Me, ticks

Since I’ve gotten no entries yet from the bug community, I am stepping in.  This is a post about ticks, but the ticks of yesteryear, before they became famous disease vectors and back when they were just gross.  My father and mother were great campers, so we were none of us strangers to the post-camping tick search.

We lived in Indiana then and we went very occasionally to the big city of Chicago to buy my mother’s shoes.  She was a polio survivor and needed custom-made footwear.  So this is a memory from one of those trips.  Two memories, actually.

The first is that I saw a plush purple lion in a store window and wanted it desperately.  I did not get it (in retrospect it was probably extremely ugly, because… purple lion) but I like to think my parents would have provided if they’d known that at the age of 63, out of all the ceaseless requests of my childhood, this is the one I’d remember.

Secondly, I found a tick in the hair near the base of my skull and freaked out.  My father removed it immediately with tweezers and dropped it onto the sidewalk.  It was enormous – I don’t think I’d ever had a tick go undiscovered for so long.  It was a balloon of blood; you couldn’t see its appendages at all.  I know that I must have been quite young, because I have a vivid visual of the busy Chicago street and my perspective appears to be about thigh-high.  Dozens of legs, dozens of shoes, hurrying towards and past me and in the midst of all that city busyness, completely out of place and out of time, the very large, very bloated tick on the sidewalk.


Marian Wood, squirrels (and one monkey thrown in)

Part Two from Marian Wood’s series of wild life encounters.  Read it together with Kristin Livdahl’s earlier squirrel entry.  Apparently there is more to squirrels than meets the eye.  They are organized and they have demands!

The Great Squirrel Assault

Tony and I bought a top floor apartment in a small four-story coop in Brooklyn in 1984. All went well until one morning I awoke to the sound of bird feet in the crawl space above our bed. Clearly, a bird was trapped there. I had an author who was really good about wildlife and I asked for help. “Nothing you can do except wait for the bird to die and then fumigate.” Urg.  But he was right. Pigeons had managed to make their way through the front façade and we were all prisoners. The smell was ghastly. Then summer turned toward winter and one morning I awoke to the pitter-patter of running feet. I knew that sound. Back when we were newly returned to New York, my parents bought a very old Victorian house. There were squirrels and we all thought they were terrific—and fed them richly. Then, as winter arrived, they moved in. Again, in the crawl space, this time between the second floor and the third. Turned out NY State had a ruling against exterminating squirrels. Our gardener showed my mother how to deal with them: Watch for their entry (a great old wild cherry tree in the back yard), wait until they left for the day, climb up and find the entry hole and fill it with camphor, wait until they returned and decamped, then seal the hole, cut off the tree limb they were using to jump the roof, and voila. So when 25 years later my husband and I were faced with the same problem, we wondered who would help us find the hole and get rid of the creatures. Turned out, we didn’t have to look far. Our garden floor neighbor, it being chilly, decided to light a fire in his fireplace. The sound of squirrel nails across the ceiling running in panic told me they had abandoned ship.


But here is the end story: The next day, they attacked every one of the fairy lights he’d hung in his garden. Chomp chomp.


Ever since a squirrel got trapped between the front doors in that Victorian house in Brooklyn, I have to admit I have hated them. It was truly terrifying. How to get it out without being bitten? My mother managed to do the deed. Brave woman. And we never fed them again. Then there was the time we went to Nuevo Laredo in Mexico (from the Army Air Corps base in San Antonio) and an organ grinder’s monkey grabbed me by the hair and would not let go. Can’t say I have loved monkeys since—sorry. Sometimes things just happen—and they leave a scar.

Doris Ober, Lakeland terrier

This blog is tailor-made for Doris Ober, a brilliant editor and writer of the book The Dogtown Chronicles, Our Life and Times with Sheep, Goats, Llamas, and Other Creatures, from which this lovely piece is excerpted with her permission.



Richard and I found Woody through a dog rescue group that specialized in terriers. Woody was a tan-and-brown Lakeland terrier, a perfect-sized dog, I thought, who wouldn’t shed, but who we would have to take to the doggy beauty salon every few months, unless we wanted something that looked more like a dust bunny than a dog.

Woody was four months old and had been living for the past two months with a recent widower. The dog was too energetic for an old man, he said, and he felt bad when he went out and had to leave the little guy alone. After his wife died last year, his children thought it would be a good idea for him to have a dog. “They should have gotten a dog, if it was such a good idea,” he said.

