What We Learned From Swimming With Leeches
We don’t go away much in the summer. Highways and traffic grate at our nerves, we fixate too much on what could be getting done on the farm, we get grouchy filling up at the pump.
That is not to say our summers are without bliss. But once things are growing in the soil and critters are out on pasture, we tend to stay within a small radius. We don’t take “days off” in the conventional sense; rather we find our summer vacation in the interstices of our daily labor and take our seasonal bliss in place—long lunches, naps, or reading novels on the back porch; staying up a bit later in the evening to watch the girls wrestle and dance in the grass; early morning hikes before the sun rises too high in the sky; and best of all, retreating to the farm pond on the side hill across the creek. If “family vacation” exists for our clan in July and August, then it is defined by late afternoons and early evenings beside the pond, watching the sun retreat over the hilltops, zipping back and forth across the water with dogs, kids, friends and neighbors alike.
Thus, when Saoirse, Ula, and Grammie came down from the pond one hot day this past May and reported that they’d found leeches on their legs following their first swim, three generations of our family fell into despair. Our retreat was suddenly whisked away by freshwater vampires—evil, spineless, bloodsucking parasites.
We tried to keep it a secret while we decided what to do. We didn’t want our friends and neighbors to start avoiding our summer watering hole. But news of leeches leaked through Ula and her five-year-old network, parents were made aware, and we suddenly felt as though we had a highly transmissible social disease that was isolating us from our community and friends. No one wants to swim with leeches. Or, at least, that was my initial conclusion.
Grammie began doing research on leech control. She concluded that they had probably been present all along, but that our activity on the pond’s edge obliged them to burrow deep down or linger along the backsides of the pond where the cattails obstruct our swimming and play. She grew angry. Leeches didn’t bother her if they wanted to live on the far side of the pond, or if they wanted to inhabit one of the many other smaller farm ponds that we use for our gravity-fed watering system. But this was her space, where she played with her grandchildren. We were sent up with rakes, hoes, and stick-retrieving dogs to stir up the water and disturb the area where they’d settled. She began scavenging around for tin cans to build leech traps.
As her plan of attack fell into place, she began sharing with us bits of leech trivia: Leeches are once again being used medicinally, and the particular leeches in our pond have special medical value. We heard the leeches’ praises sung by an acupuncturist who swears by them in his practice; we visited a local living history museum where the on-site pharmacist took a leech out of a jar and allowed it to crawl around on his arm like a pet.
“They only feed twice per year,” he assured us, “while they may suction to your skin because they think you’ll be a good future host, they aren’t likely to bite. If they do, it is painless. They secrete a local anesthetic over their hosts so as not to disturb them or alert them when they are feeding.”
Suddenly, we began to feel, well, guilty. Were we being fair to the leeches? Bob observed, “they’re just innocent creatures trying to make their way in the world.”
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I couldn’t get that comment out of my head. The more acclimated our family has become to our habitat, the less inclined we are to insulate ourselves from it. The girls and I rarely wear shoes. I work in the garden barefoot, fully aware of the snails and worms beneath my feet. I pull nettles and crush Japanese beetles with my bare fingers. We don’t own sunscreen or insect repellent. We perform nightly tick checks to prevent Lyme disease, rather than forbid our skin from having contact with nature. How could we be this comfortable with our natural world, yet paranoid about swimming with a few leeches, who probably aren’t very hungry for our flesh, and if they were, would do us less harm than a mosquito?
The days grew hotter. We longed to cool our bodies beside our summer sanctuary. A few weeks ago, we couldn’t avoid it any longer. Bob, the girls, and I trundled up the side hill and plunged into the water. We shuddered and jumped if a bit of pond grass touched our legs, and we resisted the temptation to stand too long in the sandy shallow end. But we swam with the leeches. Or at least we thought we did. We didn’t see any. Then Grammie came up and joined us, joyfully plunging into the water.
She found the lone leech, swishing along the surface of the pond, set adrift by our splashing and play. Distressed, she ordered us all out, marched back down the hill, poked holes in her tin can to finish making the trap, filled it with fresh chicken livers, tied it on a string and brought it back to the pond. The next day she called me.
“Whose gonna open that trap?”
“You set it.”
“I’m not opening it!”
“Tell Dad to get it.”
“Don’t you want to be there? We could make it a ceremony and feed them to the chickens.”
“I’m not opening it!”
And so, a few more hot days passed, where we all found convenient excuses to avoid the pond. And the leech trap. At last, Mom and I couldn’t put it off any longer. We went up to the pond to clean out the shed that stands beside it. Saoirse and Ula joined us.
“What will you do with the leeches in the trap?” Saoirse wanted to know.
“Chicken feed,” came my grim reply.
“But they’re just innocent creatures trying to make their way in this world!” She repeated her father’s observation.
“I’m not swimming with leeches,” confirmed Grammie.
Saoirse said nothing. Grammie and I went about wiping down lawn chairs and sweeping up mouse detritus. Ula, unperturbed by the idea of leeches from the start, wallowed happily in the water. Saoirse disappeared.
I found her by the side of the pond, silently weeping, mourning the destruction of innocent creatures. I tried to remain firm. “Death is part of life on a farm,” I began my standard diatribe. She looked at me with her big, teary brown eyes and said nothing. I stopped.
It is true that we kill 150 chickens on the farm every month. We slaughter lambs, cattle, turkeys. We crush beetles, slugs, and snails that destroy our garden crops. But chickens, lambs, cattle, and turkeys are food. Beetles, slugs, and snails threaten our food. Leeches don’t threaten our food. They don’t even pose a threat to our health or safety. They just make us squeamish. I saw the issue from Saoirse’s eyes. That was senseless killing.
“Okay, I won’t feed the leeches to the chickens,” I sighed. “But would you agree to let me take them out of the pond?”
She hugged and kissed me for her answer.
Grammie retrieved the leech can and handed it off to me. Saoirse and I trundled off through the pasture to the nearby watering hole. We found an edge with good leech habitat, suitably populated with cattails. She stood back and watched as I squatted beside the water, removed the lid, then jumped back (never too certain that leeches can’t suddenly spring from the water and attack my face).
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The stench of rotten chicken livers stimulated my gag reflex. Saoirse and I covered our mouths and noses. Then we inched forward to see our catch.
Maybe we successfully disturbed the pond edge enough to push them back to more peaceful hiding places. Maybe the fish ate them. But we’ve not seen a single leech since, and we’ve been swimming nearly every day for the past two weeks. We’ve noticed that our friends and neighbors have resisted our invitations to join us at the farm pond. Apparently, they aren’t as comfortable sharing the water with leeches as we have become.
But we’ve concluded that we can tolerate it. The more time we spend swimming and splashing about our pond’s edge, the less interesting it is for the leeches. They can relocate to the quiet side of the pond, we can have our noisy end, and both humans and leeches can enjoy their summer sanctuary.
Shannon Hayes wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Shannon is the author of Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, The Grassfed Gourmet and The Farmer and the Grill. She is the host of Grassfedcooking.com and RadicalHomemakers.com. Hayes works with her family on Sap Bush Hollow Farm in Upstate New York.
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