By Elizabeth Speth
I am in agony. Burning, itching, weeping, wretched agony.
I am the victim of a natural disaster, a silent and beautiful menace. The name of the villain in this piece? Toxicodendron diversilobum, Pacific poison oak, western poison oak. Rhus diversiloba. By any name, this rose is bad, bad, bad.
I know how it happened. I visualise my mistake as I slather myself with salve. I curse the memory as I absently begin scratching a new spot. Why is there never a roll of barbed wire lying around when you need one?
I was horseback riding on the beach, and took a shortcut through some downed trees and brush to a higher trail in the hills. Shortcuts are always a bad idea.
Poison oak, how I dread the heroin high of scratching you, that brief second of ecstasy I will be chasing obsessively as my life deteriorates all to hell because of you.
Everyone’s got a remedy. I’m not even going to bother discussing them. Calamine lotion. Oatmeal. Deodorant. Commercial preparations. Baking soda. Vinegar. Rhinoceros urine. None of them work.
Nothing stumps this woody vine, this twining, monstrous tendril, this author of my misery that thrives everywhere near my home. It likes wooded areas, coastal and chaparral environments. It grows lush in shady and dappled light, but full sun is fine too. Nuclear annihilation? No problem. Poison oak loves that.
You can’t burn the stuff to get rid of it. The surface oil, the urushiol, which is the thing that causes the horrible rash, travels like evil on sinews of smoke. You breathe it in, you are in very bad shape, because now the horrible nastiness is inside you.
I suspect poison oak can only be killed with a wooden stake, or a silver bullet. Perhaps an exorcism. I should try that.
The vines, which are actually quite pretty in a Ted Bundy sort of way, with their shiny leaves that change from bronze to green to a gorgeous shade of devil-red, can climb up large shrubs and tree trunks into their canopies. Then they proceed to kill the support plant by smothering or breaking it.
If poison oak had feet, teeth and claws, it would rule the world. It would be the only species left standing. It would eat its young.
Its snaky arms lie in wait in the forest. Just a touch (which ought to be accompanied by a gong, or maniacal, take-over-the-world laughter so you at least know when it happens) causes contact dermatitis – an immune-mediated skin inflammation – in four-fifths of humans.
Never had the pleasure? Well, gloat not, my friend. Most, if not all, will become sensitized over time with repeated or more concentrated exposure to urushiol. I’m talking to you, One-Fifth. It will get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too.
First comes the itching; then inflamed dermatitis, oozing, weeping, swelling, blistering.
I’m not going to show you a picture. The internet is full of them, and they’re horrible. Other-worldly. God-awful. I will simply invite you to imagine my flesh as an erupting volcano of flaming lava. Only much worse than that.
Pity my friend who got it in an unspeakable place while doing what bears do in the woods.
I know life is a taut line between what is good for you now, and what is good for you in the long run.
Therefore, poison oak, I will not give you the satisfaction of scratching.
I will not scratch.
I will not touch nail to skin.
Not when a hairbrush works so much better.
You are more agonizing than unrequited love, you poisonous wretch.
Well. No. Scratch that.
Let’s not be rash.
Unrequited love is pretty miserable.
But I suffer. There is no relief. I am aware of every second of every minute of every hour of my discomfort.
If tumbrels rolled through the streets to the accompaniment of exhortations to ‘bring out your dead’, I would heed that call. I would fling myself into that wooden wagon, having first scratched myself thoroughly on it.
But I will not, alas, be spared by death. No such charity for me.
I will recover. I will cease lurching through the streets like the proverbial shunned leper. My skin will grow back together and smooth out, and people will speak to me again.
And, because I am not terribly smart or teachable, I will go again into the dark woods. I will hike. I will steer my horses through the shiny red sea. Because I love to do these outside things, I will forget.
Until the next time.