Growing up in wooded Northeast Ohio, I used to get really bad poison ivy rashes as a kid. I’ve had it on my face, in between my fingers and toes, on the soles of my feet, and even in my mouth. Regardless of how bad the rash was, I never seem to learn my lesson. Every summer, I’d explore the woods in my hometown—no shoes, no cares for the consequences. And Every summer, getting poison ivy was part of the routine. You would think I’d build up a tolerance, but poison ivy rash, in contrast to most allergies, gets more sensitive with repeated exposure. Over time, the rash became so severe, it began to simply kill my skin and peel off. I became so sensitive that I didn’t know where I had come into contact with the plant, but still, long after I swore off barefoot galivanting through the forest, that familiar rash still returned every summer into my 20’s.
So naturally, I hated the thing. But I had a weird fixation with it. I wondered why it tormented me, yet it felt familiar.
This feeling re-emerged in college when I took a writing course and had to write a Manifesto for something that had no voice. I think it was a desire to relate, or to understand, that possessed me to write on behalf of a plant that plagued me every year. But it worked—in my research, I began to rethink my relationship with it. Poison ivy has this poetic relationship with the forest, which only gets more interesting when you add humans into the equation.
You’ll find this manifesto is quite spirited (aggressive, rather), but in reality, I’ve reached a place of understanding and contentment with Poison Ivy. I respect it and I am more content for it. I could even say I’m delighted by Poison Ivy and its purpose. Crazy, right? What a change. I think this short experience made me realized a huge part of getting people to care about sustainability is education, along with a willingness to understand, even if it’s uncomfortable. By stepping in poison ivy’s shoes, I began to care about it and the thing it protects—the forest.
It doesn’t all have to be work, sustainability. It can be delightful, because at the expense of taking a step to learn, however uncomfortable, we may get to increase our joy by appreciating a glorious world. After that, it’s not work anymore.
So here it is, Forest Frontlines, a manifesto:
You will find me where rainfall is more than 8 inches a year at elevations below 4,000 feet. Most people will wish they hadn’t found me. You call me “poison” because of the painful reaction humans get when they rub against my leaves. I am associated with an itching rash that spreads over skin and body and stays for weeks at a time. I will affect 9 out of 10 humans. I am the enabler of the most common allergic reaction on earth, and therefore hated by many people all over the world. I am Poison Ivy. Humans would rather have me exterminated or, at least, removed from the forests they want to enter. I am a nuisance to you humans, but you rarely have taken the time to know me and know what I do for the woods. I assure you, there is a reason I stand here, and you’ll find that the spread of my species relies heavily on the work of humans.
I am not on this earth just to annoy you. I have oil on my leaves, called urushiol, which I use not as a defense mechanism, but to help me to retain water. This is the substance that causes your rash, and I am not the only one who produces it. Many of my cousins, the plants in the family Anacardiaceae, also have urushiol. Also in this family are the plants that produce cashews and mangos. You call me ivy when I am, in fact, not related to ivy. I thrive in low wooded areas where the trees break and let the sun filter through. I live in most of North America and throughout Asia. Humans also label some of the plants in my family “poison”: Poison Oak, Poison Sumac, and African Poison Ivy, all of which cause irritation. The truth is, the rash you get from these plants does not spread on its own, but you spread it yourselves. The blisters that form on your body are only a reaction—the fluid inside does not spread the rash. The only thing that can cause a reaction is my initial oil, the urushiol. If you took 15 minutes to wipe off your skin after visiting me, you would have no problem, but instead you brush my leaves unknowingly and then touch your nose, cheeks, arms, and friends. I watch as you paint the rash on yourselves, and then in your ignorance, blame me.
It may seem surprising to you, but I am much more helpful than hurtful. The deer, rabbits, and birds who live here in the woods with me, I do not irritate them. To deer, I am a part of their daily nutrition. They eat my leaves unaffected by the urushiol. The birds eat my berries every summer and spread my seeds, while the bees use my nectar. Small animals use me for shelter in unlikely places because I am resilient to toxic soil, and I can grow in areas with disturbed dirt, moved for the sake of your construction. I am an ideal weed, hardy as hell, encroaching on your flower beds and stopping you from colonizing our soil. On top of that, I produce my own energy; like all plants, I am self-sustaining with the energy of the sun. I take in carbon dioxide and make oxygen which you breath. Regardless of what most humans think, I contribute positively to my surroundings.
And what do you do, humans? You come here to the woods with hopes to expand; to flatten the plants, drive out the animals, till the soil, and lay concrete. You may think I am a nuisance; I’m inconvenient, cumbersome, and annoying to you when I nip at your heels, but I know my place. I am the front line between civilization and nature. I line up outside the forest and deter humans where it is not their place to go, and I hug the trees to protect them. In the same way mosquitos swarm and chase humans away to protect the rainforest, I protect the woodlands. A pawn, I am willing to stand in front of all the forest and get crushed, weeded, and exterminated in order to defend my home and those who live in it. I am a small part of the ecosystem, but only humans want to get rid of me because only humans take what isn’t theirs and go where they are not welcome. If a small 4-week rash happens to upset you enough to stay away, good. I did not come into your home and rub on you. You are the invader. 15 minutes and you could be free of my rash, but you are too busy charging ahead blindly. If you had for a moment slowed down and opened your eyes in order to avoid me, you may also see the value of the forest you are cutting down.
All your expansion has only made your situation worse. My species used to be rare, but since you have plowed and shaped the forests, I grow along every edge where the sun shines. Yards, fields, and commercial areas are all creating breaks in the tree line where I line up outside the woods as the first line of defense. You’ve heated up the world and caused climate change, and each year the world gets warmer, the more I grow. What once were small vines have now become bushes and fields of me. Most of all, you have managed to alter the entire atmosphere of this planet. I have grown stronger and bigger than ever before with all the carbon dioxide in the air. I am one of the few populations of plants that has increased since you have torn down the forests. My numbers have already doubled in the last 50 years and can double again in even less time. And whose fault is that? The more harm you humans do in the woodlands, the more Earth needs me.
I am not here simply to annoy you with my itching, burning fingerprint. My oil is not made to plot against you. I am the way nature made me to be. All your issues with me are your own doing. You came here, you touched my leaves, and you set me on fire. You’re the ones causing climate change and making my species become stronger. My species’ growth is proportional to your damage. You kill most things you touch and yet you call me “poison”.