Friday, June 17, 2011

Folklife Fridays: Is that a chigger?

I have to admit that summer in the South isn't perfect.

There are the numerous snakes, gnats, mosquitoes, and other UFO's that plague us during these sultry months. One of the nastiest ones, chiggers, can't be seen with the naked eye, which is probably a good thing. If they were as big as an ant, it would surely mean instant death to anything they were able to climb on and sink into.

My siblings and I spent every warm day of our youth playing outside, in the woods and fields, usually barefooted. We all had chigger bites from the time school ended until the cold weather ran them back in the ground. Sometimes, our brown naked legs would look like the Appalachian foothills on a miniature scale.

The beautiful butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa, grows wild in our area. I have always loved it but we were afraid to get near it because it was also a favorite of chiggers. Its common name in this area is chigger weed, so I guess my mom was right when she warned us to stay away from it.

We used various remedies to rid ourselves of chiggers and the itching that accompanied them. Snuff juice, always readily available, was probably used the most. Mama bought something called 'poison soap' for us to bathe our legs in, and it seemed to help, at least temporarily. Baking soda and water could be made into a paste that would stick to the bumps.

The only true cures were time and autumn.

Several years ago, we were living on a farm in Tennessee. Some new people moved in a house near us, and we quickly became friends. They were from way, way above the Mason-Dixon line, clueless concerning chiggers. The man came to visit us one late afternoon and asked to speak with Hub privately. He wanted to know what was causing his private parts to break out in bumps and itch so bad.

My lil' ole sister has always loved to fish, and happily sits quietly and patiently for hours waiting for the red and white bobber to disappear. A few years back, she spent a fine afternoon on a grassy bank, happy that the fish were biting and the breeze was fresh. She caught a lot more than a few fish. Next morning, she woke up to a rear end covered with innumerable chigger bites and an itch that lasted for the rest of the summer.

On July 4, 1970, Hub's family got together to celebrate Independence Day. They lived in Wright, a little community built along the river, beautiful with its lush vegetation. It was a good year for blackberries and they were at their peak that day. It was suggested that we could have cobbler after supper if someone would go and pick some blackberries. Well, I have never been one to turn down a blackberry cobbler, so we got a bucket and found some choice brambles growing in Miss Lonia's pasture. It didn't take long to pick about a quart of the black, juicy berries.

Oh. Did I mention that I was entering my eighth month of pregnancy? I was skinny all over except my belly, which looked like I was hiding a twenty-pound watermelon. The next morning when I woke up, I knew instantly that something didn't feel right. Raising my nightgown to expose the before mentioned belly, I discovered it was covered with chigger bites, far too many to count.

Our little rental house had a window air-conditioner, and I spent the next few days standing in front of it with my maternity (yes, we wore maternity clothes back then) top pulled up so the cold air could blow directly on my big belly. It helped as long as I was standing there. I went to the OB/Gyn for my regular visit after a couple of days. It was the only time I have ever had a doctor to laugh out loud at my condition.

Powdered sulfur applied to the feet and ankles seems to prevent them. When I get one occasionally, I dab a little nail polish on it, although the experts say that all that does is remind you not to scratch. I suspect there are as many chiggers now as there ever was. I am just much, much more careful about invading their space now.