Threatened Lives

This past Wednesday was the first day of summer. I could have seen the world outside without artificial light during all the hours I was awake. Yet, I stayed indoors. Why? I wasn’t up to the threat.

Counteracting my endless encouragement, want, and need to stay connected to the outdoors are thousands of tiny, biting arachnids. These eight-legged villains are like bad cousins to the beneficial spiders in their family. They are ticks. Lyme disease has made the blacklegged variety famous, but the whole lot of them represent potential for dangerous disease.

June is prime time for the presence of the tiniest nymphs. Rain, which came as heavy downpours this week, revives their bloody hunger. And the predictions of a heavy tick year are being realized. Thus, there can be no visits to the woods–or even strolls across my rural backyard–on a day like Wednesday without chemical protection and a followup scrub down in the shower. This was powerfully evident on Monday, when after a brief walk to the compost pile to dump a few day’s worth of kitchen scraps, I found six blacklegged nymphs (also called deer ticks) crawling on my arm and a dog tick on the back of my leg.

Now among the many papers on my desk is a journal of all ticks found.

The situation leaves my heart as heavy as a noncombatant in the middle of a war zone. I cannot enjoy the country I love. It is a risk to my well-being to simply lay in the grass and watch the clouds form and roll across the sky. I am left to ask “why” over and over again. Why are there not better shields to prevent disease? Why are there not better weapons to chase the enemy away? Why is this happening now; humanity cannot take any more distance from the natural world?

It would be irresponsible for me to write about the joys of being outside in Pennsylvania without acknowledging this serious threat. My state ranked number one on the list of reported cases of Lyme in 2015. I would also be betraying you if I pretended to ignore the emotion toll this situation takes on my outdoor experience, my cherished lifeline to sanity.

Meanwhile, I will face the threat. I will spray and shower and inspect. I will resist the temptation to pave over the tall grass or cut down the shade bearing trees. I will defy the fear and take the risk. I will figure out how to live the limited number of years of my life inside the war zone without constantly giving up that which I need to survive. I will know what to do if I get hit. I will support those who are fighting to protect me. And I will allow myself to dream of a discovery that will bring about peace.

And until then, I will strictly commit, at least during this time of heavy fighting, to only enter the front line with full armor and precautionary action.


  1. Ugh. So scary! How can you even see the deer ticks on you when they’re so small and almost translucent? What is the spray you use to repel them?

    1. Great questions, PG. Here are the long answers:

      I have two physical qualities going for me: white skin color and sensitive skin. Foremost, I felt them crawling. I felt them, looked, then saw them, like moving flecks of dirt. (I then grabbed Scotch tape to remove and save them.) I have come to take the sensation seriously, which has become quiet identifiable. The moment it happens, I stop immediately and check. Of course then afterwards, my brain tricks me into feeling more, but that’s to be expected. Of the few I found attached this year, they looked like a black ingrown hair or blackhead pimple, so that is what I inspect for.

      As for sprays, I prefer Picaradin. However it is the expensive option and must be reapplied. DEET (available everywhere) is my second choice. It’s my go-to when I’m spraying my junk work shoes and clothes before yard work. I’m careful not to inhale it and, while it is supposed to be safe, avoid spraying it on my skin.

      I’m going today to find and buy the essential oil called oil of lemon eucalyptus. I’m planning to make a soap or skin treatment with it. I won’t be relying on it for repellent, but rather a secondary line of defense, as research has shown it to be somewhat useful as a repellent.

      Then there is Permethrin, which I also prefer, but it too cannot be sprayed on the skin. It is used to treat clothing and gear. I have had excellent results with Permethrin keeping ticks off during hiking by pretreating my hiking outfit and backpack (plus Picardin on the skin). The treatment process is a little tricky and it must be repeated after a six washings or six weeks. Lastly, Permethrin can be applied to the yard by a licensed applicator. At the right concentration, it doesn’t just repel, it kills. It does kill amphibians, though, which are predators that keep at bay other diseases. I treat the woodpile zone (where mice live) and will be treating the area around the compost bin (or relocating away from the wood edge).

      You can also buy Permethrin-treated cotton (or other material), which comes in tubes to be placed around yard. The idea is that the mice use the material for nesting which exposes the poison to the ticks. They are very expensive though.

      Yes, this is a lot to go through, but it is worth it, because once the armor is on and the precautions are taken, I can get back to relaxing and enjoyment.

      Above all, I value the predatory wildlife and follow closely the research work of the Cary Institute’s Tick Project. It is because of them that we know that deer are only one piece of the problem with Lyme. It is because of them that we knew this would be a bad year. I welcome the day when I can say, “It is because of them that we’ve solved the tick-borne disease issue,” especially since they are looking for solutions that don’t involve poisoning life to save life.

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