It’s been a week, and I am still scratching the chigger bites that I got hiking around Soldiers Delight NEA last week. Throughout the broiling summer, I would head out to this favorite spot clothed head to toe in tick and chigger-proof gear, spray my ankles and shoes with repellent, and jump into the shower as soon as I returned. For the most part, I survived these outings unscathed, but I detested being out in the woods wearing chemical armor and didn’t feel like lingering to look around. So last week, I went out sleeveless in shorts and sandals. The butterflies popped out of the bluestem, lit on boneset and ironweed, nectaring long enough for me to slowly approach through waist-high grasses. I spent hours out there relishing the solitude, the slight breeze that picked up a lone monarch and carried it to a patch of bright purple blazing star. The scent of joe-pye weed rose along a grassy stream where I crouched, lifting rocks one by one – here a young dusky salamander, there a tiny coiled water snake.
The chiggers accepted my invitation to dine. Their bites, swaths of vivid red welts against my pale midsection, will slowly fade. Chiggers are invisible to me when I am out photographing butterflies. I am searching for the bold, the lovely, the striking, the remarkable, while being consumed by creatures tinier than a pinhead. Also consumed by the need to know more, I have just learned that only the juveniles feast on me, and that at this stage their legs number 6 rather than 8. Their digestive enzymes dissolve my flesh while forming a feeding tube in it. No animal remains in or on me – only the rankling itch.
My skin still holds the faint scars of last year’s chigger feasts, etched by the elders of this year’s youngsters. I am tattooed with reminders to pay attention, to keep watch for what I haven’t yet learned to see.