change in scenery, but also a change in the pests that plague us: We’ve moved from Mosquitoland to Tickville.

I hate ticks. I am referring specifically to deer ticks, Ixodes scapularis, which lodge themselves in human flesh and are vectors of a variety of diseases, most notoriously Lyme disease.

We saw few ticks when we lived in the woods (although mosquitoes, which loved the moist shade of our trees, were plentiful.) Deer ticks, as their name suggests, enjoy snacking on white-tailed deer. Perhaps because they had a larger wooded habitat in which to range, deer rarely approached our house in the woods; during the five years that we lived there, we spotted a total of two deer in our backyard.

By contrast, during one month in our new house, we have already seen eight deer in our field.

I have written before about my dislike of mosquitoes, which arguably cause more initial discomfort than deer ticks. But my hatred of ticks contains a particular grain of fear: one single tick, nearly impossible to find (especially in the four little heads of dark hair in our house) can transmit a disease that, if not treated quickly, might cause a lifetime of suffering. While I realize that mosquitoes can also carry a variety of diseases, it happens that nobody I know locally has been stricken by a mosquito-borne illness, whereas a number of our friends and their children have battled bouts of Lyme disease.

My tick animosity is also mixed with wistfulness. I’ve heard from many long-term Vermonters that the deer tick was all but unknown around these parts until the past decade. So there was once a better time, a more innocent existence when it was possible to go outside without slathering on tick repellant and immediately checking for ticks upon return.

Like mosquitoes, ticks do serve a purpose in nature’s big picture: they provide food for a variety of animals, they host microorganisms (a problem for us, but not for the virus or bacteria), and they help control the populations of their host animals.

That’s not enough for me. Ticks cause me to question the goodness of the Creator in whom I otherwise put my faith. They cause me to look at the beauty of nature, at deer, at my dog -- even at my children -- with suspicious scrutiny. Ticks ruin everything.

When my daughter calls me over to screen a potential tick, I assume she’s being paranoid: I’ve just completed a post-bath tick check on her, and although she’d spent hours of the day outside, she’d kept to the mowed areas surrounding our house.

It is a tick.

As calmly as possible, I reach for the tick spoon that we keep in the medicine cabinet. A tick spoon is a small, rounded plastic spoon with a small wedge cut out of the bowl, which slides under the tick in order to detach it, whole and alive, from the skin into which its head is buried.

After I’ve detached my daughter’s tick and crushed in with my thumbnail, I study it. It is so, so small. Conventional wisdom holds that ticks are about the size of a sesame seed. I have seen sesame seeds larger than this tick. While I’m reasonably sure that we’ve caught this particular tick within the 24-hour window that’s considered “safe” for the transmission of Lyme disease, I feel defeated nonetheless. I nearly missed this tick, and it was hanging in a fairly open and obvious place; had it been elsewhere – under my daughter’s hair, for instance – it surely would’ve gone undetected.

All the same, I do my best to remain businesslike for my daughter’s sake, and send her off to bed with congratulations for spotting her tick so quickly.

Despite my attempts at calm reassurance, by the next morning fear has found my daughter. This normally nature-loving and confident girl, who typically runs out the door with the dog each morning, is afraid to go outside. She tells everyone we meet about her tick. She talks about amassing an army of chickens to follow her everywhere and eat the ticks (not a bad idea.)

As I’m helping my daughter process her fear, as I’m exhorting her (and, by extension, myself) not to let one tick spoil her enjoyment of the outdoors, I realize that this entire scenario mirrors what’s happening on the bigger stage of the United States.

It’s not an original observation that the overall zeitgeist of our country has become increasingly fear-driven in recent years. A strong narrative has emerged, telling us that the world – and with it, the United States – is getting worse: more dangerous, more corrupt, more frightening.

I don’t believe this narrative. I read my daughters a book about the Middle Ages this spring, and just about any study of history reveals that humanity is hardly on a steady downward slope: Things have been much, much worse than they are today. 

Fear isn’t new, either. Humankind has always had things to fear, and most of them posed more immediate threats than what we focus our fear on these days. United States history is marked by spikes of anxiety, often for very good reasons. Tell me to fear ISIS, illegal immigrants, or politicians, and I will raise you the Great Depression, the World Wars, the Vietnam War era, and the Cold War – and that’s only within the past century.

What seems to have changed in recent years, to have intensified the volume of our fear, is how we’re getting the message, and who’s sending it. The media has always sensationalized frightening news, but it used to be that you’d have exposure to these stories through one newspaper a day and perhaps an evening news broadcast. Now, we can’t escape the messages of fear: they’re on 24-hour news, updated by the minute in online news feeds, shared on social media.

Furthermore, during the current election cycle, both major political parties seem bent on whipping the American people into a frenzy of fear: We’re either supposed to fear the Dark Outside Forces seeking to bring our country down, or we’re supposed to fear the Dangerous Opposing Party seeking to bring our country down. Our very leaders are instructing us to fear. It’s a long way from: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.”

After crushing my daughter’s tick, I considered how all of these media outlets, these politicians, these talking heads – they’re just like ticks. Their messages embed themselves in our consciousness, causing us to view the world with fear and others with suspicion. They ruin everything.

Are there real threats out there? Sure. There are probably Lyme-disease-carrying ticks in our field right now, and odds are good that someone in our family will be treated for Lyme in the future. So do we sit inside, scrolling through our screens, terrorized by fear? To live in reaction to fear may produce some sense of security, however false. But I’d rather put on some tick repellent and head out into the world, with all its beauty and joy and pain. It may be dangerous, but at least it’s real.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She moved to Addison County in 2011, where she lives amid tick-infested fields with her husband, four young daughters, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle, and writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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