42 Year Itch

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’

My mom has always been highly allergic to poison ivy. I remember her having severe reactions to the plant after she would spend hours in her beloved gardens while I was growing up. I felt that I was immortal because I could basically roll in the stuff and never suffer a breakout or rash.

Then I got older.

And now I, like my mother, suffer harshly from interacting with poison ivy, sumac, or poison oak. The frustrating part is that as I get older, I enjoy gardening even more and that has been especially true over the past year during the Covid pandemic. My asparagus is now 4 years old and pretty amazing, btw. Thank God for Tecnu.

According to Genesis, we were created in a garden to enjoy the fruits of nature (plants, not animals… being omnivores wasn’t part of the created order, which is a point I like to make when people press me on literal interpretations of Genesis. Enjoy that steak… you’re betraying the created order. Don’t get me started on shrimp or wearing cotton and nylon together). Our created selves were breathed into by a God that walked in the Garden during the evening, looking to commune with us.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’

Poison ivy, like mosquitoes, is one of those realities of living in South Carolina that reminds you that you are mortal. From dust, we came, and to dust we shall return.

Cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.’

This past weekend I was working in our yard and removing the inevitable weeds and unruly plants that have popped up over the last few weeks of a South Carolina spring. They always come suddenly and ferociously this time of year. Our well-trimmed and manicured winter lawn becomes a weed-filled garden of poison delights within a few weeks every April. I always remember to put on my gloves and long sleeves and identify plants at the beginning of May when I attempt to tackle this new growth from the earth.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

T.S. Eliot

And now I’m reckoning with two armfuls of poison ivy rashes despite knowing I’d been tapped by those slick and sticky strands of green creation that always cause me to catch my breath. I quickly applied a good helping of Tecnu, thankfully. But still, here I am with two arms covered in red itchy bumps.

April is the month of reckoning. We must step back and examine the steps we made over the winter (even here in SC where the winters are milder than the Starnbergersee). We take stock of the first few months of the new year and we make plans for the rest of the year. There’s a reason Easter comes this time of the year.

There’s a reason we are reminded of our mortality and weakness to a simple plant while attempting to grow new food or beauty for our family and neighbors and communities. Gardening is not easy. It involves risk. Especially for those of us allergic to urushiol oil and too stubborn to remember to wear long sleeves when tending potatoes in the ground or Iris beds or clearing a path to show our children where the snake who shed a 5 foot long skin in our backyard last week probably lives.

The Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

We are all on our journeys outwards, East of Eden. Those paths are not simple highways, but meandering roads that are filled with opportunities and options and trees of fruit and weeds of poison. As we travel, we grow and we learn. We are able to identify the poisonous plants and discern which fruits are good to eat. Through it all, we learn and gain knowledge from the trees. The wisdom of our humanity is not a curse, but a blessing.

Poison ivy blisters and all.