Richard and I went home and talked about it. Woody looked just like the dog who played the role of Asta in The Thin Man movies. This was a popular series in the 1930s and 1940s starring Myrna Loy and William Powell as Nora and Nick Charles, a terribly suave yet adventurous and madcap couple who solved crimes. I think part of our adopting Woody had to do with an image of ourselves as a potentially madcap couple who would drink martinis, have adventures, engage in witty dialog, and drive a dashing little sports car with a perfect little dog (who would occasionally cover his eyes with his paws over our shenanigans) in the back seat.

And so several days later Woody came home with us, with his toys and his pillow and a box of his favorite kibble.

# #

Woody didn’t like to play ball or fetch sticks. He didn’t chase cats, but he did like to chase tires and birds. He liked to bury things. He liked to run as hard as he could. He was wound up, over-wound, and could never run himself down. In the beginning we took him everywhere with us, but he developed a strange obsessive-compulsive behavior in the car. He’d lick the windows. He’d lick all the windows, all over, madly. He was in constant motion, he wouldn’t sit still. He’d run over passengers to get to their windows, the driver would have to fight him to keep him off the windshield. Soon we caged-in the back of Richard’s Trooper, and that’s where Woody rode from then on, licking the back window as though it was ice cream.

Woody’s tire-chasing meant that sometimes, if we couldn’t take him with us and had to leave him at home, we would have to try to sneak away. We had fences, but they were not fine fences, so they didn’t cause Woody a minute’s delay in breaking out, chasing our car’s tires down the driveway, running as fast as he could, and then galloping after us on Route One, still running as fast as he could, as he loved to do. We’d be watching our rear-view mirror and we were rarely disappointed. Or rather, we were almost always disappointed. We’d pull over, Woody would leap into the car, panting wildly, and go to work on the windows.

If one of us was home, however, and the other had to leave, you would think the one should be able to hang on to the dog long enough for the other to get successfully away. And so when I left the house one day at 8:30 a.m. for an appointment in the city, and left Woody and Richard together with the newspaper, one having coffee and the other chewing a pig’s ear, I didn’t expect to see Woody flying down the road behind me nearly three miles later. I was furious and crying when I shoved Woody into Richard’s arms, made some absurd flailing effort to pummel him, and ran away just knowing I was going to be late. Why did we have to have a dog!

That evening when I came home, Richard was wary but solicitous. He led me down to his workshop, where Woody stood expectantly behind the sliding-glass door. Richard pointed out a long narrow tube, about five inches in diameter, attached vertically to the side of the deck above us. This vessel was filled with water and there was a spigot at the bottom. Directly under this water canister was a red plastic bowl, suspended by wire like a hot-air balloon basket and by more rigging and a pulley to the shop’s sliding-door handle.

Richard turned the spigot a quarter turn. Water dripped out of the tube. The bowl received the water. After five minutes the bowl was a quarter full and had begun to lower itself, pulling against the heavy glass door of Richard’s shop, which began to slide open. The bowl settled down on the ground after 20 minutes when the water source was exhausted. This opened the door wide enough for Woody to get out and would provide water for him while we were away. That 20-minute head start was enough. Woody somehow knew it wasn’t worth the chase at that point. Or maybe he had already forgotten us.


Carla Freccero, Rat

Today’s entry is by Dr. Carla Freccero, whose class on animal studies was an inspiration to me while writing my newest novel.   She is the current head of the Literature Department at UC Santa Cruz and a list of her books and articles can be found at the link. She is a wonderful teacher.  I know this from personal experience.

Here is her post:


My favorite encounters with non-human mammals (my sense is that only mammals encounter one in the way I am going to describe) happen when an animal sees me, really sees me and I see myself being seen. I am so used to wandering this amazing semi-wild town—Santa Cruz—and its environs, watching, unseen (or so I imagine), the non-human life around me (and here I mean all the bugs, beasts and birds, as well as the flora, that populate, and sometimes overpopulate, this place), that I am completely startled when a non-human looks back. For a moment I see myself as one of them, a mammal, and for a moment I think I see him or her gauging the danger I represent. I rarely regard non-humans as dangerous—I’ve never met a mountain lion, but there isn’t much else, except the Black Widow (and she’s not that poisonous), the Brown Recluse (who definitely is), and the occasional skunk (because of the startle reflex that is so noxious to humans and other mammals) that represents a danger to me, the clear top-of-the-food-chain predator in this ecology. But humans in Santa Cruz are generally a friendly lot, when it comes to so-called Nature: most cherish being able to live among the wild ones to whom this place belongs, and so represent no threat. In any case, if I am still and if I carefully arrange my body and my gaze in postures of passivity, submission or general non-threat, the creature overcomes his or her fear and simply looks.


