A Poem on Poison Ivy

I found this in my search and thought I would share:

Poison Ivy

by Sibelan Forrester

1. The First Time

Who says wrists and ankles aren’t still eroticized?
They’re the first parts you can get to, the parts
most at risk even if you dress in all the clothes
you can think of, long sleeves, socks and shoes,
gardening gloves — hey, I’m not a specialist.

Hauling on the big vines, using your weight
to master them, of course when they snap
you tumble into the little beginning sprouts
that you don’t recognize. The next day,
or in three the first touches will appear
like slender irritated necklaces, puss
pearls on a fraying red thread.

Proving who is the true god of the garden.

    2. The Second Time

Poison ivy is like sexual obsession,
it pulls all my body’s attention
to those blistering organs of delight.
My body says, touch me there, touch
my ankle. Rub a little. Ooooooooh.

Three minutes later it’s calling again
with every seductive swish of my skirt,
begging any passing hands, especially my own.

3. The Fall

I was being so good, not scratching
the fulminating bubbles, in spite
of all the temptation: I was doing
what the doctor said, until
I went downstairs to put on the laundry
and stood for five minutes, head down,
in front of the dryer, scratching every bit
of available skin from the knees down
to the cold cement ground.

Weak woman,
leaky vessel!
Now I am seeping,
I must wear the red Letter.

4. So I Am Changed

Now that I am an initiate
I see it everywhere, the glossy
triangular eyes of its young
leer at me from every garden
and roadside in recognition.

All these years I didn’t know
what might be out there to get me,
but now wherever I walk I keep
an eye out for that glossy leaf
and tendril, lurking at the edge
of the lawn, the soft touch
and proof of my angry imperfection.

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Poison Ivy: God’s Great Leveller

For the lover of Nature, there is no end to the supply of theological and philosophical musings on the wonder of God’s creation.  Whether it is Ralph Waldo Emerson or Anne Dillard, Michael Pollan or Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry or Barbara Kingsolver or even Mary Oliver, one does not have to look far to find 200 pages or so of poetic verse dedicated to the intricate beauty of those who inhabit the land.

It is a secret delight of mine, I must admit, to linger over the pages of authors such as these, and to imagine in full color and with vibrant imagination the experiences that they detail on paper–the rush of the mighty wind, the cool waters teeming with dappled trout, the way in which words can transform even the obnoxious gadfly into a meditation on the holy, or a rotting trunk into a moral on the universe.

But there is a limit, it would seem to such musings.

Rarely, for example, have I seen an author turn their “reverent” gaze on poison ivy.  It is as though this persnickity plant, ubiquitous though it may be throughout the United States, has failed to register in the writer’s worldview.  It would seem that it is not worthy of the printer’s page.

Perhaps it is the visual humility of this plant that causes it to escape our notice.  For certainly it grows low to the ground, with only a few leaves to its name.  No wonder the plant at first glance–and even perhaps at a second and third–seems forgettable.  It is literally drowned out by the glory of the oaks and the buzzing of the arthropods, often hidden beneath its more majestic neighbors.

And so it is that we too easily forget this lowly creation as we turn our gaze to the grander aspects of Nature.  We write it off as base, a pest to be avoided, and we go about our business glorifying its neighbors.  But is this fair to poison ivy?  Is it not majestic in its own way?  If we wish to wax poetic over the majesty of God’s creation in the oak, ought we not also wonder at the cunning of this creature?

I found myself wondering at precisely this question last week, following my first encounter with this lowly little vine. As a Californian from the Bay, I grew up unfamiliar with ivy, for I lived in one of the few places in this country where the plant doesn’t grow.  And so it was that, when I moved to Philadelphia and began the process of amending the impoverished soil in my back yard for a small garden, it never occurred to me to familiarize myself with ivy.  The problem of ivy never even crossed my mind.

Which is precisely why, the day after a particularly vigorous weeding sans gloves, I was suprised to discover that my the space between my fingers on my right hand was becoming swollen with tiny blisters that itched the living daylights out of me.  Even then, it took me almost a day to discover the source of the blisters, and to begin to educate myself so that I would never make the mistake again.

Score one for the poison ivy.

In underestimating poison ivy, I had, like so many nature writers, dismissed it from my notice, and this is precisely what allowed this little plant to teach me a lesson.  For in underestimating its power, I succumbed to it.  In ignoring the plant, I made it possible for the ivy to hold my attention for at least a week, an unfortunate reminder to me that some plants know how to pay it forward in ways that we cannot imagine.  Some plants, like poison ivy, have a way of teaching respect to those who would offend them.  For certainly, the oak is majestic, but its beauty has never impelled me to scour the library and the internet for information on how it works.

It is interesting to me, in fact, that it is the more pesky plants and animals in God’s creation that inspire knowledge.  We are often much more keen to understand the mosquitos and the poison ivies of God’s created order than the gaudy and obvious splendors.  But rarely to we engage them with an eye towards the sacred.  Rarely do we speak of the sumacs and the fleas as God’s good creation as well.

