Poison Oak as Totem

A comment on my last post at No Unsacred Place brought up the itchy, urushiol-soaked leaves of poison ivy and poison oak. I am quite sensitive to all of the plants that exude this compound, and admittedly all they’ve inspired in me has been much cursing and complaint on the occasions we’ve had too close an encounter.

Elinox, the commenter who brought these plants up in the first place, mentioned the idea of a shadow totem. A “shadow totem” is a newer concept that seems to be an odd extrapolation of Jung’s Shadow archetype; a shadow totem represents or embodies something that we fear or are otherwise uneasy with. It’s not a concept I work with myself as I find it a little too much of a pigeonhole, but I agree with the general idea that sometimes we have to face some really difficult things in our paths.

So I meditated some with Poison Oak today to consider our relationship–such as it is. Like thorns and other obstacles, Poison Oak and her kin developed urushiol as a way to avoid being eaten by animals. It does mean, of course, that poison oak is not an especially cuddly plant, and the totem was correspondingly strict about personal space, though pleasant otherwise. She’s actually quite friendly; she just maintains very firm boundaries.

And that’s a very important lesson for me, especially as a woman in a culture where women are still often treated as though our boundaries don’t exist. If we object to catcalling, or sexual harassment, or any of a number of other nonphysical boundary violations, we’re told that we’re “bitchy” or “making too big a deal about it”. If we’re assaulted or raped, there are people ready to question what we did to deserve it–were we drunk, or scantily clad, or walking alone at night, or hanging out with the “wrong people”? In the same way, simply for defending her boundaries with integrity and creating a consequence for violation, Poison Oak is vilified. How much do you hear about this plant for any reason other than “this is what it looks like–DON’T TOUCH IT!”?

This goes beyond women, too. There are so many situations every day where people are expected to yield to those who are more powerful, who have no respect for their needs or integrity or safety. The abuse of power is rampant on all levels of American society and beyond. It’s no wonder, then, that so many put up fierce defenses, even against those who mean them no harm. And it can be easy, if a person doesn’t let us in as far as we want, to vilify them for not giving us what we demand.

Poison Oak also told me to examine my own boundaries. I sometimes feel a lot of guilt for maintaining the boundaries that I do. The older I’ve gotten, the more of an introvert I’ve become, and I’ve sometimes gotten criticism for that. More extroverted people don’t always understand that introverts’ quiet and solitude isn’t about them.

There will always be people who feel entitled to my personal space–strangers who don’t understand that it’s a problem if they suddenly come up to me and start flirting, or those who feel entitled to fill an entire residential block with the loud, bass-heavy thumping from their stereo system. These people tend to complain if someone challenges them, and it can be hard to stay true to my own boundaries when they’re trying to paint ME as the bad guy for standing my ground and insisting on my comfort.

And there’s only so far I should allow others to make comment on my spiritual practices. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately trying to defend myself against people who criticize me for being an American of European descent trying to put together an animistic practice, and from people who are uncomfortable with or even incensed by my work with animal parts in art and spirit. While being aware of what others are saying, and my own power and privilege, is a good practice to cultivate, there is a point past which I need to maintain my own integrity and preserve the roots I have set down to give myself more balance.

However, I also need to be mindful of the negative effects that my own “urushiol” can have; sometimes boundaries can be too tight. I sometimes have to make a real effort to get out and be social, not out of any fear of socialization, but simply because I am so comfortable in my personal space that I simply neglect to come out of it at all. Over time, others feel they simply can’t approach me, and so sometimes I need to demonstrate that yes, I can be sociable!

And in some ways I grew up with a certain level of entitlement that’s been hard to shake even at this point of my adult life. I was raised in a town where people were very prickly to each other, where being bullied taught me that everything is a personal offense, and where people always looked for someone to blame for whatever went wrong, even something as small as a delay in traffic. Poison Oak’s “passive” defense isn’t an open attack, and she doesn’t go out of her way to cause trouble. It’s something to keep in mind as I continue unraveling this unwanted part of my past conditioning.

By the end of the conversation, I saw a good deal of myself in Poison Oak, and vice versa. While I’m sure I’ll be unhappy the next time I end up with an itchy red rash from brushing up against her progeny’s leaves, I won’t blame them at all. Urushiol is only the protection that Poison Oak has developed over time, and it’s really rather effective. If I can’t touch or pick poison oak like I can clover or dandelions, it doesn’t mean the itchy plant is a bad one. It just means I need to respect that plant’s boundaries as much as my own.

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29 thoughts on “Poison Oak as Totem

  1. Awesome. One more thing to add about what poison oak & ivy have to teach us, is the value of awareness – and the cost of ignorance & inattention. As modern humans we are used to living in an environment that practically demands that we shut down our awareness (in order to cope with the insane sensory onslaught), and encourages complacency and falling into “the rut” of mindless routine.

