How should we care for what harms us? “The only thing allowed to crawl all over you / When we get there is me”, sings Brad Paisley in his 2007 single Ticks, his mind clearly on other matters. It’s nonetheless a terrific song, one I always get a flash of pride at getting to introduce to someone. Most recently I had the pleasure of doing so for my immediate family on a screened-in porch in Vermont. A few hours earlier I had pulled my first deer tick of the trip off my hooded sweatshirt, which I dispatched with extreme prejudice using my thumbnail. This small act of violence—or generously, of self defense—was followed by a bout of nagging guilt. Did I enjoy taking its life? For a few days afterward I thought about this, and about how ticks challenge my biophilia.
This might not strictly be true. The more expansive definitions of the biophilia hypothesis, or the “innate [human] tendency to seek connections with nature”, include both positive and negative affiliations. But in the colloquial sense, the sense Wilson popularized, the idea that parasites test an indiscriminate passion for life has legs. In fact, it’s pithy enough that I’m pretty sure I stole it from someone else, though the attribution eludes me. Consider: You, like me, love self-willed nature. You try to hold space in your heart for all of life’s variety and grandeur, both as an emergent property and as precious, irreplaceable components. And then you encounter things that suck your fluids, that give you chronic illnesses, and you begin to think of exceptions to your rules.
It’s a truism bordering on a cliche that charismatic species and taxa receive disproportionate conservation and research attention. I am an ornithologist, studying a group of animals we know more about than most because they move us and are largely nonthreatening. We should own our biases for moral reasons, but also because they hold our weaknesses. A view of evolution or human health that were based solely on songbirds would be a poor one indeed. The same argument applies to biodiversity, and to what we decide to fight for. If it is an intrinsic good, you must love it in sickness and in health. You must love all of it, at some level, to keep it around. The lynx kittens and the carrion beetles, the grizzlies and the candiru.
So I have been trying to summon a little awe and reverence for deer ticks, in the abstract and in the specific. I try to imagine them as a node in a network beautiful for its complexity: the way they serve as hosts for spirochetes, as food for opossums and a storm of warblers following the green wave of spring. I think of the physical bridge formed between far branches of the tree of life when a white-tailed deer in wet woods brushes up against a cedar and takes with it a tick and its bacterial pathogens. I reach for a feel of what it would be like to be nymph in the dew on a starry night near Tunbridge. To see these beings as worthy of compassion—and yes, worthy of love.
To date, I haven’t been very successful.
I had a deer tick behind the ear. It was around Wenatchee lake. I was able to bring it home. Then it died in Everett. Impressive abilities.