A Mother’s Meditation on a Tick

A Mother's Meditation on a Tick
She deals with a tick that’s attacked her toddler daughter, while passing on both a respect for Nature and an awareness of its dangers. (And provides us with some important information about the ever-increasing number of ticks and the dangers of Lyme disease.)

By Kerri Anderson

One of the most basic alienations of our modern world is between people and the places they live. We spend thousands of dollars traveling hundreds of miles to go away on an “eco-tourist” vacation, but we don’t notice what’s in our own backyards. In an effort to counter this, my daughter Zoé and I take our eco-vacation in our backyard as often as we can. It’s great, glorious, and hopeful – my hope being that, by teaching her to notice what is around her every day, she will learn to love her world; she will love to help it be a healthy, fluctuating, but stable ecosystem; and she will enjoy each part of it. I hope she doesn’t ever use poisons against the smaller creatures that feed the bigger creatures, and I hope she finds solace in the living world, not only in the picture postcard places of retreat (which are enjoyable and necessary, too) but also in the place right where she lives.

But it’s also tricky. Loving something is complex. All the parts aren’t always loveable.

We headed out one day, discovering spring, new growth, new grass, worms in the compost…and when we came back inside the house, the alarm bells started going off in my head, as I saw a tick on the back of Zoé’s leg. I went into efficient-mother coping mode: Grab a tissue, swipe it off the back of her leg.

“What is it, Mummy?”

“Nothing.”

She was three at the time. And my answer was a lie. A lie to dispel the visceral reaction I have to these creatures, and to avoid passing on my gut reaction, which I am not proud of from a couple of angles.

But the “nothing” was in fact a wood tick, a small, eight-legged parasite in the arachnid family (like spiders). Ticks penetrate the skin of their host with their mouth parts and bury their head under the skin to feed on blood. They drop off after two to six days. They need two to three hosts in their life cycle, and if they don’t find a host, they can live up to two years waiting for one. Wood, or dog, ticks are about a centimeter wide, legs included, and would be easy to mistake for a spider, except that when you go to brush one off, it flattens against whatever surface it’s on, seemingly as flat as a sheet of paper.

To put it mildly, I don’t like ticks. In fact my automatic reaction to them is – well, to freak out. But I think about what I want to teach my child about existing within an environment that presents to us not just cute and cuddly creatures but also ones we have an aversion towards. We “love” pandas, we “love” whales, but what do we do with ticks? They’re part of the life web, too.

At the very least then, we don’t use chemicals to try to annihilate them. But what that means is encountering them, and being willing to kill the individuals that end up on our bodies. And where do we learn how to do that?

I didn’t grow up with ticks. My Mum loves bugs more passionately than anyone I’ve ever met: she hatched praying mantids on her mother’s curtains as a child. But we didn’t have ticks where I grew up, so even my insect-loving mother is no help to me. I can’t quite get past the shudder-reaction of knowing their intent is to burrow their head under skin to get a feed of blood. In my mind, I can rationalize that this is just one of a variety of ways to make a go of it in this life. In reality, though, seeing a tick fills me with revulsion and, I’m not proud to say it, but squeamishness as well.

However, I live in the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia now, and tick season runs from April to August. They’re here and I’m going to have to make choices about how to deal with them.

My first unconscious adaptation to the back-of-the-leg tick was to stop going with Zoé to the very back of the backyard where the long grass is. But then, a couple of nights later, when we had only been out at the front, I found a tick on Zoé at bath time. It was embedded in her skin deeply enough that I worried about it leaving parts behind, so I didn’t just pull it off. It was also on her belly, about an inch-and-a-half from her belly button, so concealment was impossible. I understood within seconds I would have to be calm about it if I wanted Zoé to be.

My partner was not home so tick removal was entirely up to me. (Had he been home, I would likely have delegated the task – again, not that I’m proud of this, but it’s just the honest truth.) I thought the best method to remove the tick was to coat it in butter or oil to suffocate it (they breathe through their abdomens) – at which point, the theory went, the tick would just pull itself out, fall off, and die. So I quickly said, “Just a minute Zoé I have to get something.”

I caressed Zoé’s belly with olive oil, going over the small lump of tick-body with my fingertips, a strangely intimate action.

