Illuminating the Hidden Forest, Chapter 16: The ecology of acorns and ticks: Once bitten, twice shy
To read the previous installments of ‘Illuminating the Hidden Forest,’ click here.
Oct. 14, 2019
The woods are awash in acorns. With every step in our oaky forest, I crunch acorns underfoot. Last summer there were few acorns. My neighbors and I had worried conversations about the survival of deer.
But this fall it’s a bonanza. Acorns are everywhere: empty caps of twos and threes, the occasional leaf attached, shiny oblong green and brown nuts, many shells cracked open. I learned from my internet explorations of oaks and acorns that this is a “mast” year, a year when oaks put their energy into their seeds. Other years, they put their energy into growth.
Whether the acorn year is lean or fat matters more than to the deer. In the dynamic economy of the forest, an abundance of acorns feeds many animals, including deer and mice, leading, in the absence of sufficient natural predators, to an increase in deer and mice. And more deer and mice feed more ticks. And more ticks might just want to feed on me.
I learned this the hard way, and unwittingly (and witlessly) became part of the forest ecosystem, and not in the ways my romanticism usually takes me. It happened like this.
Five days ago, on a crisp, sunny, perfect October morning, Lily, my husband and I took a walk in Kennedy Park. While Lily leapt on logs and barked at rustles in the leaves, we kept to the trail, enjoying the light through the brilliant golden canopies and the newly revealed glimpses of the waters of a far swamp through the thinning brush. As always, I had my mushroom knife and mesh bag in my pocket. My eyes scanned the forest floor for the acid orange of chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms or the ruffles of their hen-of-the-woods cousin — no luck.
After arriving home I decided to keep looking in the woods behind our cabin. There I know many logs that have borne a chicken of the woods and, being an optimist by nature, knew in my heart of hearts that I’d find some on this perfect October day.
So off I headed, Lily happily in tow, to check the ash log beside the path that, last summer, had sprouted voluminous flavorful shelves. None today, so I angled down the slope toward Yokum Brook, kicking through shrubs and ferns to another once-fecund stump — bare. I continued, pushing apart low branches and stepping over others that had toppled during storms until I reached the edge of the brook where, once, other mushrooms had welcomed me with their fruits. These trees were lively with growths and scales and fungi ranging up and down their bark and branches, but nothing that I could eat.
So Lily and I trudged up the brook bank heading for home, bone-tired and with nothing to show for our efforts, or so I thought. Once home, chagrinned, I glanced at my insect-shield clothing lying unworn in its basket and my bug spray unsprayed on the mudroom windowsill. I had been tromping full-tilt through a New England forest in the height of tick season with no protection whatsoever. The added power of the acorns peppering the forest floor amplified my error.
I checked myself for ticks in all the usual places: behind my ears; through my hair, arms, hands, legs and trunk. All seemed perfectly clear.
Awakening late in the night, I felt something on the back of my ear. In the bathroom, lights ablaze, I felt a small bump behind my ear. I pulled it out with my fingernails, and there on the tip of my finger was a black dot the size of a pinhead, with unmistakable little legs waving. Down the drain it went, with a chaser of scalding water.
The tick could only have been there a few hours at most. It certainly wasn’t on my ear that afternoon when I checked. I figured there would be little harm.
The next day, the site started to itch — and itch, and itch. I took the doxycycline capsules my wise doctor had prescribed to keep in the house just for a time like this. For four days I lived and slept with ice packs on my ear and on the ever-spreading rash covering my cheek and neck.
Today I’m much better. The itching has abated, leaving me with scaly skin behind my ear, and a renewed respect for the power of the tiny tick and the importance of taking self-protection seriously. I have become part of the life cycle of the forest, with the caveat that my tick, rather than filling up and moving on to lay more eggs, is now a tiny boiled carcass somewhere in the internal workings of our septic system.
The acorns, meanwhile, doing a good job plumping up deer and mice, are thereby enriching their guests, the mighty and terrible ticks. So be forewarned, dear readers: Enjoy our beautiful woods, but cover up and spray abundantly.