Mother Nature on the Nature Trail

A Belated Confession

As a 17-year-old junior in high school, I realized that I was going to be old enough to be a college freshman yet stuck in high school for my senior year. I was itching and anxious to get out of Hallock. I should be clear that I liked Hallock well enough. I just didn’t have a very good social life.

I talked it over with my parents, and one of the options that came up was for me to finish high school somewhere else. They wanted to make sure that the school I chose had a solid academic record and reputation, but they didn’t want me to be too far from home. I had enough of my own money saved from working at a furniture store in Hallock to pay both tuition and room and board at Mount St. Benedict’s Academy in Crookston.

Historically, Mount St. Benedict’s had been a girls’ academy. When the Crookston Diocese cut their budget in the 1970’s they closed down Crookston Cathedral, the boys’ high school, and The Mount agreed to become a coeducational academy. Boys and girls together couldn’t get into too much trouble if they were Catholic. Right?

The dorms were not coeducational. Boys from out of town who wanted to go to school at The Mount found host families with whom to stay during the school year. Few local boys took this option, and most of the boys were foreign exchange students. I found a place to stay, but it didn’t work out well and so I had to find another. That particular story should make its way into Quiche Moraine, but this is not that day.

I had an advantage over other new kids, in that I already knew many of my new classmates because of the travelin’ Catholic band, Hosea. Our group was made up mostly of people from Crookston and particularly The Mount. We traveled over the Diocese of Crookston, presenting Saturday retreats then playing for Mass on Sunday. Walking into Mount St. Benedict Academy on the first day of school, I saw a slew of familiar faces both from the band and  retreats and the movement I had been involved in called Teens Encounter Christ.

In addition to the friends I already knew, I met some new people. I can’t give their real names, and you will soon find out why. One of them was “Tim,” and the other was “Mark.” Mark and I became friends just sitting next to each other in poli sci class on the first day. Mark introduced me to Tim.

Tim was “close to nature.” Tim’s particular expression of this closeness was to wrap Mother Nature in small pieces of paper and then burn it by inhaling deeply. Jeff was another such nature lover.

Pleasant Version of Mother Nature

Pleasant Version of Mother Nature

Mark, Tim, Jeff and I spent the second day after school experiencing nature in this way, and Jeff and I ended up being pretty good friends. Jeff was an athlete and a half. He was the star football and hockey player. He was recruited by Yale for hockey and had the academic “stuff” to justify a free ride scholarship beyond the standard athletic scholarship.

Jeff and I were classmates in the best biology class I ever took in high school. Sister Lamberta taught Field Biology, which was an experiential environmental class. She combined class instruction with regular trips to the campus’ nature trail, and we learned botany and wildlife zoology by identifying trees and studying habitat. It added greatly to my understanding of evolution with common descent. (Sister Lamberta didn’t think creationism was worth spit.)

The nature trail was a great excuse to get out of the classroom and away from the teachers. Jeff and I often paired up for Sister Lamberta’s assignments to collect certain data. Since we were both rather quick to do the assignments, we often were done with what we needed to collect long before the time allotted. And so we were teenagers who loved a particular form of Mother Nature, out in nature with time to spare.

In late September of 1978, our class was enlisted in a very important assignment. We were to collect the dead wood on the trail for the Homecoming bonfire. We had no assignment more complex than to pick up wood out back and drag it to a pickup location for the campus truck.

We didn’t have to think for this assignment, since even a stoned person can tell without too much difficulty the difference between “live” wood and “dead” wood. Jeff had thought ahead and brought with him a very potent form of Mother Nature. So, when Sister Lamberta sent us out, we decided to start the assignment under the influence of Mother Nature.

I had never in my life tasted such potent Mother Nature. I experienced effects that had never been brought to my attention before, and while I was not hallucinating, I was extremely ecstatic in my surroundings.

At the beginning of the year, I had noticed that Tim’s sister “Connie” was very pretty. I wanted to ask her out but was told that she had a boyfriend and had been seeing him since she was in eighth grade, so I didn’t have much of a chance. Two days before this particular outing, I found out that Connie and her boyfriend had decided to take a timeout from their relationship in order to see other people. I thought about the implications of this for a couple of days. Since I was an “other people,” I asked Connie to Homecoming, just before our field biology class. She said, “Yes!”

I was out there on the nature trail, both high on life and high on a rolled up and smoked version of Mother Nature. I started talking to Jeff and the other classmates who had gathered around the growing pile of deadwood. Everybody agreed that life was pretty good and were especially happy for me that I had a date for Homecoming.

Not-So-Nice Mother Nature

Not-So-Nice Mother Nature

For some strange reason, which I can’t for the life of me explain right now, I picked up a leaf from the ground and started rubbing it on my face. This didn’t add much to my experience, but I was just hangin’, ya know? I decided to look at the leaf and the plant that it came from. I began to run through the identification process. Shape of leaf, stem, color, the way that the leaves bunch together…

Poison ivy!

All of a sudden the world, which had been so great just moments before, suddenly took on an air of grand suckiness. How would I explain to Connie that I couldn’t go to Homecoming? How could I explain to Sister Lamberta that I had been so foolish with a plant that was so easily identified? Would I get sent home and kicked out of the school and have to explain this to my parents? An inquiry would be held and THE WHOLE SCHOOL WOULD NOW KNOW THAT I HAD BEEN SMOKING MARIJUANA!

One of the side effects of marijuana is that the user can develop a form of paranoia. The paranoia that I experienced there was not friendly. I just sat and tried to make excuses for why my eyes were red and dilated, why I might have mistaken poison ivy for something else.