But one encounter in particular from recent years haunts me.


I had a rat problem. I live in the country, and, well, rats do too. They live here, with or without the rest of us (unlike the rats of New York City or other urban areas who, should those areas ever be emptied of humans, we are told, would quit the premises within a week or two). My house is an old house and not airtight. It is also built into the hillside: parts of it are underground, separated from the earth by what are called “rubble” walls, river rock with very little cement between in order to permit the rock to breathe in a rainstorm (it leaks, but only a little) and, presumably, to shift but not collapse in an earthquake. One winter, when it was very cold and wet, the rats, especially, I think, the moms, decided to move in. Now, the rats here are gorgeous, with clean glossy brown coats, nothing like the scary caricature of dirty urban vermin normally conjured when there’s talk of an infestation. They are also huge, big enough for my dogs to attack but much too imposing for most of the neighborhood cats. The problem I’d been experiencing had to do with sound (they shrieked and hollered in my walls at night; rats are very loquacious), and with smell. Rats, especially nesting mothers, produce a strong unmistakable—and to the human olfactory senses, very unpleasant—odor. After a week of setting traps that worked for the first two days (after which the rats, intelligent beings that they are, changed their routes, foregoing the delicious peanut butter and cheese lures I had prepared), I used—once and only once, I swear, and never again, I promise—poison. And then, one day, I came home, and as I approached my kitchen I saw, perched on the counter, a very large rat. She sat there, aware of my presence, and looked at me. I stood there, aware of hers, and pondered my dilemma. I had no idea what to do. As I walked cautiously toward her, she moved away, returning to the crevice from which she had apparently emerged. And as she departed, I noticed a smear of blood trailing behind her and knew that she was dying. Rat poison causes internal bleeding; that is how the rat who ingests it dies. Now, I know that humans hate rats with a passion, and I know that I, though not hating them, did not want one in or near my shelter. But I did not, till that moment, know how viciously sadistic human methods of eliminating them, including my own, could be. As it turned out, the rat exacted her revenge, albeit unwittingly; she died behind my kitchen counter somewhere near the rubble wall, and for weeks I could smell the rotting corpse, reminding me of what I had so willfully and yet so thoughtlessly done. But there was that moment when we exchanged gazes—she with the eyes of a dying mortal, and I with the eyes of a murderer, newly conscious of the enormity of the crime I had committed against her.



Kristin Livdahl, red squirrels

Today’s post comes via Kristin Livdahl. Kristin is a good friend and a wonderful writer.  She works for an animal welfare association, assuring the good condition of animals in her local shelter.  Check out her novella “A Brood of Foxes,” published by Aqueduct Press.
What follows is a story about how scary cute creatures can be:


One summer during college, I drove up from the Twin Cites to visit a friend in Two Harbors north of Duluth and we decided to do a short trip in the nearby Boundary Waters Canoe Area. As canoe trips went, it was a lazy one, just one portage and a couple of nights at a single camp. It was early enough in the season that we had our choice of campsites and we chose a pretty spot in a clearing on a small island. We thought the island would protect us from bears. We found out later from a passing fisherman that that was far from true. A bear made an almost nightly pass of the island, walking right through camp as he swam from one side of the lake to the other. A bear had ruined a previous canoe trip for me, leaving four adults with six hungry kids, a pack of soggy saltines and a long day of canoeing to get back to civilization. The crafty bear had climbed a tree and pulled down the rope on one side until the pack of food swung close enough to be snagged. My dad had held my hand up to one of the monster claw marks on the tree. We were all very glad the pack was kept away from camp and that we’d slept though it. This isn’t about bears, though.

