Ah summer, you think as you put up your feet and allow your mind to turn to the slushy consistency of a blueberry snow cone. You pour another spritzer, kick off your worn-out huaraches and look for something Lite to read.
It sometimes lasts as long as three weeks, this fuzzy euphoria, this craving for profiles of Madonna or summer fiction by some graduate student on his third fellowship, for cover stories entitled "Summer Pleasures" or lists of the 10 best sources of sun-dried tomatoes. And then, about mid-July, consciousness kicks back in, only briefly, but enough to prick the memory. Slowly, your mind begins to recall those days before the first of June, when it fed itself on fact, was challenged by ideas and theories and grappled with point of view.
Educators invented summer school for many reasons, but perhaps their only noble motivation was to keep the mind from wandering too far. So, to ward off a citywide veg-out, The Magazine offers you its own version of summer school. Starting this week, there will be courses in botany, sociology, physics, psychology, literature, music, history, marine biology, even driver's ed. You may be forced to put down your rum and tonic and put your brain in gear as you tackle such lofty topics as the sex life of a sea nettle or the group dynamics of a beach house.
There will be figures and charts to supplement the text. You will need to take notes, write down homework assignments and show up promptly for class. The teacher may want to go over your notebook. There may be pop tests or surprise quizzes. Write legibly. Use a No. 2 pencil. No makeup tests. No pass-fail. Your parents, your employer and your children will receive copies of your transcript. All book reports are due Labor Day weekend.
No excuses. No extensions.
In dwelling, be close to the land. In meditation, go deep in the heart. Tao-te Ching
IN 1609, CAPT. JOHN SMITH WROTE LOVINGLY of the flora of the Virginia wilderness but admitted he had met a plant he didn't like. The three-leaved vine, he wrote, "causeth itchying" and had just "gotten itself a bad name." It was the first description of plant-induced dermatitus in the New World, and Smith had set the precedent for dealing with Toxicodendron radicans when he scraped the ground clear to make room for Jamestown's first 20 houses. When in doubt, wipe it out.
Three hundred and seventy-eight years of dermatological insult later, poison ivy retains its image problem, through bad press and actual experience. Americans contract about 10 million cases of rash each year, ranging from pink spots to flaming blisters. Every state in the Union except Alaska, Hawaii and Nevada has poison ivy or its close relatives, poison oak and poison sumac. The enemy is ubiquitous, the hazard undeniable.
Little wonder, then, that we wage war on the stuff with such tenacity: flames, bulldozers and clouds of herbicides. And if it slips past us in the forest battlefields, we can attack it on the body battlefield with an array of high-potency fluorinated corticosteroids, though side effects are so severe a doctor's strict care is required. University of California researchers are even looking into a vaccine -- a permanent biochemical rampart against ivy's attack.
Who could argue with such a straightforward approach? Indeed, our attitude toward poison ivy is a microcosm of the western attitude toward afflictions in general: Let us bend our art and science toward their extinction. Destroy them one by one and we will create paradise through a process of elimination. This idea is so much a part of our mind-set that it seems bald and redundant to state it.
But it is wrong.
Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?
I do not believe it can be done.
Poison ivy -- like everything else -- presents different faces depending upon how closely one looks at it. And if one looks quite hard at poison ivy, botanical, medical and environmental questions give way to queries with an unmistakable religious flavor.
I learned about irritating plants, and about religion, from a Buddhist and porcupine trapper named Fred.
In the summer of 1975, I was living in a tent in the Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon, cutting firewood for a living and collecting itchy welts on my forearms. Fred and his wife Janet had a homestead in a nearby town called Holland, population 30. I spent a few days with him in August helping him harvest from his french-intensive garden and set box traps to keep rampaging porcupines out of his strawberries. Fred, in turn, taught me a great deal about the wild plants, such as deerfoot vanilla leaf, popgrass, pitchers and poison oak.
Fred had no degree in botany -- or anything else, as far as I knew -- but he knew plants. With a reed-thin body and brown-fuzz beard and hair, he even looked a bit like a cattail. He was about 35 and taught carpentry at Cave Junction High School. He was also devoted to Zen, though devotion to the Zen ideal of non- attachment is probably a contradiction in terms.
