Saturday, April 17, 2010

The most fearsome creature

One early summer evening, a short time after we moved into our new house, the dogs became very restless. Bear marched purposefully down the stairs after pausing at the top to look out the window, then puffed herself up and stomped around the kitchen with her ears perked up and eyes focused on the door. Murdoch stood rigid in his kennel and even Max sat up and seemed to be straining his ears. A moment or two later I heard a concerned howling bark coming from our neighbours’ house.

It was dusk, the sky had turned a muted grey-blue and the world was bathed in a pastel light that made nature itself seem completely relaxed, as though the very trees were settling down for a nights sleep. I looked out the window as the howling became louder and through the trees I saw a lumbering black shape move casually along the road. It’s leisurely pace and relaxed posture told me the bear was not bothered in the slightest by the loud, mournful protests of the howling dog, in fact I could almost imagine the bear slowing down a bit more, really taking its time, because, really who else would that time belong to?

The bear made its way up our driveway and then picked out a path through the forest where it disappeared among the trees. Our neighbours’ dog walked stiff legged up and down the middle of the road in front of that patch of trees and continued sounding the alarm as though he was performing his sworn duty to his neighbourhood.

A silence thrilled through me as I stood and watched the pitch black form until I couldn’t see it anymore. I marveled at it’s ability to alter the very atmosphere around it, absorbing every stray bit of light as though it were a walking shadow without an owner.

More bears have rambled into our lives since then, coyotes have traipsed by outside our windows, their fox-like faces casting nonchalant glances back at the cacophony of barks and protests emanating from our house, wolves have stood, looking like impossibly big dogs, with their long and sinewy bodies poised to dash into the bush. I have a healthy respect for those animals and walk in the bush everyday with the knowledge that I share their space. I am constantly aware of their presence somewhere out there, but in a comfortable sort of way.

The thing that strikes fear into my heart and weights my stomach with dread each year as the snow melts and the days grow longer, sending warming breezes to awaken slumbering weeds and grasses, is the tiny, hard-shelled, parasitic tick.

It’s not necessarily the fact that ticks suck blood that causes me to be so completely disgusted with them, I mean mosquitos and black fly suck blood too and I can dismiss them most of the time as merely a nuisance. They get in, get the blood, then get out, sometimes before you even realize it, leaving in their wake an annoying itchy red bump that in short order fades away to something a few notches below a memory.

Ticks on the other hand hang around for hours, if not days. They actually submerge their entire heads beneath skin and gorge on blood until their once flat oatmeal-flake sized disc-like bodies of shiny dark brown become a sickly beige colour and blow up to the size of a large, taut grape. Morgan once aptly described the fully engorged tick as looking like a toe you might find protruding from beneath a white sheet in a morgue with a tag tied around it.

Plus, ticks have eight legs, making them a member of the creepy crawly clan arachnid.

From the first sighting each season I am transformed into an adrenaline charged nerve ready to snap at any moment. My heart is set at a constant race and my lungs tie themselves up in a tiny, tight knot. I jump at everything. A piece of lint caught in the light a certain way can make me leap clear across a room. A stray hair tickles my neck and my hand flies up to claw at the skin, I feel a bump beneath the fur of one of the dogs and I reel back in horror, gasping loudly and involuntarily as though I’ve just come up for air after a long, deep dive beneath the cold water of a northern lake.

I cannot hug my dogs with reckless abandon in the summer. I approach them cautiously, steeling myself for the inevitable lump beneath fur, hoping it will be tiny and therefore newly acquired and easier to remove without leaving the head embedded in the skin while the body is pulled away.

Ticks are covered by a protective armour which makes them maddeningly resilient. The only way I am able to kill one is to smash it between two rocks. The fatter they are, the grosser this becomes.

Mostly I spend those clear warm days of summer wishing I was encased in a bubble. I tiptoe around trees and stick to well-worn paths in attempts to sneak past the vile creatures skulking in the long grass, beneath fallen leaves or in the treetops waiting to cling to any warm-blooded animal that has the misfortune to wander by.

Just standing in the forest mid-summer, or watching my dogs dash off through the trees or frolic in the grass, makes my skin crawl. The very air feels alive with a thousand wiggling legs and my sanity teeters ever closer to the edge.

Give me a bear any day.


  1. Ah, I just love to be scared - this interesting entry taps into those unnamed feelings scurrying around in all of us. You make an appeal to our atavistic fears, to those half-hidden, deep-seated evolutionary roots which pull the reader, perhaps unwillingly, into one of the dark stairwells of the human mind. The article logically moves from large to small predators, small being your arch nightmare, eight legs quietly stalking you. The "relaxed" natural setting, with the smiling trees sleeping peacefully, even becomes sympathetic to that ambling black carnivore - nice touch here. Interesting, you live in a world where some large mammals can kill and eat you and where no arachnid can kill you, yet you shiver uncontrollably at a few bugs. Unlike you, the dogs, eager to survive, are all alarmed by the toothy predator - you are merely "thrilled" and "marveled" and "comfortable".
    With ticks, though, your language comes to life, powered by your mounting fears: the word sounds become harsh, cacophonous - nerves "snap", heart "races"; alliterative piling up effect of your lungs as "tied up", "tiny", "tight"; the very air itself is "alive with a thousand wriggling legs; metaphors make us squirm - tick bodies as "grapes" or a dead man's toe; sentences short and sharp - "I jump at everything." And, that final sentence brightly spotlights your feelings [with a wordplay on "bear"?]. Good, Good.

  2. A few bugs?!!!! Clearly you have never had the great misfortune to find a brown bump with squirming legs protruding from behind an ear, on a snout or in an armpit of a dog you care about and then have to remove the parasite without leaving its head behind. Its head! And then there's the gag reflex when you hear, and feel, the tiny pop as the body detaches itself from the head. But that's not the end of it, you have to do it over and over again because you find more than two or three a day per dog as the ticks storm the forest like an advancing army. Yes a bear could eat you, but at least with a bear you know what you're dealing with - and they don't hide under leaves.

  3. As I said, "Give me a bear any day." I can deal with dripping and sharpened canines slicing into me, but, oh, those little bugs . . . . Ha!
    Your descriptive powers are surfacing again.