“Take it off, Mummy,” Zoé said quietly. I assured her I was working on it.

She also wanted to know what it was called, at which point she proclaimed happily: “I have a tick! Hey, Mummy, I have a tick!”

The tick reacted to the oil by raising all six free legs in the air, giving the impression of either provocation or invincibility or both. I held back the impulse to shriek, shudder, and generally act in ways that few situations give me the urge to do, and tried instead to wash Zoé’s hair and carry on without too much obsession about the steely gray creature. Perhaps understandably, though, both Zoé and I were quite tick-focused.

“Don’t flat it, Mummy! He doesn’t like that!”

I laughed. I want her to feel for the tick; her ability to perceive it as a creature with its own needs, and dislikes, is a good thing. But I was trying to kill it.…

Well, almost an hour went by with the tick “flying,” as I rubbed oil on its underbelly too, in case it was breathing that way, and Zoé turning over and “swimming” (would it drown or would she just wash off the oil?) – still the tick showed no signs of ill health. The situation was getting desperate. I went to get butter.

“Maybe he’s tired,” said Zoé. “Maybe he want to sleep on me [sic].”

Hmm. I asked her if she wanted him to sleep on her? “No.…”

I reminded myself to keep breathing, to stay calm. I encased the tick in butter. When the butter melted from Zoé’s body heat, the tick did its rearing/flying thing.

tickI said, “Zoé, I’m going to take it off with tweezers now.”

And oh, that was awful! A long thin pull of white translucent skin came out from Zoé’s body along with the tick’s head, and I had to let go and try tweezing again. More than once! I could hardly believe that was her skin, and that if it was, that it wouldn’t hurt! Ten centimeters of skin came away from her body like an elastic band. As determined as I was not to hurt Zoé, I was also by this time determined to get the tick out, and not to leave any parts behind.

Finally, yes, the tick came away, cleanly out of her body, and she was fine. In spite of the skin stretch, her skin around the area looked unaffected. I burned the tick with a match and we proceeded with bedtime.

There are lessons in this experience. Daily tick checks are necessary. (Early removal prevents implantation of mouth parts in the skin). Also, I have since discovered, tweezers should be used in the first place, since ticks retain enough oxygen in their bodies to finish feeding.

In the bigger picture, there is also a lesson for me. For one, that taking the time to see makes the object of fear less fearsome. But perhaps even more importantly, the lesson is that the struggle continues. There isn’t a happy ending or an easy resolution. As I learn to truly inhabit the place I live in, I feel like there are two strands of reality, and I am genuinely trying to put them together, to reconcile my values with my human failings. Somehow, in my mind, I always think that will be so easy: “love where you live” or “don’t be a wuss.” But when it comes down to it, the struggle is really in the doing of it, there are no shortcuts, there is no “mind over matter.” You do what you do and you learn one step at a time.

* * *

What You Need to Know About Ticks
  • There are relatively few tick species that cause harm. There are many aids to identification on the Internet and in books, but typically, ticks are about three to five mm long and the various species have differing markings.

  • The best way to remove ticks is to get rid of them before they latch on.

  • If a tick becomes attached, use tweezers to carefully grasp its body as close to the skin as possible. Pull slowly to allow the tick to release its mouth parts so they don’t break off inside.

  • Avoid twisting or turning the tick because this could also cause the mouth parts to be broken off, which increases the risk of infection.

  • Wash the area thoroughly and apply antiseptic. If infection occurs, contact your doctor.

  • Some ticks can infect their host with Lyme disease, which is caused by a bacterium that is transmitted by the bite of an infected tick. The bacterium is usually carried by birds, mice, squirrels, and other small animals. Ticks become infected when they feed on infected animals, and infect people when they feed on them as their next host. The chance of getting Lyme disease is greatly reduced by removing ticks within twenty-four to thirty-six hours.

  • Due to the danger of infection, you should keep the tick in case testing is needed in the future. Slightly dampen a small piece of paper towel, wrap the tick in it, seal it in a plastic bag, and place it in the refrigerator until you’re sure all danger of infection has passed.

Kerri Anderson is a writer and activist who lives in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, with her partner and their two young children. This article originally appeared in Natural Life Magazine.

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