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When I think about things that live in the woods and are a real danger to attack and bite me and generally make my life miserable, I tend to think Big Picture – bears, wolves, ocelots (whatever those are).

Recent experience reinforces that I should be narrowing my scope. Way, way, way down. Like, almost microscopic. Specifically, I should be worried about chiggers.

For those of you who don’t know about chiggers, how many minutes have you actually lived in the South and do you never, ever go out into your backyard? Chiggers are tiny little bugs that live in the grass and pounce on you like a mountain lion on a stray sheep. Or at least that’s an image I’ve come to embrace.

Since they’re really, really, really small, chances are you don’t notice this (unlike, say, that aforementioned stray sheep) until a few days later when tiny red dots appear on your ankles and you have the sudden desire to rip the flesh off your legs.

Both the name and the bug appear to have been brought to our shores many years ago from Africa and the West Indies, so their presence on this continent apparently only barely predates the founding of the country and is just one more gift we brought the original residents. We’re very giving that way.

Chigger bites are like yard art – you seldom have just one. In fact, they tend to cluster, which means you’ll have to suppress the urge to scratch an entire patch of your ankles, arms, whatever. And I’m going to leave the “whatever” to your imagination, except to say my interactions with chiggers have largely been confined to my legs. So, at least I’ve got that going for me.

Apparently, chiggers bite you if you wander around in the grass. Which would seem inhospitable except that, if given the opportunity, I’d use a flame thrower on them. So I guess they’re just tagging me last.

Technically, chiggers are not bugs (they’re sort of spiders) and they don’t “bite.” They inject a chemical that causes cells to dissolve so they can absorb them as food. Now don’t you feel better?

The problem with chigger bites (or whatever that whole injection process this is that we’re going to call biting because the actual thing is just pretty gross), other than the obvious fact that you’ve been bitten by an insect, is that the tiny red welt that rises and itches also lasts longer than the memory of either your first love or first car. Which, in some cases, was the same thing.

Also, the absolute first thing any medical professional or anyone with common sense will tell you is that if you get chigger bites, despite the overwhelming urge, do not scratch them.

Since I’m not a medical professional, I can’t say this with any degree of certainty, but I don’t believe there is any condition for which one of those people who actually are medical professionals would say, “Hey, go ahead and scratch it all you want. Go to town. It’s fine, we’re fine, everything is fine.”

It takes someone with a stronger will than mine (read: basically anyone) to keep from scratching the itch caused by a chigger bite. I feel confident I’m not alone is in this, which also helps explains why many full-grown, middle-aged Southerners may still be scratching bites that date back to the Reagan Administration or a church float trip they took in junior high.

I’m not sure if the general geographic placement of chiggers in the South gives rise to a tendency toward what we’ll describe as “more traditional,” or “home-based,” medical solutions. I will say that, at some point, I feel fairly confident that the “medical professional” dispensing advice on chigger bite treatment protocols on the Internet actually attended Witch Doctor State, and eye of newt is going to be involved.

Apparently, either witch hazel or calamine lotion figure potentially in any treatment plan. And the advantage of calamine lotion is it leaves a pinkish residue that allows the afflicted to be readily identified and either shunned or made fun of. We can often be as cruel as our insects down here.

So, too, can nature. Or at least a nature the generates tiny little bugs that cause you to ex-foliate large patches of your body. All of which reminds us of one of life’s larger lessons: Don’t spend all your time looking for the bears. It’s the chiggers that will actually bite you.


Gary Smith is a recovering journalist living in Rogers.

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