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Posts Tagged ‘poison ivy’

Been a bit of an arduous Fall so far, as evidenced by the big wall of space between the last time I blogged (two months ago) and now (currently), but I’ve been tossing around lots of ideas. Let’s start with this one:

Every year at the end of August, I go beach plumming half an hour north on Sandy Hook, NJ, a six-mile stretch of pines, sand, WWII training ground remnants, and the odd white-tailed deer. A local pastry chef commissions me to forage for him throughout the year, and one of his favorite ingredients is beach plums, the little wild and astringent ones the size of cherries that grow on Sandy Hook. He candies them and adds them to desserts, and people go crazy.

This year I thoughtlessly* hurt my back a few days before my plum excursion. But I had promised Matt I’d get him a bunch of plums, and besides, after working so hard for so long I really needed a foraging fix in the near wilderness. I went. It took me about 45 minutes to get in and out of the car, but I went.

And despite my injury—or maybe because of it—I ventured more deeply into the wilds, and took more chances, and consequently found more plum bushes. Getting totally lost on this remote peninsula as night was coming on would be a serious matter. But I needed to get lost a little.

Beach plum bushes in this area are ancient and leggy and scratchy. You have to maneuver your way into the center of them in order to get the most fruit. This work is not for the fearful or dainty. I never remember to wear a long-sleeved shirt, I always pay for it with slim cuts up my arms, and every time I’m afraid that standing on one foot and reaching will one day make me pay even more dearly if the aged branches give and I fall into poison ivy. It’s difficult enough work without an injured back.

But I got several quarts of plums, and while standing in the middle of my last bush, so old and tall that it was all dry leafless twigs, I reached, and was surprised that its brittle bones didn’t give. The farther I reached, the more resolutely it gripped me. It didn’t let me fall.

 

 

*I have a little problem with feeling invincible, and not surprisingly, it can get me into trouble. In this episode, I lowered a heavy six-foot upholstery table without help** and felt it in my lower back for two solid weeks.

**Don’t do this.

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High-tide line, Atlantic Ocean.

red light green light

the feeling of almost,/the door between worlds ajar, now,/as two lights dim and fade to black/shape shifting within square one/scary, illuminating, boundless/the taste of chocolate/warm possibilities/second, and third, and more, chances,/as many as I want/swirling in circles like the leaves/this night between two days/slowly slowly letting its cloak fall

*

I wrote the above almost five years ago, just before I was about to move out on my own for the second time in my life. It’s striking how often life requires this of us, whether it’s literally moving (across town, across the country, or across oceans) or figuratively moving (away from old thinking into new). The only thing we can safely predict while we’re on this big blue ball is that nothing stays the same.

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A box turtle, weighing his options on my street in 2010.

When I was moving out in 2010, I held in my mind a statement I’d seen recently (funny how you see and hear what you need when you need it, right?) that said the human default reaction to change tends to be fear, but why can’t it be excitement? Why can’t we choose to see change as an adventure? This perspective helped me a lot during that Matterhorn of a year. I kept reminding myself that being in square one meant being in the unique position of being a shape-shifter. We can do, go, be, feel anything in square one.

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Women chilling at the beach at sunset.

Here’s another one: I was crap at bio, but I remember this tidbit from one of my classes: it’s at the edges—where the water meets the sand, where the grass meets the wood, where one ecosystem abuts another—that the greatest diversity and activity are present.

Think of harbor cities, and how they tend to be filled with people, languages, and foods from everywhere. Think of the wet sand just at the high-tide line, where mussels, clams, and other bivalves lie atop the sand, with sand crabs and more below. Everything on the dry end is bumping up against everything that just came in. Think of inland, where backyards and mini-malls bump up against property lines, where the tidied and civilized meets the wild and unspoiled—those are the places you’ll find an abundance of wildlife.

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Beach plums, which the deer like as much as I do.

It’s at the edges, of sand and land, where children love to play and dream most. As soon as they’re old enough, beach kids are at the high tide line, running, digging, splashing. I saw some tween girls at the beach one evening not long ago, creeping around the jetty rocks which hold back the ocean. I asked what they were doing and they said, ‘Just looking around.’ ‘For a class or just for fun?’ ‘Just for fun.’* Grownups are at the water’s edge, too—fishing, harvesting mussels, walking, thinking. Much activity.

