The Mast-Head: Ticks the Season

The things’ movable feasting

Ellis came home with ticks the other day. He had been on a nature walk with his thirdgrade science class when someone bolted from the path into the leaf litter to inspect something interesting. Accounts vary about who led the charge, but several reliable sources pointed to my son.

Word came around dinnertime from Ellis’s teacher, Julie Browning, that a parent had discovered the tiny menaces on her child. Ellis submitted more or less willingly to a full-body check, with me peering through a magnifying glass.

Tick larvae at this stage of development are small, but not all that difficult to find. Though I cannot see them even with my reading glasses on, they generally can be found sitting atop a red, raised bump, like a lone, proud mountain goat on a crag. 

My approach, with the magnifier in my left hand and fine tweezers in my right, is to pull the things free then wipe the tick from the tweezers’ tip onto a piece of duct tape where they can be counted. This time, Ellis served up five from below the belt. 

One of the odd things about these diminutive attackers is that unconscious scratching can work them loose, and they will often creep away in search of a more private place to have their supper. This I believe is why many people around here are convinced that chiggers or something else is hatching in their skin — multiple itchy bites give rise to all sorts of assumptions.

My hypothesis about the things’ movable feasting came late this spring, when, going to bed, I noticed the telltale welts. Then, alone, I spent the next hour or more clamping a cellphone for its flashlight between my teeth, while trying to get the magnifier and tweezers into position. 

We can laugh about ticks. Certainly they have provided endless inspiration for Peter Spacek’s weekly cartoons in The Star. But they are no laughing matter. I have had the lone star tick-caused meat allergy since the 1990s. Innumerable people here have been laid low by Lyme disease. The Vineyard Gazette reported last week that a seasonal resident died in August of tularemia, possibly contracted from a tick bite he sustained while cutting brush in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard.

At this point, I tend to view ticks as a fact of life — and try to remember to check the kids for them whenever they slow down enough for a thorough inspection.