Polly Greeks: Itching for a solution


Zen has an explosive idea, while Polly festers with murderous intent.

Words: Polly Greeks

Zendo wants to make a bomb. Involuntarily, my teeth make the tiniest grinding motion. When asking if he’d like to do an activity, I’d pictured board games or puzzles, not rummaging through the toolshed for volatile substances. My eight-year-old son holds his breath hopefully for a reply. Exasperation aside, I love that it’s a fun and reasonable request to him. What’s not to like about blowing up things? Take the loudest noise you can think of and times it by a million. Zen wants action: a comic-strip kaboom! to reverberate around our quiet valley. Not until I prompt is there a snifter of thought for the consequences. The dawning gleam in his eyes reflects craters and carnage.

“Come on, Mum,” he’s nearly shouting. “Let’s do it.”

Despite home-schooling capacity for marrying chemistry, physics and engineering, I didn’t seize the potential educational pursuit. In a poor second-best for Zen, our only explosions in the past six months have been entomological during the wettest summer ever. By wet, I mean pretty much daily rain and months of weird misty skies with no trace of the sun. For insects, think bloodsuckers: detonations of mites, ticks and fleas.

A resourceful home-schooling parent would’ve seen opportunities; researching geoengineering, finding online footage of magnified mite mandibles and running experiments on how large ticks can get when clamped like dangling grapes on a dog’s side.

There could’ve been graphs and art, but at the time, teeming with populations of parasites, my only motivation was making those suckers die. Any teaching I offered was urgently practical — how to decapitate swollen ticks, dust guinea pigs in diatomaceous earth and decontaminate chook coops with sulphur and diesel.

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Sadly, the next lesson was unexpectedly mine. Chicken mites aren’t limited to a poultry diet. I learnt it after shifting a hen and her eggs to a broody box. Unbeknown to me, a colony of tiny black specks swiftly jumped species, heading for creases and hairier places to feast on my flesh. The itching erupted at 3am and kept me scratching fiercely for at least a month. Let it be known: ants in your pants are a party compared to the misery of mites in your pubes.

Sometimes this rural lark is very unsexy indeed. While crops of plums, potatoes and tomatoes rotted in the sunless weather, piles of laundry mushroomed as we struggled to eradicate critters from clothing and bedding. If it were mildly comforting to know we weren’t suffering fleas alone (the region’s supermarket sold out of treatments), I can only guess our chickens felt similar solidarity as repeat infestations of mites kept me wailing. Meanwhile, the family’s mite-y puns went into overtime when a new type of bug, as pale and fine as dust, appeared in the chook-food bin. The barely visible flecks floated onto me every time I reached in, spawning a paranoid hyper-sensitivity that saw me pressing vengefully at tickling eyebrows and whipping back clothes to hunt down all-too-often phantom crawling sensations.

In the end, I quit being organic and reached for a bottle of something toxic to wield at the parasitic plague. Excited by the violent scene on the label, Zen clamoured to pull the trigger. Disappointingly for him, nothing sizzled, flashed, or exploded except a small burst of gratitude in my heart at the thought of mite annihilation. As the urge to scratch diminished, I glimpsed a home-schooling window ajar.

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“Let’s look at symbiotic versus parasitic relationships,” I told my two children brightly. I wanted to explain how humans can live in mutual reciprocity with the Earth; how all take and no give is never sustainable despite what species are interacting. I was neatly tying in the matter of service, segueing to children helping around the house, when Zen enthusiastically interrupted to ask if we could grow an enormous tapeworm on purpose.

Again, tooth enamel ground quietly as I considered my son.

NZ Life and Leisure This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure Magazine.
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