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I’ve Got You Under My Skin

Chiggers are small, affectionate animals frequently encountered in the southeast and which the North Carolina Board of Tourism wisely avoids mentioning in its travel literature and nature guides.

Chiggers are a tiny fraction of the size of a poppyseed but can run much faster. They have highly evolved mandibles, well developed teeth and complex digestive systems. They can be found throughout the Tarheel State except in areas of frozen tundra.

If you’re visiting and plan to be in the area only briefly, you should nonetheless be able to accumulate sufficient chigger experiences to last a lifetime. A stroll, or sprint, through grassy areas will almost guarantee the introduction of chiggers to ankles, and from there to calves and most other areas of the body covered by epidermis.

Go home, tell your friends, see the envy.

Having been made aware (aka warned) of the presence of chiggers in my new neighborhood, I took a cautious first visit around the backyard with an eye out for chiggers and other vermin. I next performed a close inspection of body parts that had been exposed.

(Note: Looking for chiggers without a microscope is like looking for Jupiter without a telescope.)

Chiggers had indeed made my acquaintance on that brief walk but were keeping quiet about it, at least for the next few days. But then one evening as sleep awaited me, the trumpets blew, the fires were lit, flashing red lights came on, and the anti-itch creams, lotions, emollients and Bic lighters were put into play.

I began thinking of designs for prototypes of socks made from aluminum foil. Heavy duty, military grade aluminum foil.

In California earthquakes are in your life in a vaguely menacing reality. In North Carolina, chiggers are in your socks in an itchy, omnipresent reality.

I spent 50 years in California and the closest I ever came to an earthquake were a few headlines in newspapers. Never felt a tremor. Never heard a rattle.

I’ve been in North Carolina about 15 minutes (well, six months) and am on a first-name basis with most of the chiggers in my neighborhood and have had intimate relations with dozens. I wonder if they can be domesticated.

Plus cicadas.

Another marvel of the North Carolina semi-insect world is the Cicada, a big, loud beetle whose nightly buzzsaw symphony is both thrilling and mysterious.

These fellers are about the size of your thumb. I’ve never seen one that wasn’t dead, and their buggy corpses, usually spotted on a sidewalk, are always worth pausing to inspect. Some have a glamorous iridescent emerald set of positively radiant wings even while ants busy themselves feasting on dead cicada innards.

Another version, almost as pretty as those wearing shiny layers of green, are exotic black-and-white cicadas, sort of like Dalmatians or zebras in their stark patterns.

When not dead, cicadas assemble in the trees around my house, all facing my direction and on a signal only they can hear, burst into “song” of a thousand raspy, hissy violinists working as a team to build crescendo after crescendo, then bang! and it’s over.

Instantly, simultaneously and abruptly, the surging gray noise of a thousand toy jet engines quits. Brief pause. Next, slowly and cicada by cicada, they pile their scratchy musical clouds atop each other’s, and soon comes the first wild crescendo.

Repeat and repeat on into the night. Next morning, dark and early, they’re still hard at it. No wonder they fall out of trees dead.

Of course they might not be cicadas at all; I’m no ophthalmologist. One set of critters could be members of the flying green toad family and the other a miniature sea gull. And maybe they make no noise whatsoever.

But if they aren’t cicadas, something else is busy whooping up loud catastrophes in my trees and bringing me storms of gray noise.

It’s a nice thought, actually. Who among us wouldn’t prefer a flock of miniature sea gulls occupying our trees to beetly beasts from the land of insects?

(Tom Hine is a retired journalist who also worked 34 years as a criminal defense investigator in California; he and his wife recently moved to the Charlotte area.)

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