Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Past Deadline: Sharp, Itchy Nature

I’ve mentioned before that when we were kids my brother and I used to roam the fields, woods and river near our home. At that time, the biggest dangers we faced were some thistle scratches, mosquito bites and the wrath of our mother if we traipsed into the house with dirty feet.

In the “olden days” I remember being quite paranoid about poison ivy. We didn’t have any in the haunts we frequented, but my dad used to tell stories about the terrible reactions he had to poison ivy when he was younger, and I was certain it would be the Worst Thing Ever should I have the misfortune to encounter it.

These days, if you were at all inclined to overreact to things you hear on the news, you would have to take a deep breath before you go outside. You’d want to take that breath INside in case there is a smog alert. These days the mosquitoes might carry West Nile virus. The sun will destroy you. The water could contain unpleasant bacteria.

And that’s not even counting the invasive species.

Today there are lots of kids whose feet will never get toughened up on pebbles in the water because they are wearing water socks to protect them from slashes by sharp-edged zebra mussels. (I know a kid who had to get stitches in his foot from a zebra mussel cut.) It is sad to see our local lakes and rivers polluted with this scourge. Yes, they filter the water and “clear it up,” but this means they are removing the tiny micro-organisms that other beasties feed upon. If those beasties die off, the bigger beasties that eat them suffer. And so on. Food chain stuff.

A decade or so ago we watched as fields and marshlands were overtaken by the invasive species du jour – purple loosestrife. Now we’re as likely to see a sea of yellow – especially along our roadways.

I remember when I first started noticing the yellow flowers of the wild parsnip a year or two ago. I wasn’t sure what it was and thought it was a variation of Queen Anne’s lace (wild carrot) – the tall, white roadside wildflower that also came from somewhere else a long time ago. Since then, though, I’ve learned this other member of the carrot family is not a very nice plant. It appears to be an escapee of vegetable gardens that has spread over many many decades. The root is edible, but if you are unlucky enough to get the sap from the plant on your skin, particularly in combination with sunlight (it is photosensitive), you’re in for painful blisters that can take some time to heal.

Hurray. And it seems to be everywhere now.

Oh, and don’t forget about giant hogweed. It’s another member of the (apparently pesky!) carrot family that is even worse than wild parsnip. It’s an escapee from Europe and the sap from this huge plant can burn the skin and cause blindness if it gets in the eyes. I haven’t seen any yet, but apparently it’s moving this way so I am keeping an eye out for six-foot-tall plants with big white flowers and giant leaves.

The good news about these plants is you can generally see them and avoid them whilst out gallivanting in the wilds. Unfortunately, though, ticks are not as easy to see, and they are spreading this way from southern climes. Since some of them carry Lyme disease, you want to make sure you do a tick check when you return from your nature ramble.

So, about that deep breath. Nature, apparently, is not for the weak.

Rather than cover the children from head to toe with some sort of impenetrable bodysuit (not to mention the tin foil hat to ward off space aliens), I’m sticking with the “knowledge is power” notion. We know what to look for while we’re out and what to check for when we return. We wear water socks in zebra mussel territory and sunscreen whenever we’re outside. The end.

Sure seems that it used to be easier, though, back in the day….

Published in the Perth Courier, July 15, 2010

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