We went back to the school in time for the next class (physics), and I avoided Sister Lamberta’s eyes. I knew from past history and experiences with my own reaction to poison ivy that the outbreak would take a day or two to show. I knew that I had a little time to think of something, while not stoned, before I had to explain myself.

Physics at that school was a bit easy. We were covering classical physics concepts that I had covered in 9th grade, so I didn’t have to stretch myself much and that particular teacher wasn’t likely to make the connection that I might have been engaging in an illegal extracurricular activity during the previous class.

I made it through the day with no consequences. The paranoia died down before supper time. I never broke out in a rash from poison ivy. I kept my date with Connie, which was a fine experience, but I sensed she would rather have been with her boyfriend. She went back to him two weeks later.

My year at Mount St. Benedict’s Academy was a great experience, and I did a great many things that my parents don’t need to know, okay? My dad doesn’t read the internet, and my mother has passed on. So now I can confess, and this time not to a priest but to the world.

I also learned that a Catholic private school is not always the best option for parents who want to shield their kids from the wicked ways of the world.  No, sir.

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11 Responses to “Mother Nature on the Nature Trail”

  1. April 6th, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    YOU CAN WASH IT OFF!!!!! Yes, you can wash off poison Ivy. Just use lots of soap and pretty hot water on the recently exposed area. There are about five different toxic ingredients, and the “effects” of poison ivy are a combination of them, and different people have different reactions to them, but they can all be washed off!

    Or, you were rubbing nandina leaf on your face anyway. Looks like poison ivy, especially if you’re …. close to nature.

  2. April 6th, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Jackal says:

    It turns out that even if your skin is immune to the effects of poison ivy, your lung tissue might not be. So if you’re trying to get rid of that pile of poison ivy you ripped out of your yard, burning may not be the best option.

  3. April 6th, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    Larry Ayers says:

    Great story, Mike! I have a few similar stories from that era…

  4. April 6th, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Good advice for any Catholic School seniors!

  5. April 6th, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    Ed Darrell says:

    I’d love to hear more from Greg about the five different poisonous substances.

    The key poison is an oil, urshuriol. No one ever reacts at first exposure, and some people can manage to keep it out of their system for several exposures with some savvy or happily coincidental tricks. Washing it off works well. Oxidizing, or reacting it, also works. After poison ivy patrols at camps, I used to use a quarter cup of chlorine bleach in a pint of water, and shower using that as the cleanser. Be sure to get any oil out from under your nails.

    Urshuriol is active until it’s all reacted. Burning generally won’t react all of it, and it will volatilize into the smoke. If you breathe in the smoke, you get a serum case of poison ivy that will make you wish you were dead. Steroids, usually injected, are usually required to tame those cases.

    Maybe worse than breathing it in is to take a tea made from the leaves, as Euell Gibbons recommended in one of his books. It sounded silly, and he did specify young shoots in the spring, but I well recall watching a fellow brought into an emergency room, a mass of oozing poison ivy sores; the physicians said it hadn’t got to his eyelids yet, but they were concerned about it getting to his lungs. I understand the guy survived.

    And for heaven’s sake, don’t impair your judgment around poisonous plants!

  6. April 6th, 2009 at 10:48 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Thanks, Larry. I have many stories that my children shouldn’t hear.

  7. April 6th, 2009 at 10:51 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I didn’t intentionally impair my judgment around poisonous plants. I have had several run-ins with urshuriol, and I may have misidentified the plant in this case. It’s hard to say now, because thirty years ago I dropped the leaves very quickly.

  8. April 7th, 2009 at 9:12 am

    Greg Laden says:

    I’d love to hear more from Greg about the five different poisonous substances.

    Ed, I’m not an expert on this, but I can tell you that “urshuriol” is present in PI and other plants in numerous forms that have very different reactivities and that different individuals have different reactions to them. Urushiol per se is really a class of compounds, and while most are irritating, only some are as irritating to humans as PI (Which, by the way is not equally irritating to all mammals. It is very species specific. My hypothesis is that primates evolved in a region where the Anacardiaceae were not common. Anacardiaceae is the plant family that invented this wonderful substance, and which are mainly native to Asia and South America, but not Africa.)

    By the way, the best soap to wash PI and also the clothing exposed is said to be Fels Naptha.

  9. April 7th, 2009 at 6:44 pm

    Bryan Stack says:

    That’s “urushiol” from the Japanese word for lacquer, urushi. Besides poison ivy, oak and suamc, sensitized people can get the same kind of rash from handling East Asian lacquered items. Mango rinds and cashew shells (removed before shipping, so we never see them) also contain urushiol.

  10. April 8th, 2009 at 4:52 am

    Blind Squirrel FCD says:

    I had a brush with PI while enjoying a little ‘nature’ myself, except I didn’t realize what the plant was until I saw the familiar three leaves silhouetted against the evening sky. I was lying in the stuff. But I didn’t develop a rash because of an old Indian trick I learned from a Mother Earth article. Household ammonia, diluted ten to one. It turns out that only the acidic form of urusiol is allergenic. You don’t even have to wash the resin off, just get it wet with the solution.
    You probably should not rub any unknown plant on your body. If you ever saw the list of plants that, one time or another, have given someone contact dermatitis, you wouldn’t go outdoors.
    Surprised to see a picture of a male plant, with all the bad press they get.
    Keep on trucking.

  11. April 9th, 2009 at 7:42 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Keep on truckin’ ya self! Did the old Indians who did tricks have household ammonia?

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