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#NatureTerror: What Are You Afraid Of?

NatureTerror header

photos by Melissa McMasters; words by you!

Happy Halloween week, friends! Today’s edition of #NatureZen is decidedly un-Zen, as we asked you to share your deepest nature-related fears with us. We hope that it’s a light-hearted look at some creatures who are perhaps less conventionally lovable than some of the ones we regularly highlight in this space.

But first, mark your calendars now: next weekend is the Memphis BioBlitz, sponsored by Nike and hosted by Clean Memphis! Help us create a snapshot of the diversity of wildlife in Memphis from Friday, November 6 through Sunday, November 8 using iNaturalist. You can make observations all weekend, but be sure to tune in during the live portion of the event on Friday from 1:00 – 3:00 PM. The Conservancy’s Fields Falcone and Melissa McMasters will be on hand showing you how we use iNaturalist to record wildlife in the Old Forest.

Now, on to the #NatureTerror!

Snakes! Any and all kinds absolutely terrify me.

When I was in high school, my best friend’s boyfriend had a couple of snakes for pets. My friend didn’t realize the depth of my fear and chased me through the house holding the snake and imploring me to pet it. I wound up quivering and crying in fear in a corner.

When I was in college, I was weekend babysitting. I was locking up the house for the night. I had to go outside on the patio to pull a door closed that was swollen and hard to shut. There was a huge water moccasin curled up under a chair. I froze and couldn’t move or speak for several minutes. Luckily one of the children I was babysitting snapped me out of my stupor. I made my dad come over the next day to make sure it was gone, and I wouldn’t let the kids outside in the back until after he came over. I shudder just typing these memories! – Molly Polatty

Garter snake
A tiny, non-venomous common garter snake

One time a stinkbug flew ONTO me and I’ve been unclean ever since. It was in 2011. – Justin Shapiro

Brown stink bug
Just a regular brown stink bug, not the brown marmorated stink bug of nightmares

I Am. So Afraid. Of LADYBUGS!!!

In kindergarten, we read a book about ladybugs and I remember it saying something like “they exert a poisonous, invisible green goo” when you hold them. (I know, I know, how can it be green AND invisible? Not a consideration for my child brain.) (And I am sure this may be resolved today with a simple Google search – no Google back then – but I refuse to even go down that path.)

In middle school, some particularly mean girls got wind of my ladybug #NatureTerror and at recess collected a bunch of ladybugs and dumped them down the back of my shirt. I was so terrified, my mom had to pick me up from school early. I am sure we went to McDonald’s for some conciliatory nugs.

In high school, we lived in a little country house that every summer became infested with ladybugs – only through the window in my room! I would have to sneak in bed with my sister or mom.

Today, my parents own a landscaping company called Ladybug Landscape and Design, and it takes a lot for me to muster up wearing the cool shirt and hat they gifted me because there are ladybugs in the logo. I don’t know that they even realize how long I’ve carried this fear, so if you are reading this, sorry Dad. – Kaci Murley, Conservancy Deputy Executive Director

Lady beetle
Sorry, Kaci.

I’m terrified of geese! I’ve been hissed at, chased down, and had one too many fly-by encounters with overzealous geese. – Amanda McCollum

Canada goose
Canada geese are not shy about telling you to step off.

I would say bees because they can sting you. I’ve been terrified of them my whole life. – Dax, age 8

I once got stung by a yellowjacket while watering my hanging plants, so now I have to inspect each pot before watering. That was an experience I don’t want to repeat!
– Erin Robbins

Eastern yellowjacket
Eastern yellowjacket looking intimidating

I’ve lost a lot of my long-standing fears about wildlife (as a kid I was afraid to go outside because of a carpenter bee posted up by the door! I named him Bee and I hated him). But I still jump whenever I hear a mammal that sounds larger than a squirrel. My fear of being treed by a feral hog is probably irrational (this has never happened!), but I face mammal anxiety often. Over the years, I’ve been jumped on or charged by so many off-leash dogs that I have developed a true fear of running into them on a trail. People pass me as I stand frozen to the ground and swear that their dog is friendly (a word I once heard as a dog’s teeth snapped an inch from my ear). I adore dogs, but out on the trails I adore them on a leash! – Melissa McMasters, Conservancy Director of Communications

Off-leash dog
Waging his campaign of intimidation

Hornworms. They give me actual nightmares. The way they slowly, methodically, creepily hang on and devastate my plants.

It gives me anxiety all summer long to comb through my reaper and tomato plants looking for them, constantly finding one more after I already thought I got them all and then having to start the search all over again. At night I shine a blacklight on every leaf to find them, but their glow creeps me out too.

I hate the way they look, I hate the way they feel when I pull them off my plants, I hate what they do to my plants… their fake eyes, their intimidating stinger, how hard they hold on with their disgusting little feet…it ruins my day to remember they exist! – Daniel Howard

Tomato hornworm
The caterpillar of a Carolina sphinx moth, also known as a tomato hornworm

I’ve spent countless hours roaming forests and fields in the Ozarks, and though I was always pretty thorough with the tick-check, I would still occasionally wake up with some unwelcome company. Ticks can transmit some pretty awful diseases, which I experienced first-hand after a harrowing emergency room visit. Turns out I have an alpha-gal protein allergy, a condition that is brought on by tick bites and causes anaphylaxis after ingesting mammal protein. I’m now a lot more careful with my pre-hike preparations. This serves as yet another reminder that it’s important to stay on established trails, and to keep dogs on-leash and on-trail as well. – Tina Sullivan, Conservancy Executive Director

Possums! So creepy! – Cameron Bellm

Virginia opossum
Virginia opossum making a break for it in the Old Forest

I have pondered, strained, and conjured to find something that scares me in the woods! While this is not a fear per se, it is a dread: walking face-first into a glorious spider web across trails. I LOVE spiders and HATE being a homewrecker! And it is not a palatable feeling across the cheek, nor is it fun to clear off the glasses…

I also dread off-leash dogs on the trails despite having three canine kids myself – I shudder at the innocent destruction a boisterous unleashed dog can cause to delicate habitat, which in the Old Forest has enough stressors out of our direct control. – Fields Falcone, Conservancy Programs Manager

Spinybacked orbweaver
Spinybacked orbweaver with its web

The animals that terrify me, to the point of almost panic attack level, are snakes. We moved to Fayette County, from England, 7 years ago. We didn’t have snakes in England — that’s a lie. We had adders, but they were so far removed from where we existed. Here, at home, we have snakes of all descriptions. I have come to appreciate ‘good snakes’ — the rat snake, the beautiful king snake — but, I am terrified of coming across a copperhead while walking in the woods. We are surrounded by woods.

Why? The camouflage and not knowing if one is close by — and of course, the possibility of being bitten by one!! – Amy Bryan Bulman

Rat snake
Non-venomous gray rat snake sunning

Thanks for sharing your fears with us! You’ve all been very brave.

And to hopefully allay some of that anxiety about copperheads, we’ll send you to this story from 2016. We had the pleasure of walking the Old Forest with Malle Carrasco-Harris (writer of our previous #NatureZen about backyard chickens), looking for copperheads for her study of urban snake populations. Learning about how copperheads are just as nervous about us as we are about them…well, it made us less nervous!

Another good resource for learning the snakes of Tennessee, including which four are venomous, is Tennessee Watchable Wildlife.

And finally, here’s the CDC’s guide to safely removing a tick.