A central theme in my Crazy River project has been highlighting the emotional toll of the climate crisis by putting under a microscope, so to speak, my own feelings about not only the impacts of the crisis but the knowledge that humans’ actions are the cause. This series of three on-line essays, thought experiments if you like, expands that project to change the POV to non-human actors that are inextricably bound with the habitat in the Western Catskills: the black-legged or deer tick (Ixodes scapularis), the white-tail deer (Odocoileus virginianus), and Japanese knotweed (Reynoutria japonica). All three have seen their habitat change dramatically through climate change and human interventions. Using my imagination and research, I try to enter the umwelt of all three species, an impossible task, as Thomas Nagel pointed out in “What Is It LIke to Be a Bat,” for which artistic license may give us the best chance to accomplish. My intentions in doing so fall along three axes: theoretical, aesthetic, and spiritual, dimensions all essential to my own art practice. What follows is a look at the umwelt of black-legged ticks from the perspective of theory.
For this piece, I am looking at what it is like to be a tick from a facet of post-humanism that Tim Morton proposes in Dark Ecology. Coming from a long line of Enlightenment critics, Tim Morton’s writing has done much to point out that scientific and philosophical analysis falls short of providing an adequate conceptual framework to address the massive interdependence of organisms and nonliving agents past, present, and future in what they call “the mesh.” The mesh atomizes “common sense” categories in order to weave a totality that upends our ordinary perspectives. What we have with the mesh is an intricate dance that erases difference, jumping between inanimate and animate, from micro to macro, from the instantaneous to the geologic. In Morton’s object-oriented ontology, for which Donna Haraway laid the groundwork in her essay “The Cyborg Manifesto,” everything exists on a continuum, with any binaries only functioning as relational, not absolute, concepts. In Essay I will reconsider the tick not from the human perspective, that we think we know, but from an imagining of the radical, and unfathomable, mesh perspective.
In the Mesh
All ticks are arachnids, not insects, and have in one form or another been around at least as long as the dinosaurs. The black-legged tick, a parasite as with all other ticks, invites our knee-jerk reaction of disgust, It burrows under our skin to get its blood meal, a process which, uninterrupted, can last as long ten days for a female tick looking to nourish her clutch of 1000-18000 eggs, which she lays some time in May. Parasites give the lie to the misunderstanding that animals exist independently. All animals must feed, and parasites do so in particular intimacy with their hosts, revealing the workings of the mesh through their behaviors. To understand the black-leged tick’s umwelt we have to consider not only its sensorium but also its life-cycle as a parasite.
It has three stages: larva, nymph, and adult. The larvae hatch in the spring and in order to get to the nymph stage must find a blood meal, most often the white-footed mouse. It is at this stage that the nymphs become infected with Lyme disease (the spiral-shaped bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi) from the mouse’s blood, although a tiny proportion do inherit the disease from the mother. To find their blood meal, the larvae must “quest,” that is, lie in wait on a bush or blade of grass, top legs extended to climb onto the host. How successful questing is at any stage of the life-cycle is not well understood, but requires a number of factors to come together in the right way before the tick gets depleted and dies: optimal temperature, adequate humidity, and of course the appearance of a host. After that first blood meal, the larva drops into the leaf litter and molts into the nymph stage the following spring, adding another pair of legs to gain the full eight typical of arachnids.
Nymphs must find another blood meal in order to get to the adult stage. Nymphs and adults are more capable of adapting to a range of hosts and so spread Lyme disease to humans, other mammals, and even birds that provide the blood meals. Black-legged ticks sense the approach of their hosts through body odor, body moisture, breath, and their hosts’ shadows, making sure to quest around high-traffic locations, such as white-tailed deer trails. Once nymphs get their blood meal, they fall off the host and molt into adults, who reproduce sexually. Adults find their mates while wandering on the same host during the fall. After mating, the female consumes up to 600 times her body weight in blood to provide enough protein for her eggs. Once fed, she drops off to lay her eggs the following spring of year 2.
So what is it like to be a black-legged tick? Imagine living about 2 years, gaining an extra pair of limbs as you grow older, and only feeding three times during that brief life. Imagine having followed that life pattern for at least 230 million years. Imagine relying not on sight or hearing, but on sensing heat, moisture, and odors. Imagine being so dependent on your host that you literally become part of their bodies, requiring them not only for feeding but reproduction as well. In other words, their fortunes are your fortune. If they are being impacted by climate change, so will you. Understanding the black-legged tick requires mesh thinking, erasing boundaries between species, and around climate events that govern the water cycle. The truth is that humans rely on other animals for their survival just as much as ticks do, or any other parasite for that matter, though in less obvious ways, hence our implication in the mesh. Imagining the lives of black-legged ticks gives us a better purchase on that truth.
Hovey Brock is a writer, art critic, and painter who divides his time between Claryville, NY and Brooklyn, NY. His Crazy River series has been in the works since 2017