Troubled Tick Forest or Woodland Oasis?

There are so many beautiful words of poetry and prose about the woods. For me, the woods have always been a special place where my soul always felt at peace. My first and earliest memory is one from a path in the woods on a trip to Montana, where I can remember walking along a wooded path holding my father’s hand. I now know from pictures that we were on our way to fish. I was 3 years old. I have a picture from a moment just after the one I remember walking down the trail. This love for the woods that I was lucky enough to discover before I could even remember has always been a big part of me. And I love authors and poets who I feel give the beautiful forests the attention they deserve. One of my favorites such quotes is by Alice Walker, who once said, ” I understood at a very early age that in nature, I felt everything I should feel in church but never did. Walking in the woods, I felt in touch with the universe and with the spirit of the universe.” I understand exactly. And have always felt the same way. The Woods is my church and always has been. I never expected it to inadvertently try to kill me as well.
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I grew up in a quiet, small town in New York’s Hudson Valley. A fertile and beautiful valley surrounded by the majestic Shawangunk and Catskill Mountains. My parents were teachers who had both also spent a good deal of time in Nature. They took us camping often and we even spent entire summers during my childhood traveling all the way across the country and back in pop up trailers. I have seen most of the National Parks, many beautiful and amazing sites. But this Valley here is so amazing that it is equally as spectacular to me as all of those other wondrous locations I was blessed to travel to as a child. It is just so incredibly beautiful.
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This was also the era when the world hadn’t become quite so scary. Parents pushed their kids outside after chores and breakfast and told them not to come back until it was time for dinner. We wandered the woods finding entertainment in our adventures and learning so much more than we would have indoors. In my case, the woods had the added bonus of a gorgeous creek right across the street where we could even catch frogs and fish or just relax and listen to the sound of water tumbling over a few small waterfalls. It was beautiful.
Rarely was the outside world interrupted by anything very scary from nature. An occasional copperhead. Never any ticks. Sometime when I was in high school, in the early 90’s, I began to hear about ticks occasionally. But not often and never before then.
As someone who really loved to live my life in the woods as much as possible? I learned what ticks were almost as soon as I first heard about them. In 1996, I was living not far from where I had grown up, about 10 miles further into the mountains. Occasionally, you might find a tick on your dog but I had never seen one on me at that point. I was about to have my first daughter in a few weeks. One day, I found a giant tick stuck right to my belly. I acted like a girl (I usually reserve that behavior only for snakes) and screamed like crazy. I was terrified! I knew what they were. I knew you could get Lyme diseases and that was bad. That was probably about all I knew.  I probably wouldn’t have given it too much more thought though if I wasn’t pregnant. I remember calling the Doctor scared the baby would get Lyme. They acted as if I was crazy to worry. Luckily, they were right that I had probably found it quickly enough. I didn’t get sick. The baby was happy and healthy. Everything was okay, but I learned to be wary of the tiny bloodsucking critters when I went in the woods. I taught this caution to my children.
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Life happened. We never moved very far, although we spent my kid’s elementary school years and my oldest’s middle school years in a small city about 2o miles from my wooded little valley. We still spent as much time as possible in the woods. Hiking, camping, taking pictures, Letterboxing, anything we could do to enjoy the woods, we did. Mostly because the Woods is our church, as we said. But also because to be honest…what better open ended
play environment can you find for children who need to constantly explore in order to be able to learn how things work? And nature is either free or low cost, depending on how you experience it. It was what my kids grew up on because we never would have been able to create so many amazing experiences and adventures if they required more funding.  We frequented the woods, but knew the dangers of ticks. My kids grew up learning to check for ticks every morning and night and we all checked right after any exposure to the outside. I got bit occasionally, but always found them quickly because I was used to checking. I didn’t get sick. My kids never even got bit. In our backyard in the city, not even dogs and cats got ticks. Just fleas from the feral cats. Eventually, before any of my kids began high school, we decided that we needed to move away from the city in order to maintain the sort of life we were used to, and because, quite frankly, the larger the city, the harder it is to maintain a simple country life, just by simple virtue of the population density. So, as my oldest finished middle school, we began to plan for our return to the woods in 2010.
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We finally found what we thought would be perfect and moved into a comfortable raised ranch on an absolutely gorgeous piece of property. As the crow flies it is only a few miles from the woods where I grew up. But it isn’t located on the valley floor as where I grew up. It’s in the foothills of the majestic Shawangunk Mountain Ridge, nestled in among the long chunks of rocks as the north side of the mountain falls down into the valley. Minnewaska State Park almost wraps right through our backyard. The woods open up into a paved drive and an oasis of a green lawn sprawls slightly uphill to the house. Then the hill continues in steeper fashion behind the house with more lawn and eventually thick woods continuing up the hill. There is thick woods on either side, for acres and acres in one direction and for a good distance in the other. The location was so peaceful and magical. A small stream ran through the woods in the back corner if we had enough rain. It was everything we wanted home to be. The quiet was so peaceful after 10 years in the small city. Now the loud noises were crows cawing loudly in the morning, barred owls hooting in the trees at night, frogs singing on summer nights, and when there was enough rain, a tranquil flowing stream just like the one I grew up next to. We could only see two neighbors houses and those are both only visible if you continue to look down the mountain, across the street and down the side road on the other side. Quite some distance away, and you can barely see them when the leaves are on the trees. Even in winter…one house is in this shot. But not close at all. You may not have noticed if I didn’t point it out.  There was nothing but peace and quiet and wildlife. It was paradise. I wondered why I had ever left.

