Check out these videos from “Next Earth: Teaching Climate Change Across the Disciplines,” an online conference hosted by UCSB. Sherrilyn Billger has two videos up called “Take it Outside: Eating for the Ecosystem” and “The Philosopher and the Entrepreneur: The Pedagogical Significance of a Symbiotic Relationship.” Find out what respect, consent, trust, and empathy have to do with plants and our relationships with them!
Did you know that humans are pretty much the only animals who get severe skin reactions from Poison Ivy? Many other animals not only tolerate the plant, but are fed and nourished by it. Poison Ivy (Rhus toxicodendron or Toxicodendron radicans) is a native North American plant that serves an important role in various ecosystems. Among modern humans, though, it often garners a sense of loathing and dread, since the plant seems to harm us rather than benefit us. I admit I’m pretty tired of seeing it everywhere in the Wissahickon and Fairmount. But ultimately, the goal of this article is to allow knowledge, understanding, and humility to transform the hatred, anger, and fear into a kind of deep respect. That respect will, of course, include eco-friendly ideas for coping with it on your property, how to avoid the rash, and what to do if you have been exposed.
History, Botany, and ID
It behooves us to understand some botanical history and the roles of Poison Ivy (PI) in the ecosystem. PI is part of the Anacardiaceae family, commonly known as the cashew family. Other members of this plant family include mangoes, pistachios, and the urushi tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum), which provides sap used in creating Japanese lacquerware. This sap contains the urushiol oily resin, the very same substance found in Poison Ivy. It is the urushiol that causes that horrible rash on human skin. More on this invisible spreader below.
PI is a robust and resilient plant with many variations—it can take a shrubby, vining, or ground cover form and the leaves can also vary in their appearance. “Leaves of three, let it be,” is a pretty good reminder, but you should specifically look for the middle leaf on a slightly longer stem, jagged edges (though some may not be very jagged at all or look more like a mitten), and possibly a reddish stem. The vining type is very common in the eastern U.S.—look out for hairy stems/aerial roots climbing up trees and fences, which are just as poisonous as the leaves.
One last weird piece of history: William Bartram (whose last name you may recognize from Philly’s Bartram’s Garden), listed Poison Ivy seeds in his late 1700’s catalogue of “American” plants he would sell to plant-collectors in Europe. Apparently, some people did, in fact, find ornamental value in this dangerous plant.
Food and Function
Many animals consume various parts of PI, including the leaves, stems and berries. Animals who enjoy this food source include rabbits, goats, bears, deer, raccoons, muskrats, robins, crows, bluebirds, quail, woodpeckers, wild turkeys, and a variety of insect pollinators.
We know that Poison Ivy often shows up in disturbed soil, and because it can cause such an uncomfortable rash for humans, an interesting theory is that PI serves as a sort of “keep out” sign. It makes us more cautious, slow, hesitant—less eager to enter a particular area of the woods where PI abounds. That place needs time to heal, perhaps. For me, that caution is also respect. It requires me to hone my observation skills and look around carefully. It means I don’t get to touch or take just anything I want from the land. If I want to walk barefoot in the woods, I must heed the “keep out” signs vigilantly.
But perhaps more fascinatingly, did you know that increasing levels of of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere generally cause growth enhancement in vines? A six-year study at Duke University showed this to be especially true for Poison Ivy—elevating levels of CO2 in the air are responsible for increasing the growth rate, biomass, and allergenic intensity of urushiol in PI.
Wow, we knew the CO2 was bad for climate change, but who knew it was also making PI grow bigger, stronger, and more allergically potent?! If you needed yet another reason to fight for green policy and culture changes individually, community-wide, nationally, and globally–there you go.
Managing PI on your Property
It can be a real bummer to discover Poison Ivy on your property, especially in areas where you or pets or children may wish to play or walk, or in areas where you’d like to be planting desirable plants or otherwise maintaining a garden. Here at Eating for the Ecosystem, we aren’t in favor of using chemical herbicides to kill the plant. If you are really set on clearing a given area of PI, the methods we usually employ are as follows:
-For smaller areas or single plants, dig out the plant by the root if you can (be sure to see precautions below, and work very carefully).
