December’s warm spell was good while it lasted and drew everybody here on “Walton’s Mountain” (that’s what brother-in-law Ken likes to call our familial enclave) out to work in the yard. Being out in this spring-like air, pruning the fruit trees — it was so good to be outside. But as we dug in the soil, I paid special attention to the roots that we were uncovering.
A few years ago, on the west side of the farm, we planted a hedge of Leland Cyprus. They didn’t look like much then, spindly wisps of green with red clay petticoats, but in a few years they made an elegant hedge that would outlast us all. Planting the hedge took us two days, with a family work crew and a couple of fellows that ran the hole-digger. We measured and staked and sprayed and dug and planted, enjoying the warm sun and the open sky of the pasture.
I was one of the planters. I had on gloves, so I didn’t break any fingernails. I am a girl, after all. But as the day grew warmer, I started to shed layers until I was down to a short- sleeved t-shirt. I thought it might be nice to get some sun on my arms. I wasn’t thinking about poison ivy.
In the winter, the problem with poison ivy is that the telltale triple leaves that we learn about as children are shed, leaving the vines lurking anonymously. To remember “Leaves of Three, Let it be” doesn’t help a bit. So while rooting around in the fresh dug dirt, dragging both my arms across the raw vines, I never imagined I was in any danger.
But I was. I was covered in Urishiol Oil. The most evil substance that exists in nature. It’s found on poison oak and ivy. “One of the most potent external toxins we know,” says my Doctor’s Book of Home Remedies. “The amount needed to cause a rash is measured in nanograms, but a nanogram is a mere billionth of a gram. That means five hundred people could itch from the amount covering the head of a pin.
And since I’d been scrabbling my way through soil and seeping roots, I’m afraid I got more than my fair share.
I’ve been told that if you take a hot shower with lots of soap within the hour of exposure, it washes off the contagions and you don’t get zapped. But since the day was so warm, when I got home I puttered around in the yard, clipping and pruning away a couple of hours. Then it was time to feed the animals, and then cook dinner, so by the time I finally got into the shower, it was about five hours after contamination.
I discovered it the following day. That’s the other thing about poison ivy. It doesn’t have the decency to make you react immediately. The first day wasn’t too bad. Red welts and slight itching. I though, “I can handle this. No problem.“ The next day, however, I woke to find that my forearms had become the center of my universe. I won’t describe them. I know some of you might be eating breakfast as you read this. Suffice it to say, I had strangers accidentally view my wrists and look away quickly in revulsion.
I tried hard not to scratch them. For days I stoically left them alone, gritting my teeth and trying to ignore the itch. But I was weak and finally succumbed to temptation. Just a little scratch at first, between the rashy spots. A mere brush of the fingernail. That instant gratification led to an increase in pressure, until I was in the full throes of a scratching fit. Have you ever seen those old flea-bit dogs really getting after an itch? They scratch like a piston. Their eyes glaze over. The drool begins. That was me. When I came to my senses, I was in the shop, plugging in the belt sander. I was just going to take the first three layers off and solve my poison problem for good.
Fortunately reason prevailed and I ceased the abrasion. That’s when the pain began. Waves of fire up and down my forearms. I hopped around a little, gritting my teeth. I thought maybe I should sterilize the poor ravaged remains of my skin. Scrambling around in the medicine chest, I grabbed the first bottle I came to. Rubbing Alcohol. I wrenched the cap off with my teeth and poured.
After I stopped squealing, I decided that the alcohol had been a bad idea. In fact, the scratching had been a bad idea. In fact, the whole “not taking a shower after I had been working in a winter yard” had been a bad idea. So, gentle reader, learn from my folly. Warm weather will tempt you to work outside and just because you can’t see “leaves of three” doesn’t mean the poison ivy isn’t there, just waiting to be dug up.