Sunday, 23 May 2010

Once stung: a nettles story

Yesterday I had my first encounter with the stinging hairs of a nettle plant. One of my classmates and I were walking to town along the river Colne. There's a path that runs along the south side of the river, it's also known as cycle path 51. It was my first time walking that way since plants started coming back to life and it's really coming back to life. The squat, hardy hangers-on of winter have unfurled themselves outward and skyward. The trees have filled out and are in blossom. Whole patches of white flowers from hawthorn shrubs. Tall, stalking weedy like plants, some with white lacy flowers at their tops. We saw a crane and swans. Then, in the middle of the path, was a large portion of a toppled tree. It spanned the whole path. My classmate offered to turn around and find another way. But being determined not to be put off the path by a bit of branch and foliage, I looked for the easiest path around and took the one most traveled . . . right through a path of stinging nettles. It wasn't as bad as it could have been considering I was wearing a skirt and flip flops. A few steps into my detour of choice, I felt some stinging, so I hesitated. Once I realized it was something I was stepping in, I moved forward as fast as I could.

Once, on a hike down Southern California's Topanga Canyon I kicked dirt at a fire ant hill. The ants were pissed off and attacked, mounting my shoes and then my socks. That day I learned three important lessons. 1) Fire ants know how to get revenge; 2) Those little bastards can bite through socks! and 3) If you're going to do anything to a fire ant hill, do it from a distance not less than three feet. One bite was right over a vein on my ankle and that burning sensation traveled up my leg. I felt those stings for the rest of the hike and then some.

Luckily, the stinging from the nettles only lasted about 10 minutes. In that 10 minutes, we walked along as I waited it out to see how it would go. Would it get worse? Stay the same? My walking buddy and I mused about the possibilities. He shared a story that he once got stung and it lasted for 24 hours. Imagine my relief when the stinging stopped after 10 minutes. My ankle started to show signs, a path of hives, about the same time that the stinging died down.

About 6 hours later, around midnight, the itching started and it continues this morning. Some websites I've visited say the itch can last for a week. So far, it's a minor nuisance compared to other skin irritants I've had the pleasure of encountering as a very hyper-allergic person. Mosquito bites drive me nuts. (Though bites from mosquitoes from different regions swell to different degrees.) Traveling around Australia, I was regularly bitten by bed bugs, which are possibly only worse than mosquito bites because one bug will leave a line of bites. It was there that I learned to scratch around the bites. It satisfied the urge to itch without irritating or breaking the bite and further encouraging histamine release. My first pet-related hives from two cute rats. Chicken pox: oh, how I loved to scratch them and have the scars to prove it. Wikipedia lists onion as one of a list of possible ways to help with the itching. I may rub onion on my ankle later.

I once had nettle leaves in a pasta dish. My friends Gabs and Darnell went out into the nettles to pick the leaves to put into the pasta sauce. I thought they were so brave. Only a few months earlier I had first learned of nettles and was told that they contained neurotoxins that could kill a person. When I was in the Daintree Rainforest, I was told about the stinging tree or gympie-gympie which is considered the most dangerous plant in the Daintree and the world's most painful plant. Once it's little hairs stick into your skin, the pain can last for months to a year and with enough of the neurotoxin it can lead to death. . . . As tough I needed one more thing to be worried about coming into contact with in the Australian rainforest.

I didn't grow up learning about nettles. I don't think they grow in my part of the world where the soil isn't exactly moist and the climate for most of the year is somewhere between warm and dry to hot and dry. Where I come from, we worry about poison ivy and poison oak, neither of which I am good at recognizing. To guard against my ignorance, I remember the saying "Leaves of three, let them be" and I avoid anything with a red leaf. When the leaves are red, I could probably point out poison oak.

You think it's something I'd be committed to learning and avoiding. When I was in kindergarten, I was playing in the backyard of a family friend's house and their son, who was my age, went through a patch of poison oak. He blistered and was miserable for a week. Another time, we were on a camping trip and my brother wandered off into a green area to relieve himself only to be found a few minutes later wiping himself with poison ivy. I still remember the look on my mom's face and the way she carried him, by the armpits, into the showers.

Maybe if I'd had an encounter with either, I'd have all the incentive I would need to identify and avoid them in the future as it is now my goal to be able to identify nettles and avoid them. That is the way of the world these days (and exactly the problem with environmental issues): What doesn't directly affect our lives, we can ignore. I'm sure that's in part due to the way we function: with so much information to take in and remember, it's impossible to keep it all up front. It's brain muscle: if you don't use it, you lose it. Time to start using it.

Wish me luck on today's riverside adventure.

(Many thanks to the pottery artist at the Buffalo Tank for the beautiful mugs and enlightening conversation.)

For more on stinging trees:

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