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    All the chatter about long winters, late springs and reluctant summers have pretty much come to an end in recent days. The leaves are out, the grass is high and a wide variety of bugs have come to the fore as conversation starters: “Seen any ticks lately?”
    Aside from brook fishing, lawn mowing and woodland strolls I spend some of my spare time working on Maine’s ancient cemeteries, which are generally in decline statewide and in dire need of work ranging from brush clearing to resetting and cleaning headstones that have been buried for generations. I recently found a row of graves from the 1700s that had fallen and disappeared beneath the forest duff, fully 12 inches down among the roots and soil. Digging them out, cleaning and resetting them is a major project which requires a minimum of an hour’s work per stone – usually more depending on how deeply they are buried and how many live tree roots surround them.
    This is where I’ve met most of the ticks I’ve run into this year, often a dozen or more per day. It makes sense that they would be abundant in the detritus in and near these old cemeteries considering that no one has entered them, let alone maintained them, in decades, if not longer. On my “best” tick day I picked 24 of them off my gloves and sleeves, and when I got home I found more that had gotten past my shield of heavy clothing and DEET-laden bug spray.
    I’ve come to consider ticks as part of the overall cemetery experience along with the relentless pestering of black flies and mosquitoes that lurk in the same kinds of habitat. Under all those rotting leaves is a constant bed of wet, decaying vegetation. Once that layer is disturbed the air is quickly filled with evil biters of all kinds. It’s the price one must pay for getting the job done.
    One should expect to commune with natural irritants in summer, particularly where leafy ground cover exists, but I was surprised this week to find hoards of ticks in the rototilled soil of my garden. With nothing to eat and little to cling to you’d think the garden soil would be a safe haven, at least for gardeners, but that’s not the case. In raking my rows and hills I found numerous ticks climbing up the rake handle, and every time I go out to dig up a can of worms for fishing I’ll find more running up and down my shovel.
    It may be hard to believe but there were no ticks in Maine 50 years ago. We were renowned for our black flies and mosquitoes but ticks are a relatively new scourge. They were common in the South and as far north as Pennsylvania in the 1990s but now they are abundant all over the Northeast. Evolution? Climate change? Who knows for sure and what does their origin matter to those of us who scratch around in the leaves or dig in the dirt. Having them is the issue – where they came from is for entomologists to ponder.
    What needs to happen is for someone to come up with a practical use for ticks; perhaps as fertilizer, a medicine or even a tasty snack. Find a way to popularize, glamorize and economize the tick population and we’ll run out of them in no time.
    I have to say that I’m amazed at the ticks’ ability to persevere. We all know that they are easily encountered in grass, brush and duff but I have found them on the kitchen table, in the bathroom sink and even on my pillow. How? What? When? Perhaps most peculiar is that I’ve seen them inside my car, walking across the dash board as if it were the best place for a wandering tick to be. A while ago I was fishing a bass pond in a bass boat well away from shore and noticed a tick walking up my fishing rod – eh? Why a tick would be in an aluminum boat 50 yards off shore and walking around on a fiberglass pole is beyond me, but there he was. I tossed him into the water just to see if anything would eat him but he just floated there, more or less swimming in place, till we cranked up the motor and moved on. Add drowning to the list of things that won’t kill a tick!
    There was a time when the spruce bud worm was the scourge of the Maine woods but they have gone on for now, although experts predict that they will be back at some point. Now and again we’ll have an infestation of leaf-eating caterpillars that denude the hardwoods all across New England, and these days all sorts of ash- and hemlock-eating bugs have shown up to challenge foresters. Steps (however lame) have been taken to limit the spread of these critters (mostly not allowing foreign firewood into the state) but considering how expansive our forests are and that these bugs can fly makes any sort of control method rather pointless. The plague will run its course and then end abruptly and without warning – any part we humans play in the process is minimal at best.
    Another “expert” recently said that there are 200 million insects for each human on earth, which may well be low-balling it considering the number of mosquitoes and black flies boiling around in the atmosphere in places like Alaska, Canada and other vast wetland areas. Add in the “good” bugs – butterflies come to mind – and it’s easy to imagine that the bug-to-human ratio could be much larger.
    For example, one fall I hunted deer in the high mountains of Wyoming. One sloping hillside was covered with wildflowers and the air was thick with tiny blue butterflies. There were so many of them I could not see more than 50 feet around me. It was like trying to look through a blue snowstorm.
    If only we could trade our ticks for butterflies!

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