Sunday, June 14, 2009

Itchy and Scratchy

A few days before we moved, Liz and I visited my parents in Harrisburg, PA, where I helped to design a small garden for their backyard based on the principles of permaculture. The asymmetrical keyhole garden features primarily perennials, though several annual vegetable and herb species have also been included. Many hours were spent researching plant types, requirements, and functions, as this is the first permaculture garden I have designed since earning my certification in graduate school. In addition, I consulted with my parents, verifying information on contour, lighting, shading, soil type, wind direction, annual rainfall and personal vision for the yard. The garden has been planted close to the back of the house for easy access from the kitchen. Since this is the first time my folks have planted a garden, practicality of design was my primary focus.

Most of the work was done from Pittsburgh amidst the turbulence of moving, with the trip east being the final step in realizing the garden design. I was extremely excited about putting my plans into action while lessons from Bill Mollison, Masanobu Fukuoka and Toby Hemenway were still fresh in my mind. While in Harrisburg, we ended up buying a couple hundred dollars worth of plants at Stauffers, a great garden center in the area. Having the plants meant being able to manipulate the design to see how things fit together. I delighted in arranging the lovely little flowers, shrubs, mosses and annuals in accordance with their exposure to sun, shade and wind, carefully noting the special needs of each species we'd chosen.

Here's the finished product:

With the whole family in the yard, we'd stopped to test our tree identification abilities, looking into the ravine behind the house for proof of oaks, maples and sycamores. Then BBBFB asked me to ID what was possibly the most easily recognizable tree of the bunch: the sassafras. It was the sassafras that had endowed me with my beginners' tree guide, which I had won by identifying the species via DCNR's Question of the Month at Blue Knob State Park on Labor Day weekend. "Ha ha - the sassafras!" I thought. I was so thrilled to see the familiar species and show off what little natural history knowledge I had that I leaned over, grabbed a leaf and chewed on it, waiting for the sweet taste of sassafras to validate my skills.

That is when it must have happened.

Liz and I left Harrisburg early Saturday morning to finish our packing and prepare for the move, which was only three short days away. Sunday night, Tara and Todd hosted some friends at their farm for an evening of beer and lawn games. I was happily sipping a beer when I noticed that my left wrist was bleeding. Looking down, I realized that I had been scratching a tiny, raised bump for quite some time. It was very itchy. All the beer must have somehow prohibited me from noticing just how itchy it was. I did my best to ignore it but it was just too ITCHY in a oddly familiar way. Was it eczema, which I've had since college? No. Was it - wait - if it wasn't eczema and it was this itchy, it could only be one thing...


I was dumbfounded. Really? Poison ivy? I honestly couldn't remember the last time I even worried about coming into contact with poison ivy. But there it was, all over my wrist. The next day it appeared on my right arm, then on my fingers, then on my inner thighs, which is never an encouraging sign. OK, OK, I could deal with a little poison ivy, I just had to make sure that it wouldn't continue spreading. It made packing (more of) a pain in the ass but what other choice did I have? So we packed and dismantled and cleaned, and the itchiness intensified, as it always does with poison ivy. I was determined not to let it get to me, on top of of all of the other stress that we were dealing with regarding the move. A few days passed, the move went as well as one could hope, and the itch was there with me for the ride.

Here's the clincher: Thursday, the day after the movers unpacked the truck, I developed a rash. What kind of rash? Nobody knows! Nobody will ever know! It was widespread, puffy, red, and unimaginably ITCHY.

So there I was, terribly emotional about moving and settling in, feeling generally drained from all of the planning and changes, and now I had poison ivy and a rash. I waited for days, hoping that things, anything, the ivy or the rash, would improve, but the condition of my skin only worsened. A week and a half in, I accepted that I would have to see a doctor; no huge deal in Pittsburgh but super annoying in a new and unfamiliar location. Of course, the doctor, who turned out to be a physician's assistant, couldn't tell me what had caused the rash. There were no obvious culprits, besides the move itself. But who gets a rash from moving? We hadn't changed soaps or detergents, my allergies hadn't been flaring up, the new climate seemed essentially the same as the old. My personal, and highly scientific, theory was that I must somehow be allergic to New England.

I was given a prescription for the steroid Prednisone, which is one way to aggressively combat poison ivy and, hopefully, the rash. In addition to the pills, Liz and I bought some local honey from the Bellows Falls farmers' market. I ate the honey daily and used it as a topical on the rash, hoping for a naturopathic fix in the case that allergies were to blame. I also slathered myself with some special salve made of calendula, olive oil and beeswax, which was concocted by a friend from SRU. Without this salve, I think I would still be in a world of itch.

Thankfully, things have really cleared up - just in time for me to start work tomorrow. I do hope, after all, to make a good first impression with my coworkers, one that isn't forever shrouded in a mental image of me squirming and scratching and seeming distracted. At least I can arrive feeling like myself and not like some sort of insane, scratch-crazy pariah.

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