Tuesday, December 12, 2006


A poison ivy vine (Toxicodendron radicans) grows in my backyard. I had to work around it Sunday when I was cleaning the garage gutters on a lovely warm, sunny late fall day. The vine has been there for years. I know what poison ivy is. I’m mildly allergic to it and I know how to identify it and I stay away from it, for the most part. I am also perfectly capable of removing this noxious plant.

Over the years, a few people have noticed it. I’ve had to warn a few guests to stay away from it. Almost invariably, people say, “Oh, poison ivy! Why don’t you get rid of it?” Good question. I may be a little sloppy in my yard maintenance, but that’s not why I leave the poison ivy alone.

Poison ivy can be a real pest when it spreads across the ground and creates tangles of toxic vegetation among rocks, brush and other plants. My plant, on the other hand, is a rather well-behaved climbing vine that clings to a big Norway maple beside the garage and also twines up and around an old fence post at the base of the tree. The woodchucks that den under the woodshed love it and help keep it from spreading across the ground. I watched baby ground hogs this summer stretching as high as they could on their stubby hind legs to get every glossy green leaf they could reach.

That tough old vine hugs that old fence post as if it wanted to cling to the memory of a world where people lived with nature but did not dominate and suppress it. The post is a relic from days long gone when the old lady who lived here had chickens. I’ve been here for 20 years and the post was old when I arrived. It is exceptionally decay resistant. It serves no purpose. The chickens and even the wire it supported no longer exist. Like the poison ivy, I should probably cut it down and dig it up, but I am reluctant to destroy this little trace of the history of this place.

If I take time to look, the poison ivy is a pretty plant. I like the way it spreads its bright leaves of three compound leaflets out in flat fans to catch the light. In the fall, it provides a crimson splash of color in the backyard. The woodchucks seem to love it and, I assume, they consume it with impunity. I wonder if it produces berries for the birds. I’ll have to pay closer attention.

My poison ivy does not threaten me. If I stay away from it, it does me no harm. I try to see its good points and resist the knee-jerk desire to kill and destroy it, the way I fight the near-instinctive drive to step on bugs. In time, I have developed a desire to protect it precisely because others loath it.

Recently, I’ve had a few encounters with a mentally ill man. He suffers from some kind of crippling anxiety disorder or compulsive behavior problem, or some combination of both. That, combined with some annoying personality traits can make him difficult to deal with and troubling to be around. People avoid him. Some leave when they see him. People ask, “Why don’t you kick him out? Why don’t you call the police?”

I talked with him a few times. He’s an intelligent man and he knows perfectly well that he is sick. I'm convinced he's harmless. I tried to understand his needs but at the same time make it clear that there were limits to how much unusual behavior would be tolerated. I like to think we reached some level of mutual understanding, but it’s hard to be sure. I told others we should try to be tolerant and try to help this man to the extent we could. I tried to resist the urge to simply get rid of a problem. I hoped to understand the needs a fellow human being. I know the human mind is a complex and unpredictable thing, and I certainly have no training or skills in dealing with the mentally handicapped, but it seemed important to try. I would like to report that behind that bizarre and tortured exterior, I found a smart and likeable character that I have grown to like, but that would be premature if not highly unlikely. For now, I just hope my patience and desire to do the right thing lasts through my next encounter with him.

Sometimes society teaches us that there are plants and there are people that we would rather not have around. First impressions and gut reactions are things we come to accept without examination. Perhaps by thinking about a plant in a new way it is possible to see value where before there was only danger. Maybe by learning to be tolerant of a plant, we can also learn to be more understanding of a fellow human being.


At 2:52 PM, Blogger robin andrea said...

When I was in college studying anthropology, I remember reading how other cultures handle their mentally ill members. It was interesting to note that not all cultures discard them the way most modern western cultures do. Our culture is defined in many ways by our ability to work and to fend for ourselves. Our day is constructed for the work clock, not the inner clock. Many people can not function within these parameters. They are judged by that, and are dismissed for having nothing to contribute. Your analogy to poison ivy works well, because as you see, the plant does contribute in some ways, and it just takes a bit of looking to notice.

At 11:28 PM, Blogger GreenmanTim said...

Poison ivy was cultivated as a horticultural specimen during the early settlement of the United States and it was introduced to Grteat Britain as a garden plant in the 1640s. Those shiny leaves and its climbing form were the attractions.

At 4:30 PM, Blogger MojoMan said...

Robin Andrea: Yes, we seem all to willing to cast off not only the ill, but elders, parents, siblings and friends. Loyalty seems in short supply these days. Have we found satisfactory substitutes?

Tim: Thanks for that information. I guess I'd rather be 350 years out-of- date than crazy.


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