Ralph Gardner Jr: Summer's Scourge

Jun 22, 2019

Communing with nature comes at a cost. There’s lawn care. Pool care. Tree care. And I haven’t even gotten to our house and all its geriatric needs.

But that’s not the cost I’m talking about. I’m referring to a levy that I’m told is avoidable, though I haven’t figured out how to avoid it. It’s a tariff as self-destructive as any the Trump administration has devised in the gloom of Donald Trump’s 5 a.m. tweets. It’s the cost of doing business in the country. And by the country I mean in the wild.

I’m speaking, of course about poison ivy, the scourge of summer. Though this year it arrived in May when my daughter couldn’t make it upstate and asked me to pick a bushel of ramps for her.

I might have gotten away with the chore had not she admonished me to do so in a sustainable way. That meant not pulling it up by the bulbs. I wasn’t even allowed to take the three leaves that constitute the ramp plant but had to leave one behind to allow the species of wild onion to rejuvenate itself.

This required me to squat and perform the fine motor skills that apparently put me in contact with fetal sprigs of poison ivy, itself only awakening from hibernation. Though my experience is that poison ivy never sleeps.

Fortunately, it was only a minor case of the rash.

I don’t know whether dermatologists have a classification system for the condition. But I do. There’s the kind, such as I acquired picking ramps, that serves as a gentle warning that you got off easy.

Then there’s moderate poison ivy which requires you to keep a tube of cortisone cream by your bedside for those middle of the night itching bouts.

Finally there’s full-blown poison ivy that makes you wonder what you were thinking when you decided to clear brush, and makes you seriously consider selling the place and using the proceeds to take a long vacation at a European grand hotel where nature is splendidly tamed – and here’s the important part – by somebody else.

As you may have guessed by now I’m suffering from a medium case of poison ivy at the moment. Not the kind that sends me to the emergency room seeking relief, as some previous encounters have. But significant enough that I’ll think twice before I try weeding the garden again. And then go right ahead and do so.

Yet here’s the problem. Actually, there are three problems.

The first is that while, after all these years I can identify poison ivy, I still overlook it in my passion to edit nature. I’ve heard things like it’s shiny and has three leaves (lots of plants in our deciduous northern jungle are shiny and have three leaves.) Poison ivy is the only one I’ve encountered that’s notched, that has a subtle indentation on the leaf.

The second problem is that I can’t figure out how it spreads. If it came into contact with my arm – I know, I know, I should be wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts – then how did it end up between my toes even though I was wearing sneakers or hiking shoes?

And the final problem is that my compulsion to improve the landscape is such that I’d do it all over again. As I’m weed whacking or pulling choking vines off trees, wearing work gloves, of course, I’m asking myself is all this worth getting poison ivy?

And the answer is a qualified yes. The pain is the price I must pay for home improvement. For the satisfaction of exercising control over nature. For the subtle beauty of a weed-free planting bed or a magnificent oak that doesn’t have to compete with an undifferentiated explosion of underbrush.

So basically it boils down to beauty. And beauty sometimes exacts a toll. You wouldn’t enter an art gallery and expect the owner to give you the canvas for free. So you can’t expect nature to cut you any deals either.

A word about power equipment. I know it’s not exactly on point but I suspect there’s some convergence here. The convergence being that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. I’m ridiculously inept. Things that involve gas, spark plus and maintenance are not my friend. When I pull the starter cord on my lawn mover, chain saw or brush cutter the odds are about even that it won’t start, or that after the false hope of a couple of emphysemic wheezes, that it will die for good.

That may be for the best because I believe that on the rare occasions when it runs for a few minutes it turns the shredded poison ivy into an aerosol that’s just as lethal as the leaf form.

And not just machinery. Yesterday I splintered a pair of heavy-duty steel loppers. Who else does that happen to?

It’s also the reason I get poison ivy. My passion for achievement, for aesthetic accomplishment, trumps my better judgment.

If we could send men to the moon how hard can it be to come up with a poison ivy cure? I just hope I’m still around, clearing brush, when that blessed day comes.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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