Go to a barbecue at a house that edges a little bit of tangled brush, and that’s where the kids are tramping around, their parents squalling across the yard to be careful of poison ivy. There are acres and acres of beautiful grass in my hometown’s ball field…and we kids ambled right across it to poke around in the narrow strip of wood at its edge. That was where the late-spring honeysuckle grew, perfect for a sweet hit on our tongues, and where we learned orange flowers taste sweeter than white. It’s where the fern-like plant, the one that closed up when you touched it, lived.** There was not a whole lot to discover in the flat, level grass.

It’s at the water’s edge and at the grass’s edge where I’m happiest, for the same reason the kids are. I never outgrew that. And bonus: it’s inevitably where the foraging is best. At the edges of sidewalks I find purslane. At the edges of my town I find wild crab apples, hibiscus, and mint. At the edges of park lands and fancy shopping plazas I find elderflowers. At the edges of the lake I find mulberry trees. At the Sandy Hook peninsula, jutting out into the Atlantic, I find prickly pear and beach plums. And every year, along the edge of some beach or some property line, I discover something new.

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The end of my road, overlooking the lagoon.

I live at the beach, at the very edge of a continent. With the exception of six years away at school—boarding and then college—I have never lived anywhere else, and I’d really rather not. College especially was an uncomfortable shock: I learned what ‘land-locked’ meant. Who would think a person could feel claustrophobic with miles and miles of open space around her? Who would imagine the sense of relaxation and reassurance that could come from being at a definite boundary? Last winter I spent many an evening on the jetty of my beach, wanting to stand as closely as I safely could to the ocean, just to feel that reassurance. It’s like the maps they have at the mall, the ones that show an X, a you-are-here, don’t-worry-you’re-good identifier. There is peace in that X.

We are all at the edge of a equinoctial change now, too. Here in the northern hemisphere, Fall is imminent. Halloween is derived from the Wiccan feast of Samhain, which marks the beginning of winter. It’s believed this time is a liminal one, when the veil between the world of the living and the dead is thinner and can be traversed by spirits. Some cultures leave food, light candles, and more to appease the spirits and keep them from haunting homes.

Very similar are threshold myths: In ancient times it was believed doorways were another kind of edge, another liminal place. Like the two ecosystems butting up against each other, there is potential for significant, and in this case possibly dangerous, activity; anything can happen in this divider between worlds. Spirits, some potentially harmful, were believed to loiter in doorways. This is why grooms carry brides over thresholds—to prevent them from being snatched away.

Edges are powerful places.

This Fall (and whenever we’re up against an edge), I hope we own the chance to be shape-shifters, and are able to chase away fear and own that power.

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*So much for attesting that kids can’t look up from their phones, huh? 🙂

**We never learned its name, but thinking back, it must have been carnivorous. How cool is that?

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This is sassafras, which apparently makes a delightful root-beer-like drink that I have yet to try.

I love going off-roading and picking out plants. Especially the edible ones, because then I can add their location to the ever-increasing list of minutiae in my grey cells, and come back when their season hits. Oh, there’s a blackberry cane, I say to myself; wow, that is one colossal patch of garlic chives. I get a bang out of finding beeches, sycamores, mulberries, crab apples—trees people don’t tend to plant anymore because they’re considered messy.* I know them all well. To me, this isn’t just green stuff sticking out of the grass; it’s friends. I’m serious.

Walking through Huber Woods in Locust, NJ last spring, chill as a coconut granita, I thought of how many people I know who are uncomfortable in nature. I don’t mean uncomfortable camping, although the two probably go hand in hand. I mean just walking and bellyaching: ‘This is boring, is that poison ivy, what if a bug looks at me,’ etc.

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This is a pine tree, easy to discern from other evergreens in that its branches stick straight out like arms, parallel to the others.

Did you read the second book in the Wrinkle in Time series, called A Wind in the Door? In it, the characters are in a void and at risk of being ‘X-ed’—that is, wiped out, in Madeleine L’Engle’s cool vernacular. The only way they can be recovered is by what the author calls ‘Naming.’ Heroine Meg figures this out, calls by name everyone out of the void, and saves them all. The Naming re-integrates body, mind, and soul—makes them whole again.

And it occurred to me that I had practically grown up outdoors, and moreover had worked at Huber Woods as a naturalist, cuddling snakes, walking-stick insects**, and other assorted beasties. These things, once I knew what they were and learned about them, were as comfortable to me as the eight-year-old mint-green fleece I have on right now. If you know a lot about your surroundings, that makes a giant difference in whether you feel like a granita there, or as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockers.

