The tick squatted on my toe, its sunflower-seed body a glossy red-black against my white sock. I froze before the bathroom sink. I’d just climbed out of my sleeping bag in the downstairs bedroom of the creaking farmhouse and stumbled into the bathroom holding yesterday’s field-work clothes. Now an arachnid invader was digging its eight legs into my big toe. This was unacceptable.
I stared at the lacy tracings on the wood tick’s flat back. I’d worn clean socks to bed, so unless this villain had crawled from my hair to my foot during the night, it had probably wandered out of the khaki-green field pants I’d just dropped beside me on the bathroom floor. The tick crouched motionless, plotting. Its greatest wish was to sink its head into my vulnerable flesh and slurp a bellyful of my blood. Its smaller cousin, the deer tick, could heap injury upon injury, its spit carrying the bacterium that causes Lyme disease in humans. This gleaming wood tick wasn’t dangerous, just disgusting.
To be fair, the tick’s stealthy incursion wasn’t exactly a surprise. For the past few days, I’d been tromping through the Kalamazoo woods with a trio of other master’s students from the University of Michigan. Earlier that winter, five of us had pledged fealty to the Kalamazoo Nature Center for a sixteen-month group project that would fulfill our graduation requirements at the School of Natural Resources and Environment. For a year and a half, we agreed to develop site histories and management strategies for several of the Nature Center’s properties scattered around the outskirts of Kalamazoo.
For the summer, we’d dedicated three week-long blocks for inventorying plants in the targeted properties. We’d hike out to a predetermined GPS waypoint, rope off a 1000-meter rectangle of forest floor, subdivide the rectangle into smaller plots, and root around until we’d identified every plant in the place. We returned each night to an ancient farmhouse, where we sat around the living room with cold beers and pored over samples of unidentified mystery plants.
Our supervisor had warned us that ticks hiding in leaf litter and tall grass might latch onto our clothes as we passed. We tucked her warning into the back of our minds and moved on.
The first tick emerged on Tuesday evening, tumbling from Kate’s hair onto her neck. Mildly panicked, we dropped it in a bowl of water supplemented with dish soap and vinegar. The tick took days to die, its jointed legs grasping at bubbles whenever we stirred the water. After that, the little hitchhikers showed up everywhere. I spied one traversing the back of my hand. One arrived unseen from the folds of a sweatshirt and marched inexorably across the face of an iPad. The tick on my sock had an accomplice in my pocket.
If drowning didn’t kill the ticks, at least it immobilized them. Two more ticks joined the swimmer in the bowl. Three plummeted down various drains. We flicked an intruder into an empty pasta sauce container and scrawled “Tick Jar” across the glass in Sharpie.
We fell into futile little rituals, turning our socks inside out, inspecting our shoe laces for glossy bumps, brushing our hair sideways so dislodged intruders would hit the floor instead of our shoulders. Still, the ticks always appeared. We couldn’t prevent them from latching onto our clothing as we swished through fields on the way to our forested plots. All we could do was attempt to find them before they buried their tiny heads in our flesh. I stared at the creature on my sock, feeling violated.
Before the tick could move, I lifted my foot to the sink rim and pried the offender off, washing it down the drain. Onward.
In the end, ten ticks met their doom at our hands. Untold others were ferried on pant legs and backpacks, dispersing unseen into forests and bedrooms. Nobody got bitten, as far as we knew.
When I returned home at the end of the week, I quarantined my stuff in the hallway outside my bedroom. Every item had to be thoroughly inspected before I could comfortably put it away. I turned my backpack inside out, checked the seams in my baseball cap, ran my dirty clothing through the dryer first to bake whatever ticks might have lingered in my socks or sweatshirt pockets. Finally, everything was tucked away. Then I waited for the sickening sight of a lone survivor ambling across my bedroom floor.
So far, so good. But I keep flicking at every dark leaf fleck on my comforter and twitching when my hair brushes my neck. And, come July, I’ll have to do this all over again.
Geneva Langeland (’13) survived graduate school with minimal blood loss, escaping with her ms in environmental policy and communication. She now works in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as the communications editor at Michigan Sea Grant. There, she gets to hang out with educators, researchers, and communicators who love the Great Lakes as much as she does.