    Unfortunately, combined with the near total ignorance many of us have for the wider community of life that also occupies landbase we live on (because we aren’t taught by our elders, and spend so little time getting to know the land), this means that many of us don’t recognize these plants when we venture out into the forest, and even if we did, we probably wouldn’t notice them until it’s too late.

    It’s interesting how easy it is to fall into the mindset of (“dang ivy/blackberry/nettle/whatever), when they inconvenience us as we move along – forgetting that we are the ones who move around, not them. Their defenses are completely passive, like you said, whereas we are the ones who made the choice to walk into them. If that movement harms us, we shouldn’t blame the plant, but our own unawareness. It is truly the height of hubris to assume that every other creature (including plants, who don’t move!) should just get out of our way – and yet, that is our default mindset (I have noticed it in myself at times, and expressed often by others). I think that says a lot about the worldview of modern humanity.

    • That’s a really good observation. This is kind of what I was attempting to get at in my previous post about wildness–when a lot of us go out into the wilderness we miss things we wouldn’t if we weren’t shut down so much.

      And plants were here way before we were. At the risk of sounding a little like Pamela Isley, I feel we owe them more notice simply because they shaped the landscape long before we did, and many of them are a lot more resilient than we are.

  2. This was simply an amazing read. I’ve alway felt bad for the fact that poison ivy and oak are so vilified when they really aren’t that harmful, all things considered (excepting to those who are deadly allergic to them). The nearly maniacal lengths people go to to try to rid an area of them seems almost like a temper tantrum from a species who hates not having things “their way”. I think it is fine to try to keep them from areas of heavy traffic (that is, after all, us asserting our boundaries) but the sheer hatred people project onto these plants seems uncalled for.

    I do have to ask if you started feeling at least slightly itchy while working with this totem. :-P

    • Thank you :) And these do also expose our control-freak habits, as well as being a good lesson in patience and flexibility. After all, they’re the ones who are rooted down and have less obvious direct control over their environments.

      I did feel a bit of itch, though I think some of it was memory from my bout of poison oak back in February!

  3. This was a great read, though as an ecologist I’m obviously biased towards your way of thinking here :P. I actually don’t mind poison oak or ivy but then again I’ve never had any major skin issues when touching them.

  4. This reminds me that I’ve been meaning to meditate with Bindweed/Wild Morning Glory (and keep forgetting). I tend to leave lots of room for weeds on the land I live on–most of them I feel a lot of affection for. But I get cranky about the Bindweed, and I’d like to have a talk with her. I bet she would have a thing or two to tell me . . . thanks for this amazing post, and for the reminder.

  5. This is really good to hear! I am glad to hear you have a totem to help you deal with cyber bullies trying to stop you from having your personal practice. Poison Oak also came up recently in a forum I am on, and as I have no reaction to it, I think its a good plant for me to work with in a *different* way.

      • We also have to respect it – people who are immune can develop an allergy to it (and people who are allergic can develop tolerance). The lesson I take is to be grateful and not flaunt my good fortune (’cause the day I start ripping it up with my bare hands just to show I can will be the day that luck changes…)

  6. Glad to see you further get to know poison oak. And thanks for the shout-out!

    In my own observations, it’s actually the opposite of what Jessica said in that I am hyper-aware of poison ivy when I’m outside in the summer. Not only do I react strongly to the urushiol on my skin, but I have a phobia of it too. I am actually afraid of poison ivy; not so much in getting it, hell I itch all the time, but rather of where the invisible foe is that I cannot see. It’s that invisible lurking ‘monster’ that bothers me about this plant. If I could see the oil to avoid transferring it to anything I’d be happy and then I could easily give the plant its space.

    The other thing to keep in mind Paleo, is that some species are invasive, poison ivy being one of them. And when you think about it, what good is it really? It’s not food for animals, not particularly pretty, so where is the use for such a plant? (Of course, I could be heavily biased against it too!) If anyone knows a practical use for poison ivy, I’d love to learn it!

    I’m not saying that we should exterminate it simply because it doesn’t serve a common purpose, but rather, the wide range of the plant in the US is out of control, hence why so many people try to either tame it or eliminate it altogether. Similarly to a dangerous animal, I have no trouble in wanting to avoid the stuff. The hard part for me is identifying it and getting over the fact that it’s not really “out to get me” when I’m out hiking.

    • No problem, and thanks for the inspiration–I’m holding you to you writing out your own experiences, ya know ;)

      The invisibility is a definite factor; I am not even sure where I contracted it the last time, and while I can keep an eye out for the leaves, in thick brush it can be hard to see.

  7. I really enjoyed reading this. I work with “pest” and “invasive” plants all the time, and it’s nice to know someone else who gets it.