-For larger areas, you might first attempt to dig out as much as you can, while wearing protective gear. Consider a painter suit or nonporous clothing to shield your skin. Then, you can lay a sheet of black plastic over the designated area to continue to inhibit growth of any vegetation in that area. Over time, without sun or water, the plants should die. You should still exercise caution when digging or planting in that area later, in case any roots were left behind.
Thinking again about the scientific findings on PI growth, continuing to find ways to reduce CO2 emissions and improve carbon sequestering in soil can help halt the rapid spread and proliferation of PI.
Precautions and Post-Exposure Remedies
Observe and actively look for PI nearby; identify where it tends to grow.
Do not touch any part of the plant with bare skin.
Do not burn PI— the smoke can irritate the lungs.
If the plant must be touched, use thick non-porous gloves and either wash them well when you are done or discard them if disposable.
Be careful to avoid letting your clothing, backpack, cellphone, tools, etc. touch the plant—the oil can get on these objects and be subsequently transferred to your skin. The urushiol can stay on surfaces for up to five years if not washed off properly! If you know any objects or clothes brushed a part of the plant, wash thoroughly. Use rubbing alcohol to wipe down tools and phones, etc.
Be careful on rainy days; water dripping off of a poison ivy leaf can contain urushiol in it.
Be careful if intending to touch or harvest a plant dwelling nearby a PI plant.
If you know your skin has touched any part of the plant, wash immediately (within the first 10 minutes) with Tecnu or similar product. You can also wipe skin with rubbing alcohol. If that is not available, it can also be effective to wash in a cold creek— use sand or silt granules to rub the skin as you wash, this will more effectively dislodge the oil.
Jewelweed is a plant that often grows near PI and is the most effective remedy. The sooner you use it the better (you can just mash it up and rub it on the area you think was exposed).
what to do if you get a rash
Jewelweed is also effective if you already have a rash. I’ve had success turning it into a green paste (blended with other goodies like plantain and witch hazel) and applying it every night to the affected area. I then wrap the area in gauze so that the paste doesn’t get anywhere else, and also so that I do not scratch the blisters.
Even if you don’t have jewelweed and opt not to make your own natural remedy, store-bought remedies like drying Calamine can be helpful.
In all cases, I have found wrapping the rash with gauze to be the most effective way to stop me from scratching the blisters. Less scratching also makes it less consistently itchy.
Try homeopathic pills to reduce the severity of the symptoms (I use Hyland’s brand), which contain tiny amounts of Rhus toxicodendron. This is not the same as the folks who will tell you to make yourself immune by eating parts of the plant. People do that, and it works for some people, but it also has led to bad situations for others. I don’t recommend this method as of now, but then, I haven’t tried it myself.
Once again, make sure you have washed everything well, including your entire body and any clothing and objects that may have contacted the plant directly or your skin after you had touched the plant.
For those with severe allergies or with very large areas of rash, seeking medical attention may be your best bet. If you have access to a doctor you trust, seeking their help and advice is recommended.
Nature is life, and nature is rhythm. Co-evolved and co-evolving with plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, weather, water, and all organic elements, humans are inherently part of the symphony of rhythms and relationships.
It’s no surprise, then, that a number of recent scientific studies tackle the problems of modern indoor-centric life and support the assertion that spending a significant amount of time outdoors improves wellbeing. A robust study in 2019 found that exactly two hours of time in nature (outdoor environments like woodlands, beaches, parks, etc.) per week improved health and wellbeing, as reported by the participants. Jim Robbins recently reported on this topic and included findings that time in nature can “lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels, enhance immune function, reduce anxiety, and improve mood.” A 2017 article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health elucidates how the many benefits of nature experience are most likely related to the variety of sensory inputs combined with particular microbes and chemical compounds our bodies contact and absorb. While vision can be an important sense overall, the article affirms that total lived experiences in the environment full of sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile opportunity are crucial for wellbeing.
