The Pleasure

Originally published on November 6, 2023

Animist Encounters with Poison Oak

Lessons from the Poison Path

A Peculiar Parish Edition by Erik Davis
24 pages, with illustrations by David V. D’Andrea
A chapbook available from Fiddler’s Green, $9.

As many a seasoned hiker can tell you, an incautious encounter with poison oak can turn a happy memory of a forest walk into a drawn-out ordeal of incapacitating anguish. The merest brush against the plant’s green and ruddy leaves—or even its bare stem—is apt to trigger a singular suffering perversely described by some as the pleasure.

Despite centuries of hard-won wisdom among Native Americans and colonial settlers alike, many mysteries still surround the wily nature of Toxicodendron diversilobum. How does the plant adapt and morph to thrive in a variety of wilderness environments? Why are some people seemingly immune to its toxins? Can its excruciating rash re-emerge on its own years later? And, most perplexing of all, could the plant be possessed of an intelligence beyond human understanding?

Scratching beneath the surface of science and legend, author Erik Davis keenly discerns poison oak’s anthropomorphic qualities, including that of a fierce and mercurial guardian, a tricky teacher, and a vigorous ally to the endangered wilds.