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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Poison Ivy

Air Date: Week of

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Commentator Linda Tatelbaum says a close encounter with poison ivy taught her to have a new respect for nature.


CURWOOD: Not all our relationships with plants reap rewards. And as we get ready to welcome another summer, commentator Linda Tatelbaum remembers her last encounter with a botanical menace.

TATELBAUM: It was the last hot summer night. We'd just finished the blueberry pie when John said, "Hey, let's go watch for shooting stars at the coast." He knew a perfect little beach. We waded through a shoulder-high field in the dusk and scrambled down some rocks to the water's edge. Water's edge. That phrase will never again have the same alluring ring.

As I jumped down onto the beach something brushed my left earlobe. Don't ask me how I knew, but I knew it was poison ivy. I'll never watch shooting stars from a beach again. I'll never walk through tall grass again. I'll never walk through any grass in the dark. I came home with hands and neck ablaze. That night ended my easygoing love affair with nature.

Speaking of love affairs, the next day we flew to New Jersey for my nephew's fancy wedding. I'm the crazy aunt from Maine, the one who got away, but I have my pride. I dressed in style for the black tie affair. I learned something about style. Poison ivy doesn't go with a white satin dress. Poison ivy on the neck doesn't go with pearls. Pearls don't ooze. Poison ivy on the hands doesn't go with long white gloves, which become soaked from weeping blisters while holding a glass of champagne.

When I got back home to Maine I slathered on the Calamine till I looked like a pink ghost. The poison spread into my system. Patches of blisters broke out all over my body. If I was out of place in a hotel ballroom, now even my beloved woods became foreign territory. Every green thing was a threat.

My rash has healed now. I've calmed down a bit. I've realized it's not nature's fault, it's my skin that betrayed me. And betrayal can be a good teacher. I've learned to watch where I'm going. My eyes do their quick botanical scan before my feet proceed. Wintergreen, gold thread, and moss give me the go-ahead. And if the ferns get too thick, I know I'm approaching the water's edge where poison ivy thrives. I stop dead in my tracks. It was easier not to pay attention. I can on longer stride through the woods oblivious to the plants I'm trampling, absolutely lost in my thoughts. We each have a life to protect. As in any good relationship, I step lightly, cautiously, and with respect.

(Music up and under: Kraftwerk, "Sci Fi Memento")

CURWOOD: Linda Tatelbaum lives in Appleton, Maine. Her latest book is called "Writer On the Rocks: Moving the Impossible." You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.

(Music up and under: Allison Dean, "Update Theme and Stings")



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