Phytoncides, organic compounds usually emitted by plants for defensive purposes, “permeate the air in natural environments and are ingested by visitors [or inhabitants]…They are a popular topic of study in Japan, and widely believed to contribute to benefits experienced during nature walks known as ‘shinrin-yoku,’ or ‘forest-bathing.’”Several phytoncides have been found to be antimicrobial, to increase immune system activity, and to decrease stress.
Air ions, charged particles resulting from radiation, cosmic rays, solar waves, waterfalls, thunder, and UV light, are “particularly abundant in natural places…and they have been suggested as one of the potential mechanisms for the physiological and mood benefits of natural places.” The negative air ions found outdoors “stabilize mood and increase vigor, friendliness, and ease of concentration,” while indoor spaces devoid of the ions are associated with depression.
And of course, we must remember that many of the hundred trillion bacteria in our bodies come from soil, water, animal feces, and spores. The “gut microbiota” is crucial for nervous system functioning, and decreased exposure due to a sanitized indoor lifestyle hinders our ability to benefit from those relationships.
Deepening Relationship: Co-regulation
The scientific findings on nature and wellbeing are amplified when we invite in dialogue from psychology and the arts. As someone engaged in body-based healing and therapy, I’ve been studying the Polyvagal Theory, created by Dr. Stephen Porges and referred to by Deb Dana as “the science of feeling safe enough to take the risks of living.” Polyvagal Theory works with the commonly known idea of “fight, flight, or freeze” in regards to human behavior and nervous system activation, and it adds another category: social engagement. The states of nervous system activation could be envisioned as a ladder–if something has signaled to us that our life is in major danger or that we are trapped, we shut down and freeze. That’s the bottom of the ladder, and the oldest part of our nervous system known as the Dorsal Vagus. When we mobilize in order to fight or run away from the stressor or threat, we’re in our sympathetic nervous system. When we perceive safety, largely through the presence of healthy relationships, we enter into the newest part of our nervous system, the Ventral Vagus (VV). Here, at the top of the ladder, we are able to socially engage and communicate with a sense of curiosity. In order to move from shut down to VV, one needs to move through some sympathetic activation on the ladder.
Co-regulation is key for accessing VV energy. In cases of trauma, it can be difficult to self-regulate. Though it may also be difficult to establish enough trust to develop a healthy co-regulation relationship, that relationship built over time is crucial for regaining resilience within the nervous system. Co-regulation is actually a biological need that all humans have for reciprocal regulation; it’s the way our nervous systems talk to each other, connect, mirror, and help each other feel safe enough as we move through the various states of activation and relaxation. It’s for this reason that I love to see “community care” involved in any conversation about “self care.”
Essentially, the research on how nature time and health/wellness are interconnected mirrors the finding that spending time in nature helps people reconnect with the VV state. As described in the book Nature-based Therapy by Nevin Harper, Kathryn Rose, and David Segal, “Nature is filled with an abundance of flora and fauna that help engage people in the present moment and embodied exploration. [They] bring out curiosity in people and motivate a further connection with nature…Encounters with beings that can be climbed, tended, and taken in awe or wonder provide a powerful means to engage in the present moment and begin the process of acquainting [people] to their own nature, their own animal bodies, and specifically their mammalian nervous system.” In other words, outdoor environments stimulate curiosity, connection, wonder, and embodied presence that immediately bring us into a Ventral Vagal state.
In “Performing ecologies in a world in crisis,” (an editorial preface to Choreographic Practices) Robert Bingham references choreographer/performer/professor Merián Soto’s outdoor improvisational work Into the Woods: “She urges readers to ‘just go’ outside and feel the heartbeat of nature through their moving, sensing bodies.” To feel a heartbeat is, indeed, a somatic experience. In your own body, you might find that you are aware of your heartbeat and that the awareness is heightened through touch. Touch, colloquially referred to as “the mother of all senses,” is in many ways our most intimate sense and has the greatest co-regulating capabilities. What would it be like to touch the earth with the open intention of feeling the heartbeat of nature, of life itself? What would it be like to garden and grow food with that kind of touch? What would it be like to move through the world still in contact with that rhythm, to make decisions and develop habits from that place of felt-connectedness?