As for me, I may have trouble seeing the fleas as beautiful, but I have gained an appreciation for poison ivy.  In the garden, I approach it with reverence, and I think twice before I deign to interfere with its turf.  It may look lowly, but even the highest of us all dress down once in a while.  And besides, it was in some of the lowliest creations that Jesus himself found beauty and God’s glory at work.

Getting Dirty in the Garden

Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.

-Isaiah 5:1-2

I can’t help but think of my own garden when I read these words from Isaiah.  As a person who grew up in my mother’s garden and who has longed for a few free feet of soil to work in, and who has despaired of their absence during years in cities like Los Angeles, Boston, and Philadelphia where open space is a dream, and container gardening the only option, my first year at my new call in Belvidere, NJ, a land of open space, was a dream come true (Phew!  That was a long sentence!)

Back in the fall, hubbie and I (okay okay, I) pored over seed catalogs–territorial seed, seedsavers– and made lists and lists of our dream plants.  We ordered garlic for the fall, and I eagerly rototilled what seemed like an ambitious plot of land– 15 feet square in the open space of our back yard.  We debated planting strategies and the merits of fences in a land of woodchucks and rabbits.  In the fall we planted Garlic–German extra heavy–and I watched for signs of life.  I ordered tomatoes and carrots, rainbow chard and beets, ground cherries and salad greens and potatoes and winter squash, accumulating a growing bag of seeds for the spring months.  In March I could stand it anymore, and as the garlic peeked out of a mix of compost and snow, I started seeds–cucumber, tomato, squash, ground cherry.  My eyes danced with glee as bits of green began to struggle out of the dirt, leaves unfurling slowly, and then faster as the plants got their legs.

We fenced our garden, pulled weeds, prepared soil for our tender newborns.  We babied them into the soil and fiercely guarded them from those who might do them harm.  We relished the first cucumbers, the first tomatoes, ground cherries, carrots and beets, offering hymns of praise to our Creator.

If what I have written sounds too perfect to be true, it is.  For just as we relished the garden, just as we planted it and whispered to one another our dreams for its life, so did our garden teach us.  First of all, we learned, as many do, that gardens do not always want what we do (they dont, for example, always look or sound like this one).  Our garden, for example, has decided to become a monstrosity that we must contain more often than encourage.  Our little babies, our beautiful little plants, are more often than not at war with one another–for food, for light, for space.  The ground cherries, for example, would love nothing better than to blanket the beds of carrots nearby with large, dense foilage, for no other reason than that they can.  The Butternut Squash, who waited for our two week vacation, has decided to make a break for the back yard, and has covered 30 feet of fence and made a 10 foot run out over the grass and towards the garage.  And the tomatoes, well they have grown to 7 feet tall and counting.

And this is just the garden, the things we chose to plant, the things we want to grow.  Add in the tomato horn worms, the japanese beetles and june bugs, the cabbage moths and slugs, and our garden begins to sound less like the orderly vineyard that Isaiah envisions and starts to sound a whole lot more like a battlefield.

Which is precisely the point, I think, of Isaiah.  You see, God planted a vineyard (that’s us) and like so many God had the best of intentions.  But like all vineyards and gardens, what is planted is not always what takes root.  The fertile ground of a garden is welcoming to every plant, and every hungry beast and bug.  The garden beckons to the weed–grow here!  the ground is soft and moist and full of potential!–and if we are not careful, and if we do not pay attention, our garden risks becoming overrun by all of these forces of nature.

It is in this sense, then, that I can relate to Michael Pollan’s insight in his book entitled “Second Nature,” that you haven’t become a gardener until you begin to recognize the distance between the dream of the garden and its reality.  For a garden cannot flourish without the ever-present hand of the Gardener.  You can’t just plant grapes and expect them to grow–they need attention, just like my own garden needs me if I want it to do what I want it to.  In other words, to Garden is to hold the chaos at bay, to build a fence and tend the soil and, when necessary, to pluck out that which is not what was planted.

Perhaps this is why, then, in Psalm 80, the people of God push back at Isaiah, begging God to return to the work he started.  “Come and save us!” they cry to God, from the forces that seek to destroy us.  “Let your hand be upon us” they ask, knowing that the garden cannot live without the presence of the Lord.  the Garden of God’s people needs weeding, and God is the only one that can tend to the health of the Vine.

When we do tend to the garden, of course, then we experience the joys that result from our work.  For a healthy garden offers its fruit in abundance to the Gardener–luscious cantaloupes, tender carrots and chard, mind-blowing tomatoes, the queens of the garden haul.  The gardener’s hands cannot hope to carry all that the Garden produces–it is truly a wonder and a blessing, beyond anything one might expect.

What a blessing to be privileged and challenged by my time in the Garden, and to be challenged and cared for by no less than the Great Gardener of Creation.