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People ask, Orlan, why do you always wear boots, long pants and long-sleeved shirts even on the hottest days? Is it because you have bad-looking arms and legs?
I do have pallid arms and legs, a logical and unavoidable byproduct of their seldom seeing the light of day.
But lately my wrists and forearms have been so hideous they remind me of an exchange in the 1988 movie “Beetlejuice,” in which Lydia (played by Winona Ryder), speaking to Adam and Barbara, sheet-draped ghosts played by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis, asks: “Are you gross under there? Are you ‘Night of the Living Dead’ under there? Like all bloody veins and pus?”
Yes, I am, following my annual exposure during mushroom season to the number one reason I wear so much protective clothing: poison ivy.
If you are going to spend much time in nature, as I am committed to doing, you need to protect yourself, to the extent possible, from the many natural threats to your well-being.
These include flesh flayers such as multiflora rose, buckthorn, raspberry and gooseberry; skin irritants such as poison ivy, wild parsnip and nettles; bloodsuckers such as mosquitoes and ticks, once considered merely annoying but now known to transmit grave diseases; and, of course, the sun, the source of life and energy on our planet, which can seem less than 100 percent benevolent after a doctor excises a cancerous chunk of your skin.
When going into the woods, I spray with repellent to discourage ticks and mosquitoes, and even on warm days I wear two layers of clothing and tall rubber boots.
While the extra clothing minimizes thorn damage, it does not keep urushiol, the toxin coating the leaves and stems of poison ivy, from penetrating to my hypersensitive skin, resulting in annual afflictions, worse some years than others.
My recent case, with its expanse of red, inflamed skin and raised weeping blisters, could make it into a dermatology textbook.
Though doctors advise against scratching, the itch would otherwise be unappeasable so I typically scratch it until it bleeds, finding the subsequent pain preferable to the itch.
It’s not that I don’t know what poison ivy looks like. I see it everywhere, even in my dreams, in all its deceptive forms: woody ropes entwining tree trunks, sylvan vines snaking through the underbrush, seedlings standing upright, their leading tripartite leaf cluster groping for human contact.
It’s just that it’s so ubiquitous I can’t avoid it, short of staying out of the woods, which I’ve considered and rejected. One clumsy misstep, one over-aggressive reach, and I am beset with misery.
Ticks, my second-most-feared woods denizens, are almost as abundant as poison ivy and infinitely more dangerous.
They weren’t even on my top 10 list until the 21st century, when word spread that the almost microscopic deer tick transmits Lyme disease, a potentially debilitating ailment that is hard to diagnose and hard to treat.
Now they’re talking about a new deer tick-borne virus, Powassan, closing in on us from Minnesota and Wisconsin, that may be even deadlier and more debilitating than Lyme disease.
Way back when the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt, the Old Testament tells us Moses began negotiations for their freedom by turning his staff into a cobra — a nice enough illusion but not all that effective.
If he’d opened with plagues of ticks and poison ivy, the pharaoh, in his haste to let Moses’ people go, would have offered to haul them to the promised land in his own chariot.
Unless, of course, he was, like me, a stubborn mushroom hunter.