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Then the madness started. We aren’t sure how long our house had been empty, but we know it was some time. Maybe even years. It seemed like an extension of the parks and preserves my daughters and I loved to hike and photograph in our spare time further up the hill. Birds, deer, foxes, bears, owls, hawks, vultures. mice and squirrels, wild turkeys, etc. quickly let us know they loved our yard as much as we expected to. They had been here unchecked and they didn’t come alone. They brought ticks with them in vast numbers. We were immediately aware of the problem. Dogs and cats became covered. You’d simply step into the well mowed yard and find them crawling on you. I wasn’t sure what to do. We coated the pets in chemicals, and checked thoroughly for ticks multiple times a day. All those tick checks, and I quickly began getting bit. Luckily, it was only me. The kids didn’t get bit. But I didn’t know why I kept getting so many bites when I tried to be so vigilant.
Our cats obliterated the mouse and vole populations in ever widening circles away from the house. Deer and eventually turkeys stopped coming through the yard to avoid the dogs. It didn’t help. We kept the yard mowed, tried dc earth on the perimeter, stored wood far from the house and everything else we could think of. But I just kept getting bit more and more. I was amazed my doctors weren’t alarmed by all these tick bites. and I was baffled. I began to consider birds to combat the ticks, but that was also a time commitment I couldn’t really make.
As the first summer turned to fall and the mountains turned glorious in all their fiery fall beauty, the tick bites just kept coming.
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The ticks kept plaguing me and I started to see them crawling on walls in odd places. Like up the bathroom walls. Then, when I would finally crawl into bed at the end of a long busy day, I’d start to read a chapter or two of a book (I don’t read anymore. The bugs in my brain have made me completely unable to read). I started to finally understand. There were ticks crawling walls and ceilings. In the light from the small lamp I was reading with one night I saw the first tick on the ceiling. Crawling right above me! It still felt more like an Alfred Hitchcock script then the reality of our beautiful new home. I learned to check walls and ceilings. I got sick, but Doctors all dismissed me. I eventually was diagnosed with a kidney infection to explain my high white cells fevers, sweats and chills, extreme pain and fatigue and muscle weakness. For days I couldnt even hold down water.  Had my Doctor or ER staff looked, they probably would have found my Babesia parasite immediately if they had placed my blood on a slide and viewed it under a microscope. And likely at least Lyme Disease. But they didn’t check. I went with the diagnosis and returned home and tried to live my life but it was getting harder and harder. Ultimately, it took my a little more than 3 years, but I finally convinced my family to try keeping chickens. By now, I was very ill and Doctors were all saying they didn’t know what it was but they knew it wasn’t tick borne. This made no sense given my history of tick bites, that I lived in an endemic area, and that I had all the symptoms of Babesia and many symptoms of Lyme. The ticks continued to try and climb walls but I was now better at spotting them. Still, we didn’t have to go anywhere near the woods to get bit. We could get bit in our paved driveway and inside our home. I was anxious for chickens to work.
In the Spring of 2014, the preschool where I worked had hatched 6 chicks and 2 ducks with the kids. Nobody wanted to keep the chickens. I needed chickens as I had read they ate ticks. I also read guinea hens eat ticks but I find them to be much too loud and would never inflict such sounds on my neighbors, no matter how distant. We had a shed we planned to convert to a coop. My family agreed to the plan, and I brought 6 adorable chicks home from school to live in our shed and eat the ticks that were plaguing our beautiful quiet home in the woods and turning it into a tick filled nightmare.
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These adorable little feathered birds quickly won over our hearts and dug into the job of searching for ticks immediately.
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Even though they were just 6 small young birds and it was a big yard, I could immediately see a reduction in the tick population! There were almost instantly less ticks crawling walls and less ticks crawling on family pets.
Soon, we would fall completely in love with our tick destroying feathered foragers,  and launch a free range chicken flock that would destroy every tick we had until we no longer found ticks anywhere in our home or even outside. This is how we got to this seemingly beautiful woodland oasis only to discover it was actually a beautiful illusion. And how we came to acquire chickens. Because this post is already longer than one post should be, we’ll have to save the next step in the sordid tale for another post.

Beginnings are hard with all these details to cover. But we are getting there.

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