    There’s another native plant (yellow or orange jewelweed) that grows in all the same spaces poison ivy does–they’re often found side-by-side. If you come in contact with poison ivy, immediately break off a bit of the jewelweed and rub the sap on the contact point, it works better than anything you can find on the market. Knowing that makes me want to expand on your lesson with a few thoughts of my own; that yes, she establishes hard boundaries, but she keeps company with a fairly constant, bright-flowered companion that alleviates the discomfort. That doesn’t sound like the behavior of a human-hating hateful monster plant, really. =)

    • Jewelweed is awesome. I like how the seedpods “explode” out with slight pressure. Hummingbirds love jewelweed flowers.

    • This is true. My husband once weed-whacked a patch of poison ivy, got it all over him. Luckily there was also jewelweed in amongst the poison ivy, which he also got all over him, and he managed to get out of that one itch-free.

  8. I am coming from a place of having studied the plants for years from the point of view of a botanist, allergist, chemist, herbalist and more— although I am none of the above.

    I liked Jessicas concept of the plants enabling to develop more of an awareness when we are in their territory, because actually we are reacting to them, not they not to us. They are not setting any boundaries. The allergenic oil (urushiol) is in the resin of the plant. Like pine resin, it seals wounds in the bark and leaves. The oil is not toxic, bad tasting, or poisonous. Our immune systems just sometimes decide that it is an enemy, and all the itching is caused by our own bodies, not like the sting of nettles for example, which the plant causes by chemicals in its hairs.

    What good is it? It is such a ground stabilizer that it was planted on the dikes in Holland. Deer eat it, birds eat the seeds, small animals shelter under it, bees love the nectar. After a fire, it quickly covers the bare earth preventing erosion.

    My credentials: I wrote The Poison Oak & Poison ivy Survival Guide

  9. I really enjoyed this a lot, as it was a bit of perspective I hadn’t given much thought to. Admittedly I don’t work much with ‘totem’ concepts other than I know mine and maintain a small alter space for him, but that’s about it. Thanks for this, Lupa. :)

  10. Interesting that I was in an herb class online tonight, the topic being kids outdoors – and you know this subject came up! :-) This is one of the most thoughtful posts I have seen anywhere on this topic! I would also say it has something to do with our own immune systems (again, a boundary issue) as I find it interesting that many native tribes can pick it with their bare hands and cook/eat it! On the feminine demonizing, I thought also of one of the Batman rivals, Poison Ivy – gives a deeper take on what her character could be about. (Now I am thinking of Uma Thurman in those great campy costumes!)

  11. Lisa, native american tribes that lived in poison ivy/oak country were exposed to the plants constantly. Many probably developed allergies at an early age, driven with what’s called the “effector system.” This would go on indefinitely, but the “regulatory system” finally shuts the fire down.” But, with constant exposure, after time, its possible for the “regulatory system” to become stronger and you can develop a tolerance, or at least not react as strongly over time, providing your exposure continues. The immune system is extremely complicated, and not completely understood yet.

    A study many many-years ago on infants who had never been exposed to poison ivy (in an institution for developmentally disabled) showed that if they were fed poison ivy extract directly into their stomachs, they would develop a life-long tolerance.

    In Japan, China, Korea, the Japanese lacquer tree has the same allergenic oil (urushiol) with subtle chemicals differences that make it a good medium to create the famous lacquerware. The lacquer painters can come to the occupation with sensitivity, but most over time lose it, and when they leave temporarily for a vacation for example, they might eat some of the urushiol paint while gone.

    Nobody should eat a leaf of poison oak/ivy on a whim though, because you could get a raging head to toe case.

    ps, most articles on the internet on poison oak/ivy/sumac have many wrong statements, because the author copied from other wrong articles instead of finding clinical studies.

    My credentials: I wrote “The Poison Oak & Poison Ivy Survival Guide.”

    • Wonderful reply Sandra, thanks so much! I didn’t realize the Japanese lacquer tree had the same chemical constituent, very interesting! I wouldn’t build up immunity in that way either, I would start with Rhus Tox (Homeopathy), since the doses are quite diluted. One of my friends who has lots of this in her yard would take a dose before working in her garden and when she did, she never got a rash!

  12. And you are in PDX! Happy day! My son and I were exploring the spirit properties of Poison Oak as a plant like Devil’s Club and Ocotillo…all about helping us sensitive folks with our boundaries. This being said as we treat his terrible outbreak of poison oak with clay and herbs. Wow! the poison oak goddess was REALLY trying to get his attention! he may go back and make an essence to honor this powerful ally. Anyway, saw your post and then realized you are in Oregon too….we are on the coast in Nehalem and doing a lot of shamanic work here. Come visit sometime! :oD

      • Consider Neahkahnie Mountain and then call me/us. :oD We are here in her shadow. Look up the phone number codes for the area in Manzanita, Oregon and then you can find me at that area code at 6096. Hugs….

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