Racism and poison ivy

During the pandemic of Covid-19 I have had a lot of time to think and read. I have also had a lot of time to spend in my garden.

When I am tired of thinking and reading, I am happy to go out into my big landscape garden and pull weeds. Since it is newly planted it has a lot of weeds. I do this in the morning before it gets hot. This takes up any morning energy I might have for writing, so, as a result, I haven’t been blogging recently–which is just as well, because with all that is happening I feel like I have nothing to say, nothing at all to add.

I really felt I had nothing unique to say about that other pandemic of racism and police violence that has captured our national awareness in the last several weeks on top of, because of, along with Covid-19. Could this at last be a transformative moment? Can the biggest mass movement this nation has ever experienced be sustained? How will that happen?

It was just too much to contemplate. And then poison ivy showed up and became my teacher.

It seems that poison ivy has become the predominant weed in my back garden. There are no established vines, not yet: just little sprouts everywhere. Poison ivy seedlings. Where did they come from?

The backyard used to be a mat of Euonymus and English Ivy vines, which my husband dug up over many weeks last year when we were preparing for the new garden. Among these vines was a bit of poison ivy—not a lot, just enough to keep me away from the whole mess because I am very sensitive to it. Perhaps stripping away the matted cover, opening up the bare ground, was an invitation to poison ivy to come and take over, finding space among all the new shrubs, trees, and perennials that replaced the old vines.

What an absolute disaster! How could I possibly deal with this plague?

I was angry. I hadn’t bargained for this when we had the new garden put in! I was also scared. I am used to staying well away from poison ivy because I’ve had too many of its long-lasting itchy rashes over my lifetime.

Vic said he would “take care of it.” But there was way more territory than one person could handle, and he didn’t seem to share my sense of urgency about it.

Perhaps I could take a hoe to the sprouts that weren’t too close to the plantings, thus keeping a safe distance, and he could pull the ones that were hiding in the sedges and groundcovers and under the perennials. We worked together this way for a few hours one morning but covered only a small portion of the infested ground. And I soon found that the hoe was awkward. The easiest thing was to bend over and pull out the little buggers.

So I got over my fear of close contact with poison ivy and—well gloved and flexing my hamstrings–began plucking it from the earth.

I have been pulling up little shoots of poison ivy now for ten days. Vic has helped me a bit now and then, and Ben has helped a lot—we’ve hired him as our garden helper until he can get a work permit. We’ve covered all the territory but the sprouts keep appearing so I go through the garden daily, looking for the Leaflets Three. I always find some. Afterwards I scrub my gloves and my arms and so far, no rash.

Clearly, we will be dealing with this problem for some time. Persistence will be required but I am now prepared to do what it takes because I love my garden. And I kind of enjoy going out there, finding, plucking, perfecting, over and over again. I am determined to do what it takes for as long as it takes in order to have a beautiful garden.

Here are the lessons that poison ivy has taught me that may apply to what is going on in the world. I find the lessons in my own emotional response.

  1. Ripping the cover off of old systems reveals the poison that has been hiding there all along. Bare ground can be great for fresh starts but it can also provide space for the poison to multiply. These revelations are shocking and frightening if you’ve learned to live with that old cover. They can make you feel helpless.
  2. Fear–fear of exposure, fear of making mistakes–and helplessness can keep you from facing down the problem. Anger can get you past the fear and give you the momentum to do something about it. I threw caution aside and began pulling up shoots right and left because they made me mad. (I made some mistakes and pulled up perfectly good plants, too.)
  3. Outrage is energizing at first but it is not sustaining. Anger can be exhausting or numbing. Outrage is cyclical. Somewhere along the line other impulses have to kick in if you are in it for the long haul. Determination? (Faith.) Pride. (Hope.)
  4. Eventually, you need to come around to the greatest of the emotions and the only guiding principle that is truly sustaining: love. I have almost come to the point of forgiving the poison ivy because it has taught me to truly love my garden, inch by inch.

I’m thinking about how my poison ivy lessons might apply to dealing with the plague of racism, how they might be instructive to white folks, and especially how to sustain the momentum provided by this transformative moment. The key is somewhere in that sequence of emotions: shock, fear, anger, determination, pride, love.

Can we keep working on ourselves and our nation, city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood, so that we can rid ourselves for all time of the poison of racism? If so, we’ll have to keep at it and we will have to love it–both the results and the work itself.

I am trying to feel this and put it into practice. What do you think?

11 thoughts on “Racism and poison ivy

  1. Such powerful truth! Nature is a wise teacher; I’m so grateful you shared your learning with us. Just beautiful.

  2. I just got my first case of poison ivy in about 3 years. I used to get it every year but have gotten wiser–I thought, I don’t even know where I picked this up. I’m amazed your pull the stinkers–I guess gloves are working, that’s great. I use Clorox when I see sprouts around our house, and eventually it kills it. Generally we don’t use pesticides etc. but both my husband and I have had it so bad in years past (like when we were kid) that it got into our bloodstreams. Good luck and hang in there, on all fronts. Your work in the field of cross cultural understanding and jumping through immigration hurdles with folks, is inspiring.

  3. Thanks Nancy. Thoughtful, helpful, easy to read, as usual. I think eradication of either also begins best when we are able to recognize it in our own backyard.

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