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Icky Outdoors

I itched the entire time I spent researching and writing the article about chiggers for this issue, but those episodes of delusional parasitosis were nothing compared to the real itching that followed my first introduction to chiggers some 10 years ago. What point, I wondered, as I scratched savagely at the 30 or so bites that cropped up during the night, could there possibly be to chiggers?

When you get down to it, what possible point might there be to seed ticks, mosquitoes, poison ivy or brown recluses? Could there be any value in goose poop, pond mud or grass stains?

I can imagine a big sign saying "Welcome to the Great Outdoors!" And in a little box at the bottom you read: "Caution: it's icky out here."

Yes, icky. After a day outdoors, you might have ticks crawling through your hair and underwear, pollen scrubbing your eyeballs, and so many sticktights on your socks and jeans that it would take six grooming monkeys a week to pick them clean.

It's almost impossible to enjoy nature without encountering something yucky, gross or filthy. A crushed insect smears on your arm, dead fish wear away on the shorelines, spiderwebs collapse on your face, millipedes infiltrate your tent, cockleburs jam your shoelaces and mud gums the lug soles of your hiking boots.

I can't go fishing without getting dirt under my fingernails, even when I only use artificial lures. Recently, I made a few casts from a dock at a friend's cabin before going out to dinner. As I released a sunfish that hit my mini-crankbait I noticed some liquid I-don't-know-what streaming from its vent onto my clean shirt.

Icky.

There is no end to it. Animals dart in front of our cars, snakes hiss at us on the hiking trails. There's a billion bugs for every deer. Downpours soak us, blizzards strand us, rocks slip underfoot and send us tumbling, wind musses our hairdos and throws branches and leaves onto our manicured lawns.

What a cluster of inconveniences and insults! It's a wonder that we put up with nature at all!

I'll bet a lot more people would spend more time outdoors if the Conservation Department were to cleanse our public areas of all chiggers and ticks and snakes and poisonous plants. If we really wanted to boost attendance, we'd construct weatherproof domes over those lands.

People naturally prefer comfort and try to avoid pain. Much of our human ingenuity and effort has gone toward creating barriers between ourselves and outdoor ickiness. In some of our cities, we've made it nearly impossible for nature to exist, or even visit. Some of the residents of those cities never see a farm animal, much less a deer, turkey or possum.

Robert Frost wrote, "Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out."

Nature frequently rewards us with rugged or delicate beauty. The beauty, however, is a wrapping. The package itself contains a frantic scramble of striving and falling back, greenery straining for sunlight, big fish eating little fish, an abundance of life and death. The outdoors can inspire us, delight us, comfort us, challenge us and even frighten us. It's most valuable function, however, may be to teach us about ourselves and about the processes that govern our lives.

I once watched an old couple pause on a hiking trail to contemplate the carcass of a dead woodpecker. The man jostled the bird with the toe of his boot and they lingered there, both quiet. I believed they were absorbing a lesson, for I have learned things in the same manner.

Granted, the outdoors presents us with quite a dose of ickiness, but I think we are better for it.

Tom Cwynar, editor

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