This probably isn’t the essay about ticks that you want to read. Popular takes on ticks cast them as sinister enemies of our species, and offer tips and advice for evading them, extracting them, and killing them. As a recent Slate article “The Year of the Tick” put it, “let’s all wage war”—against ticks, that is. The article advises after removing a tick from the skin, “then saving the tick in a sealed plastic bag so that you can later identify and potentially test it. It’ll dry out and die in there, too. I rather enjoy watching ticks perish.”
The Slate author’s attitude may seem like common sense and easily justifiable, from a human-centric point of view—which some people would argue is all we can ever have, as humans. But there may be good reasons to reassess this perspective, to step back from such strong rhetoric that condones ready violence against ticks. For, as Stacy Alaimo explains in her recent book Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times, “The anthropocene suggests that agency must be rethought in terms of interconnected entanglements rather than unilateral ‘authoring’ of actions” (156). We don’t have to completely agree on the definition of the anthropocene (or even what to call this era we’re in) to recognize it at work in the Slate article, where the author confidently situates humans as having a deciding role in the fate of ticks—at least in relation to humans and human communities. That is anthropocentric thinking and ‘authoring,’ whether or not one believes in the Anthropocene per se.
Compare the sentiments of the Slate article with philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s meditation on a tick’s Umwelt in The Open: “Let us try to imagine the tick suspended in her bush on a nice summer day, immersed in the sunlight and surrounded on all sides by the colors and smells of wildflowers, by the buzzing of the bees and other insects, by the birds’ singing…” (46). Bracket the larger questions that occupy the book, and the fact that the tick’s phenomenology is complicated by Agamben’s following paragraphs; it is nevertheless an imaginative leap, and a compassionate hesitation, that resides in the invitation to consider the tick on its own terms, entangled in a many-layered, variegated environment.
Or consider biologist David George Haskell’s own encounters with a tick, in The Forest Unseen:
A tick perches at the tip of a viburnum branch, a few inches from my knee. I suppress the urge to flick the pest away. Instead, I lean in to see the tick for its own sake, trying to look beyond my quick mental dismissal of it as a mere pest. The tick senses my approach and lifts the front four of its eight legs in a frenzied wave, grasping at the air. (117)
Again, here we see a markedly different approach to tick thinking, an attempt at cohabitation—however fleeting. The biologist pauses with the tick, and learns from it. Haskell’s meditative sojourn with the tick is not entirely romantic, and concludes with an acknowledgement that, “Fear of ticks is etched in my nervous system by the experience of many, many lifetimes. Our battle with questing ticks is at least sixty thousand times older than the Arthurian legends” (121). Yet this ‘battle’ is quite differently understood than it is cast in the Slate article. For one, the ticks themselves are granted their own ‘quest’, and for another, the struggle is put in evolutionary terms, with the buildup of innumerable “lifetimes”—and therefore none of the reductive, singular ‘authoring’ that Alaimo calls attention to. In Haskell’s rendering, humans jostle with ticks, and might be more mindful of the overlaps and folds that exist between species.
I’m not writing about this from an abstract intellectual vantage point, or at some academic remove. As I write this I’m sitting on a hilltop in northern Michigan, within a pine grove where many ticks pass through on a daily basis. I’ve plucked over a dozen ticks off my clothes this year, and have removed two from my son’s skin and one from mine. Last week I found a tick crawling across one of our pillows. Each evening my partner and I do a thorough tick check on our children’s bodies, as well as on each other. On nights that we’re too busy and forget to check, I’ll wake up in a sweat, worried that I most certainly have a tick lodged in me somewhere. So far, I’ve been lucky—but my luck could run out at any time. This is all to say that I live with a grounded knowledge and even a genuine fear of ticks; I’m not diminishing their reality or threats.
But when I read things like the Slate article, or hear people denigrate ticks wholesale as an evil species that should be eliminated, I can’t help but detect disturbing if scaled-down echoes of racist, xenophobic, nationalist, or otherwise hateful tirades—the sort of language and sentiments that fuel reprehensible acts of violence and political impasses. These things are not helping our species sustain life on the planet, for humans or anyone (or anything) else. While I’m not at all sure that humans have final agency on this question of biospheric balance, it does seem clear that people have the ability to inflect more or less violence, at multiple scales.
I’m not proposing that there are straightforward ways to deal with ticks, once and for all. It’s work, constant and constantly unsettling. Ticks don’t recognize property lines or the human distinction between inside and outside. Lyme disease can be crippling, even fatal. However, ticks might draw us into more long-term, thought-provoking negotiations with and among other species and our surroundings. They are, for better and worse, one part of our intricate, continually unfolding planetary ecosystem—and, like any species, ticks cannot be excised in one fell swoop without vast (if perhaps subtle, at first) ripple effects. To borrow the words of Donna Haraway from her latest book Staying with the Trouble, “Neither the critters nor the people could have existed or could endure without each other in ongoing, curious practices” (133). I’m interested in our ongoing practices with ticks—again, acknowledging that these practices are complex, and vexed by interactive violence on both sides.
I like Haraway’s emphasis of “staying,” because really we’re talking about temporality, about how people are so often in too much of a rush to be attentive to the world they are passing through—and living in—all the time. Staying with the trouble of ticks means living with them, dealing with them, being attentive to them. This is neither easy to grasp in theory, nor easy to put into practice. It means flicking them off, sometimes, or other times simply watching them pass by. Sometimes it might mean removing a tick from your skin and crushing it between two rocks. It means paying attention to ticks, to recognizing them as a part of this world—an awkward part, no doubt, but still no less a part than, well, than anything else.
As I finish this essay my son is pulling on my arm, asking me to go for a walk in the woods to hunt for chanterelle mushrooms. With all the rain we’ve had in June we’re experiencing a bumper crop of the delicious, apricot-smelling fungus. These golden mushrooms like to grow around oak trees, and this year they are popping up among the countless decomposing acorns beneath the northern red oaks in our woods. Two years ago was a “mast year” for the oaks, which means that they dropped all their acorns early. The mass of acorns becomes a boon for the mice the following winter, who survive, thrive, and propagate thanks to the bounty of abundant acorn meat. With more mice scurrying through the woods this year, ticks have more warm-blooded bodies to latch onto. We live in these woods, with the oaks, chanterelles, mice, and ticks—among innumerable other species and things. This is tick thinking, and it doesn’t stop here. It’s ongoing.