Names are powerful. If I can continue being a booky nerd for one more paragraph, let’s remember why John Proctor chooses to walk off to his death at the end of The Crucible.*** He’s happy to lie and say he’s a witch, as long as it’s verbally. But ask him to sign his name to the charges, and that’s where he draws the line. When you attach a name to something, that something gets imbued with power—sometimes for good, like in Meg’s case, or in ill, like in Proctor’s. He didn’t want his name, his very identity, stapled to a lie.

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These are tufts of coyote fur. I actually saw one trooping through Huber Woods one day. Told the rest of the nats and they didn’t believe me.

But the power of a name is good when it comes to nature. It gives us the ability to discern what’s around us, and can help us to relax. I think of earlier this year, when my friend Laura asked me to check the back of her property to see if she had any poison ivy. She wasn’t freaked out about it or anything; she’s just a gardener who’s out in the grass a lot, and was smart to want to know. And now she knows there isn’t any.

I love when my friend Lauren, a talented photographer, shows me a photo she took of a bird and asks its name, or gets excited when I name a flower she shot. She told me when she and her husband (a chef) go on hikes, her husband points out edible plants to their children, and often they all take a nibble. What a profoundly useful gift—to teach the kids to embrace the earth instead of to be afraid of it.

Bottom line: we’ve all gotten so detached from the earth that we have no idea what’s around us. Yesterday I picked wild crab apples and a little girl told me she thought they were cherries. Okay—she was three. Fair enough.

But an hour later an adult said the same thing to me. Cherries have a brief seasonal window, something like 2-3 weeks, in late spring. In other words, the adult was way off, and I’m sure it’s because supermarkets provide more or less the same produce all year round. I see this as a grave problem, and just goes to show I have a lot more work to do to educate. Not to spit in the eye of Madison Avenue (though I’m certainly not above it), but to re-acquaint, re-familiarize, and encourage people to see and feel and taste what’s growing in its own time. Because right now we’re lost in a void, and it scares me.

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These are wild strawberries (sadly, the ones without much flavor. Yellow flowers pre-berry denote no-flavor strawberries. It’s the white flowers you want for that incredible wild strawberry flavor. They’re my white whale).

On your next hike, take a reliable field guide with you. It’s cool, I’m telling you. Look up the plants and animals and birds you see. Name them.

And how wild would it be if you Naming them, getting to know them, getting comfortable with them, re-integrates us—helps to make us all whole again?

Or along with the field guide, take me along with you. You know I’d totally dig it.

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This is a groundhog. He and his ilk may look like Sherman tanks but they move like MiG-31 jets.

*Wow—made it to Sentence 4 before throwing in an editorial about today’s societal wussiness. Milestone.

**Hyperbole. I wouldn’t advise it. They’re really cute, but break easily.

***If you’re under 15 and haven’t read it in school yet: spoiler. Oops.

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My area, like so many others, used to be farmland. Farmlands are often edged in brambles, and brambles often mean wild berries—strawberries, blackberries, currants. 100 years ago, during the warmer months, people would take baskets out to the brambly edges, fill them with whatever happened to be growing there, and pick until their fingers were stained and the baskets were full. Then it was back to the farmhouse, where Mom and assorted sisters would turn the berries into pies, cobblers, grunts, slumps, and Brown Betties for breakfast. The rest, the bulk of them, became jellies and jams to put up for the winter.

This is something I easily forget when I’m rushing hither and yon on a Monday morning, parking the car at a store* that’s flush against some of the last bits of wild and unclaimed acres in New Jersey. But today, when the sun slanted through the trees and hit gleaming bits of red, I stopped to investigate.

Yep, there they were: a raspberry’s unmistakable hairy, thorny canes. I threw my bag and sunglasses into the car, lest they fall into the poison ivy that was absolutely everywhere, and reached and gently pulled. The berries were much smaller, shinier, and firmer than cultivated raspberries, and were ruby red instead of rosy violet-red. And tart! Holy cow. Only a handful was available, but I can imagine a sweetened pie of these would be a thing of uncommon beauty.

No one else saw them, or maybe they saw them but didn’t trust that they were raspberries, and steered clear.

Nibbling on them as I write this. I’ve never eaten wild raspberries before. Crazy. And enjoying them slowly, the best way to enjoy something rare.

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*I’m not telling you what store. They’re mine. Okay, mine and the deer’s.

 

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