In terms of co-regulating with non-human creatures, we probably most readily understand it with animals, perhaps through relationships with pets. But I propose that even though plants don’t have a nervous system in exactly the way mammals do, we still enter into a dynamic, responsive relationship with them. Studies show that “plants evolved to have between 15 and 20 separate senses including human-like abilities for smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing.” Plants can remember, sense danger, respond with chemical alterations accordingly, and communicate information to their nearby communities. They’re especially intertwined with fungal communication networks. And there may be much more about their rich internal life that we haven’t scientifically explained yet. All this to say: our plant friends are very much alive, and they have a rhythm and intelligence that inevitably resonates in our bodies, helping to balance us as we grow closer to them. Perhaps we can co-regulate with them, just like we co-regulate with friends, partners, pets, or therapists.
Deepening Relationship: Reciprocity
As we grow closer to nature, spending more time outdoors, getting to know various species, becoming more and more intimate, we may find that we agree with Merián Soto when she asserts that “we are nature.” The authors of Nature-based Therapy agree, emphasizing that their approach to therapy involves supporting a reunion with nature as opposed to an extraction relationship in which humans take benefit from some “thing” that is separate from them. Importantly, the authors also note that outdoor experiences often include an element of risk. Nature isn’t always soothing or tranquil. And from their standpoint, accepting inherent risk is “both restorative and meaningfully disruptive (i.e. burdensome, tiring, challenging).” The risk and therefore inclusion and toning of quick-response survival mechanisms combined with the overall Ventral Vagal support as described earlier in this article actually helps create a more resilient nervous system.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, whose environmental work is grounded in the knowledge systems of First Nations, sees human-plant relationships as that of “kin.” The view of being-family supports an attitude of gratitude and togetherness. Sondra Fraleigh beautifully writes that “as we move our senses out towards the world, and a sense of the world returns to us, there is folding reciprocal play in consciousness.” Reciprocity is real depth of relationship, and what is missing from so much of modern postcolonialist life. While I can appreciate the scientific studies about how being outside in “nature” (for just two hours a week!) improves human health, the studies also perpetuate the problematic view that nature is simply something beautiful/useful for us to feel better, and then we can go on back into the broken bifurcated system keeping us separate from our kin, and essentially, ourselves.
When we come into full reciprocity in relationships, we feel the ebbs and flows of giving and receiving. We feel the innate desire to take care of the earth arise within us. We recognize all the ways we are fed, and we wish to give back equally and frequently. We grieve loss of non-human kin the same way we grieve human loved ones. We ask what we can do to help and support in times of need. We are ready to respond in times of crisis, such as now. Whether the response is shifting the paradigm back to connection, supporting and ushering in political systems that will immediately create large-scale energy and environmental protection reform, supporting indigenous people and returning land to them, caring for regional plants through propagation and stewardship, seed saving, reforesting cleared lands, getting to know local ecology and species, learning wildlife rhythms and needs, taking fewer resources, fighting for regenerative growing practices rather than destructive industrial agriculture, offering material tokens of appreciation, or simply feeding a bird, or a bee, or dancing the spirit of a place— whatever the response, the embodied reciprocity is the heart of healing.
Sherrilyn Billger, PhD and Andrew Smith, PhD will present two companion pieces at the Next Earth: Teaching Climate Change Across the Disciplines conference June 10-30, 2019. This is a nearly carbon-neutral (NCN) conference presented by the Environmental Humanities Initiative at UC Santa Barbara. For more information about these projects, please read the abstracts below.