The first night, we had a quick, cold dinner after setting up camp, hoisted the big, canvas Duluth pack up on a tree branch and crashed. I had to chase down a couple of the empty packages that had held our dinner. We assumed the culprits were some of the numerous small wildlife hanging around the campsite but didn’t really think anything of it. The next morning, breakfast was pancakes made on the campfire and that’s when we noticed the little red squirrels. They crept up to us as we ate and one succeeded in grabbing a pancake right off the pan. We spent the day exploring the lake by canoe and swimming in the rocks at the landing near the campsite. We made dinner as the sky started to darken and that’s when the squirrels began an all out assault, trying to steal food from our plates and the pans. We were relieved when we were finally able to hoist the pack back up the tree. A clever little squirrel climbed down the rope, and kept trying to crawl under the tightly closed flap. After it returned after we shooed it away a few times, I picked up a fallen tree branch and snuck up to the tree. All I could see was its tail peeking out from under the flap. I hit the tree as hard as I could making a pretty loud noise and shaking the tree and the squirrel darted out and disappeared into the leaves. The woods around us became dead silent. I looked at my friend and she shrugged. I put the branch down and started back to join her at the fire. Suddenly, the air filled up with the chittering of a million angry squirrels. I looked up to see them gathered on branches surrounding the entire clearing and I had a brief flash of our bones lying in the campsite, picked clean by sharp, nut-breaking teeth. The scolding diminished over time but picked up any time we moved. Our tent was off to one side, right next to the woods and far from our fire pit, but being inside made me feel safe enough to sleep. I woke to the sound of rain dropping on the tent, only enough to wonder why the weather report had said it would be clear, and drifted back to sleep. The next morning, we exited the tent to find twigs and acorns piled four inches high all around its base. We didn’t say anything to each other as we packed up the canoe, but I knew we would never be camping on that island again.

Marian Wood, crows

Marian Wood, my beloved editor for mumble mumble years, has sent a number of fascinating encounters. Although I quite like the “my life as a series of animal encounters” aspect of it, I’ve decided to post it one animal at a time and over several weeks. This way, every story gets its due. Here then is Marian’s first post:

My husband and I, a few years after we married, took the major step of visiting his parents in Fordingbridge, England—edge of the New Forest. Not a particularly salubrious encounter as my husband had actually been alienated from his parents from the age of 13 when he was expelled from his public school and ended up in Belfast with an aunt and uncle for the rest of his formal education, which ended at the age of 16 when the war broke out and he decamped to Dublin and joined the Irish Republican Army—until he found they did not issue sheets or undergarments, and he crossed the Irish Sea to join the RAF. The point is, the reunion in Fordingbridge was fraught. We had rented a car and I was the driver. One day, to put some space between us and the family, we took off to visit a quaint village along a little river afloat in Moscovy ducks. Alas, in the pull up to park, we had a huge screaming match. He saying I had mis-parked alongside the river, and me telling him to shut up since he couldn’t drive. (He could, but had no license ever since a massive car crash in Spain some eight years before.) We exited the car, still yelling at each other (not, I must say, a commonplace of our marriage). And as we stood beside the river/car, a huge angry sound—crows—approached, the air full of noise and black wings. Next thing I knew, they were bombing poor Tony, who was covered in crow shit. I was untouched. And I began to laugh like a banshee. After all, the crows had picked the right target. I have to admit I have always been fascinated by crows, but this cinched that love affair. (We managed to get over it and lasted until his death 45 years later.)

Harriet Chessman, Samoyed

A poem from Harriet Chessman (who worries that it’s too sad) in honor of a beloved dog.
Harriet is a Bay Area poet, novelist, short story writer and editor whose work has been described as intelligent and entrancing. She loves dogs.


White flash on green
biscuit blur on snow
triumphant snatcher
of gloves and toys

you breathed the Arctic
witty forager
courageous follower
of the scent, whatever –

Skunk, cat, raccoon –
the world tempting
in its fragrance
with you at the center

a twenty dollar bill,
a stick of butter,
all the shimmering

things awaiting
white teeth
eager gullet.

Your last day, you
stood to greet us
on the vet’s
green lawn

eager to be
our dog still
confiding and
ignorant of sleep.

Joyce Thompson, Great Blue Heron

The Great Blue Heron is making its second appearance in this blog, courtesy of Joyce Thompson, author of several novels and collections including her recent suspenseful and sophisticated mystery HOW TO GREET STRANGERS.  This entry is cross-posted from her own blog.


We first discovered our affinity at twilight on a central Florida beach, not far from Cape Kennedy. I’d turned out to watch the sun set and stayed to enjoy the evening cool, was lost in thought and minding my own business when a vast heron plopped down maybe ten yards away, just offshore. It was more than the splash that caught my attention. The big bird was focused on me, closely as a guy looking to get picked up at a singles bar. I could feel him poking at my consciousness.

Okay, big fella, whaddayou want?

Turns out he wanted to give me flying lessons. For the better part of an hour, he taught me the walk, that elegant high step and recoil, followed by the leap, perfectly coordinated with neck stretch and wingspread—and I tried diligently to mimic his moves, got better and better, all except the last part, where he defied gravity and left the surface of the earth while I was still bouncing along the beach. Whenever he saw he’d left me behind, he’d come back and start again.

