by Courtney Nelson, AP'18
As the 2018 cohort settles into our temporary home in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, we have revelled in the biodiversity of the local forests and the vast array of flora and fauna native to the Southern Appalachian region. Part of the first stage in settling into our new Arete community has been learning to identify each other by name, which quickly expanded to the wildlife around us.
One of the first assigned readings for class was “A Native Hill” by Wendell Berry. In our classroom discussion, we began to question what naming something actually meant. We discussed questions like: “Does naming something reduce or negate its essence?”, “What are the effects of naming something that cannot respond back?” and “What are the effects of giving an already named thing another name?”
After discussing these questions, we went on a nature walk through local trails near the Arthur Morgan School campus. We began extending our familiarity with the environment outside of each other by learning to identify the wild plants we were living with. We were quickly introduced to poison ivy, and encouraged to avoid it. Despite our careful attention, many members of our cohort have come into contact with the plant, and received its painful rash. Out of the many cases, one cohort member endured a severe rash that even spread to her face— surprisingly reflecting that she “felt welcomed to the land.”
The following week, we crafted ideals in self-governance, and one of the ideals was to “understand our impact on the environment.” Some of us became more curious about all of the functions within the environment that we were in. One of these curiosities was about learning poison ivy’s function in the whole environment, not just its interaction with humans.
I learned that poison ivy has many functions, like being an important food source for birds as well as providing shelter for many small organisms. Poison ivy also grows on vines and large trees, supporting their growth. Yet despite all of these positive attributes, poison ivy is most known for the oil it excretes, urushiol, which causes allergic reaction only in humans.
I learned that some local herbalists refer to poison ivy as Sister Ivy, thus reframing the plant and recognizing its symbiotic relationship with the environment. In addition to the benefits that Sister Ivy has for wildlife, it also serves as a reminder for the destruction of the environment often caused by humans from fire clearing and commercial logging, as Sister Ivy only grows in disturbed soils signaling a distressed environment.
Now, if I get poison ivy, when I’m itching at my skin, I can try and empathize with the environment around me, and only begin to understand more about the destruction of the disturbed environment that was caused by the humans before me, serving as a bittersweet reminder to understand our impact on the environment.
Courtney Nelson is from Raleigh, NC and is part of the 2018 Blue Ridge Session cohort. She just finished her first year at Appalachian State University, where she majors in Religious Studies.