The Philosopher and the Entrepreneur: The Pedagogical Significance of a Symbiotic Relationship
Andrew F. Smith and Sherrilyn M. Billger
How many environmental philosophers do you know who’ve had the opportunity to develop a symbiotic relationship with an entrepreneur? In our case, the entrepreneur—a specialist in restorative landscaping and forestry—opened the philosopher’s eyes to one important way in which care for the needs and interests of urban and suburban landbases provides a tangible inroad into addressing climate change. This has had a marked effect on both his scholarship and his teaching. Reciprocally, the philosopher offered a theoretical framework to the entrepreneur, rooted in a defense of plant sentience and our embeddedness in the living community. This gave birth to the name of her business. It’s also informed how she advertises it to draw attention to the ecological and climatological importance of cultivating people–plant relationships.
In this presentation, we tell the story of the pedagogical significance of this symbiotic relationship. The philosopher offers insights into how the entrepreneur’s hands-on work aimed at restoring ecosystems inspired a book project that’s influenced his teaching inside and outside the classroom. This has proven particularly beneficial when focusing on steps students can take to work with our distant green relatives to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. In turn, the entrepreneur has found the philosopher’s theoretical framework invaluable for teaching clients and employees how to be nurturers of the land.
Take it Outside: Eating for the Ecosystem
Sherrilyn M. Billger and Andrew F. Smith
Most of us have strong (occasionally clashing) opinions about to best redress climate change. Whether we debate as polite discourse, lively classroom discussion, or proverbial bar-room brawls, we need to step back and take it outside. To wit, this collaboration between philosopher and entrepreneur presents strategies for enhanced learning by taking students outside.
The philosopher’s pedagogical methods in the comfort of the classroom encourage students to engage with climate issues intellectually. They obtain an essential foundation, understanding theoretical issues, scientific underpinnings, and cultural context, but are unsure about how to translate what they learn into what they can do. This frequently leads to depressive overwhelm that can fortunately be alleviated through interactions with living communities in local ecosystems. Such outings provide experiential learning about interdependence, soil health, social justice, invasive species, storm water, plant tending, etc. To be clear, what is needed is not vocational training per se, but a link between the theoretical and the practicable.
Climate change isn’t just happening out there, in the rainforests, low-lying islands, and Arctic ice sheets. It’s happening down the block where the storm drains overflow, in the park overgrown by invasive vines, and among the street trees outside the classroom window. This presentation will lay out essential elements for connecting theoretical foundations to experiential learning. We will include footage from our out-of-the-classroom activities.
I started Eating for the Ecosystem because I am determined to change what we grow and how we grow it. I know we can choose plants and designs that strengthen our ecosystem, while looking beautiful and providing us with food. And we can do it affordably.
The company name arose from discussions with my husband about his second book, A Critique of the Moral Defense of Vegetarianism. One of his points matches one of my long-held beliefs: that “[h]ow plants are treated in the process of cultivating and gathering them for food matters morally” (p. 31). To me, plants are people too.
We both consider what we consume to be a moral decision, and we constantly re-examine our choices. We believe that the best metric for weighing these choices is the effect we have on our ecosystem. “[T]he world is full of people, only some of whom are human. Plants and other-than-human animals may be people, too. Moreover, we maintain a special bond with, and specifiable obligations to see to the needs and interests of, our landbase and all the people who live on it and in it” (p. 8). We have a bond with, and obligations to, our ecosystem.
Myriad factors can drive a person’s food choices, whether health effects, genetic modification, price, availability, treatment of animals, synthetic chemical use, sentience, or environmental impact. I frankly don’t care whether other people have the same diet I have. I do care whether people think about what they eat and how their food choices impact their ecosystem. And I want to make it easier for anyone to make consumption choices that match their values.
I want to encourage eating for the ecosystem: growing more food in urban settings, selecting diverse plants that support local animals and insects, turning lawns into woodlands or gardens, and using integrated pest management rather than reaching for a chemical solution. We need to do more to enhance food safety and food security for ourselves and future generations.