How many times did we practice those moves? At least half a dozen before he accepted my telepathic insistence that, as a featherless biped, I just didn’t have the right stuff. We parted with affection and regret.

Cross country and fast forward, to the protected wetland where I run along a 3 mile infolding of San Francisco Bay. The slough’s a safe haven for crows, doves, hummingbirds and red wing blackbirds, egrets, shrikes, rails, cormorants, fat ducks, circling hawks and every kind of migrator, geese and pelicans most prominent among them. Leash your dogs, folks. It’s Birdland, with a slim Great Blue the genius of the place.

Seeing each other daily, we started to relate, always taking a moment to greet one another with a bow of acknowledgment that splits the difference between our native animal behaviors. Sometimes the heron would be seaward, fishing. Sometimes in spring, he stood like a statue in the wet meadow, waiting to catch one of the young ground squirrels, popping out of the underground tunnels.

One bright morning, he struck with particular force. The squirrel was big, and instead of piercing it side to side, the heron speared it head to tail, so hard that it rode far up on his beak and stuck there. The heron shook his head, trying to dislodge the squirrel, but it didn’t move. I watched him struggle until a human walker came up the path and startled him away, flying awkwardly with the weight of the skewered squirrel.

I ran on. Half a mile later, the heron swooped across the path in front of me and landed close by. His fear pierced me—the certainty that he’d starve if his jaws stayed locked.

Help me. I heard his voice inside my head.

It took a minute to get over my disbelief, another to slay self-doubt. The heron waited patiently while I figured it out, picked up a sturdy stick and crept toward him with as heron-like a gait as I could muster.

Easy. I’m trying.

 He stood quiet, suffering me to poke at the squirrel with my stick until it slid down a little. Then he shook his head furiously until the dead squirrel came flying off. When it did, the heron composed himself, fluffed and preened. He nodded slightly in my direction and then took flight.

I watched him rise and get smaller in the sky, while my mind called out to him: Come back. Come back and teach me how to fly.

Mary Doria Russell, chimpanzees

My good friend, the amazing Mary Doria Russell, sent me the following link in which you can watch as a group of lab chimps in Germany experience the outdoors for the first time. Mary describes this as very moving and I certainly feel the same.

Jeff VanderMeer, Florida panther

A post from the indefatiguably brilliant writer, editor and publisher Jeff VanderMeer about a moment of grace:

Hiking in North Florida, twelve miles in, I had an animal encounter that has stuck with me for over fifteen years. It was mid-afternoon, and I had already begun to have a sense of urgency from passing through swampy forest, with woods meeting a dank black water gutter, the place I’ve most often seen bear and heard things rustling in the darkness that the imagination assigns horrible forms to. Hiking alone is a different experience than hiking with someone. Conversation distracts from the still, standing water, from the reflections of cypress knees and the oppressive feel to the air, the sky blocked by scraggly pine trees. This, too, is the corridor where wild pigs once charged toward me, and while the danger is minimal, the imagination magnifies it, and in the absence of company the mind exaggerates. “Nature” in this context is something aggressive. Once through that gauntlet, you feel foolish for these thoughts.

In those final miles on the trail, where I had the encounter, the sun is so bright in the summer that you actually feel a little delirious, even though you know this is a mirage–you have water and you’re still hobbling through your blisters and petty aches.

Hot, tired, just wanting to reach the end, I came to a halt when a big cat suddenly padded onto the trail some two hundred feet ahead. I quickly took a look through my binoculars and I kept looking and looking yet again. Because I kept trying to identify the animal as “bobcat” or “lynx”—anything other than Florida panther. It couldn’t possibly be a panther, I reasoned—they’re so rare. But it was a panther, and I just stood there as it approached, down-wind from me, sniffing, appearing to not see me. My legs were weary and I couldn’t have begun to outrun it. I didn’t have anything with which to defend myself. All I could do is watch it approach. All I could do is let the panther decide how this was all going to turn out. It was a humbling and spiritual moment. I felt totally engaged, and completely exposed as well; it was as if I were more utterly myself as I watched the panther and yet not there at all.

A minute later, the panther wandered off the trail again, about forty feet from me. It truly hadn’t seen me, or had no interest in me, even as I had been acutely interested in it. When it didn’t reappear for several minutes, I walked past where it had left the trail, and saw nothing else until I reached my car. Later, it all felt like a dream I’d dreamt, a hallucination that I kept trying to believe was real. But now, so many years later, I don’t try to deny I saw the panther. I just keep trying as hard as possible to hold on to the details of every second of that brief encounter.