Thursday, May 20, 2010

Rhymes, but not in Time

"Leaves of three - let 'em be."

"Thick wooly rope? Don't be a dope."
Fall and Winter

These crass couplets have been passed down from botanist to lay-person and from camp counselor to camper since, well, maybe not since time immemorial, but probably since before Al Gore "invented" the internet; and definitely before anyone thought twice about the environmental impact of drowning unwanted flora in pesticides. These witty mnemonic devices are employed in (usually failed) efforts to educate the learner about the perils of creeping, climbing, noxious vines. The instructional theory seems to be that if the learner can identify the plant in question, then no contact will occur, and then there should be no chance of itching and scratching secondary to contact with urushiol oil, that nasty evolutionary defense system common to the "poison" plants (like ivy, sumac, and oak).

Alas, like so many pedagogical ideas, there is fault to find with the "rhyme prevents contact dermatitis" formulation. Knowing the description of the villainous species is certainly useful, but, sadly, neither incantation is sufficient to ensure an itch-free season. After some practice in discriminating Virginia Creeper from Poison Ivy in summer and Poison Ivy from harmless grapevine in winter, most people can avoid the plant itself. However, since it is the oil that precipitates contact dermatitis in most (compounded by allergy in the chosen several), avoiding the plant itself is not even enough.

Being blessed with the familial package-deal of genetics, one of my most obvious traits is "cheap Lithuanian skin." Translation: near-zero levels of melanin, bruising from insults that are unremembered, scratches that become years-later-visible scars, and sensitivities even to "gentle" and "clear" products for cleansing. Hoo boy, can I contract the contact dermatitis, especially from the dreaded PI! The tingling vesicles have appeared, unbidden, on the bridge of my nose, from dropping my sunglasses in a newly mown lawn (no sign of PI anywhere there: doc's best guess is the lawn mower blades transferred some urushiol to the grass where the sunglasses fell); in a perfect seat-belt pattern on my neck (for my wedding!).

Most recently, twice now my garden has given ME the gift that keeps on giving when I have done NO yard work at all. My wonderful husband has, in fact, banned me entirely from all areas of our property that has not yet been cleared of the PI. And still, twice in three months, it has struck.

I let it be.

I am not a dope.

And still, I itch.