Through him I was introduced to the sibilant cadences of the Tao-te Ching, the sixth-century B.C. Chinese text that underlies most eastern philosophy. People have applied its wisdom to astrophysics, auto repair, marriage and eschatology, but its layered meanings seem especially apt for the enigmatic itch plants.
Once the whole is divided, the parts need names.
There are already enough names.
One must know when to stop.
Nomenclature is indeed a tricky business with these plants. Poison ivy, found throughout the eastern seaboard, is not an ivy, nor is the West Coast's poison oak an oak. Both belong to the sumac family, which also includes poison sumac, mango, pistachio and cashew.
But identification is not easy. Poison ivy can appear as a shrub or a vine. Sometimes its leaves resemble oak leaves; other times they look like the tip of a lance. Worse, plants of different types often spontaneously hybridize. In the mid-1970s, a botanist at Michigan State University tried to sort out the mess by lumping together scores of poison ivy types with two varieties of poison oak and poison sumac in the genus Toxicodendron. Most plant taxonomists just leave the bunch alone -- the itch plants are an annoying reminder that the natural world is under no obligation to line up into categories.
The old saw "leaflets three, let it be" is generally true, but not terribly helpful, as box elder, trillium and dozens of other harmless plants also have three leaflets. Experts say clusters of drooping flowers or small, waxy white fruits are better indicators.
You can't contract an itch by merely rubbing a leaf. It must be broken so the fluids inside can contact the skin. But the leaves are tender, so brush-clearing or flopping an arm off of a poorly placed picnic blanket is usually sufficient.
Accept misfortune as the human condition.
The itch in poison oak, ivy and sumac is due to urushiol, a resin that bonds with a protein in the body to form an allergen. White blood cells attack this modified protein, releasing toxins and causing characteristic redness and swelling. Highly sensitive people will break out immediately; others have up to three hours to try to wash the urushiol off. Folk prescriptions include gasoline, kerosene, horse urine and gunpowder, but authorities say plain water works best -- which is to say, not too well, but better than nothing.
Once the rash has colonized, people commonly douse themselves with calamine lotion, an analgesic that relieves the itching but does not affect the welts. Perhaps the best plan is to wait.
The world is ruled by letting things take their course. It cannot be ruled by interfering.
Pill-popping, cortisone-bathing Americans have trouble letting their afflictions heal on their own, but the body is adept at recovering from an ivy attack -- most people are itch- free within two weeks.
This, in fact, is the basic Zen attitude toward misfortune in general. The secret is mindfulness -- to be aware that the severity of our illnesses defines the quality of our "healths." Pain or discomfort of any kind is seen as a necessary, temporary disequilibrium that resolves itself in a higher order, and attention must be paid to both sides of the process.
To remain whole, be twisted!
To become straight, let yourself be bent.
To become full, be hollow.
Be tattered, that you may be renewed.
Still, this kind of thinking is simply too cosmic for some people, especially the estimated 20 percent of the population that dermatologists label "exquisitely sensitive" and may react violently to a pinhead's worth of urushiol. Philosophical elegance cuts little ice when one is swollen like an air bag.
So here is Fred's true revelation. He knew a cure for poison oak itch.
Fred kept a flock of goats, which nibbled on the prolific poison oak in his field. The goats developed an urushiol immunity, which Fred believed they passed on through their milk. It sounds like hippie nonsense, but Fred said that drinking the milk had ameliorated his previous exquisite sensitivity, and he saw nothing odd about it.
I did not drink enough to test his theory, but I do recall that he spent as much time stomping around in the bush as I did, yet had only mild rashes.
I have not seen Fred in a dozen years. These days I live 3,000 miles away in a little apartment overlooking a parking lot, but sometimes I think about Fred and his five acres of sanity in the shadow of Mount Elijah.
Scientists speculate that poison ivy and oak are more widespread now than they were before the Europeans arrived here, and that environmental meddling such as fire, brush-clearing and herbicide applications actually encourage them to return with vigor. But Fred had struck a balance with the poison oak -- his goats trimmed, but did not eliminate, the plants in his field, their milk eased, but did not remove, the rash on his body. Neither dominating nor dominated, he trod what Buddhists call "the middle way." He understood that nature only tolerates a certain amount of one-sidedness; attempt to suppress life's large and small miseries and they inevitably emerge in the only way they can -- as chaos.
The more ingenious and clever men are
The more strange things happen.
Nothing strange ever happened around Fred. That was probably the strangest thing about him. ::