In a World of Poison

In a World of Poison May 21, 2020

 

I went on a hike with Rosie.

The last time we went, it was still the time of year for wildflowers. Now, the wildflowers are gone. The trees all got their leaves in the past few weeks; the woods were shady, a cavern of green. It had been hot in the house and warm on the walk there, but in the forest, when the breeze blew, it was almost cool.

We walked downhill to where the beautiful creek is. Ever the homeschooling mother, I lectured on ecology and biomes. I pointed to the bat house on the side of a tree, and to other notable things as well. I showed her how to identify poison ivy.

“Don’t touch the poison hemlock,” I said, and I was mistaken. The juicy, tempting, purple-flecked stems cropping up by the path were not poison hemlock but poke. Poison hemlock has fern-like leaves and poke has broad ones. Poison hemlock paralyzes the lungs in short order and is always deadly unless you have a ventilator, but poke will also kill you given half a chance. Children play with hemlock stems because they look like whistles, and die. They also sometimes eat poke berries because they look like blueberries, and go into convulsions.

Rosie promised not to touch the poke.

I admired the may apples– a plant that looks almost like a lily pad on a stem; I used to call them “frog umbrellas” when I was Rosie’s age. The may apple is also mostly toxic, but the tiny fruit that hides beneath the foliage is edible when ripe. Someone else or some animal had gotten to the may apple fruit before me, however. There was nothing there.

Rosie sat on a tree trunk and narrated a story she is writing. She likes to dictate rambling stories that sound like they were written by Beverly Cleary, about a family of precocious boys name Nick, John, Treck and Dan. In this chapter, the boys went on a hike and Treck wandered into poison ivy but found he was immune.

When we got to the stream, Rosie tied her sneakers to the straps of her backpack and waded. I waded. We walked on algae-slick shale that was wet as a marble floor. I lectured Rosie on shale, which the whole Ohio Valley is made of, and shuddered at the thought of the frackers who want to make such a beautiful natural floor into oil to poison the earth and the atmosphere.

We passed under a tulip tree that had fallen down but was still alive.

After awhile, I put my shoes on and walked on the trail next to the stream while Rosie sloshed up the stream with a walking stick. She ended up in a pool almost knee-deep, blocked off by a miniature waterfall, and had to climb out of the ravine holding my hand.

“We’ll bring our bathing suits and play here for an hour at least next time, I promise,” I said. “We just have to go quickly now or we’ll miss the last bus home.”

Rosie dried off her feet and tied her sneakers; then she put on her cloth mask with the whimsical dinosaur print on it. A mask dotted with cartoons of extinct animals, to help keep our fellow bus passengers from dying out.

“I’m frowning at you,” she said, because she hates the mask.

“I know,” I replied from behind my white one. “I can see it in your eyes.”

The mask moved in front a little. “I’m sticking out my tongue!”

We had a few minutes before the bus, so I ran into a store and bought her a Milky Way bar to make up for the indignity.

“You are being very respectful of other people by wearing the mask,” I droned. “You can take it off the moment we get off the bus, I promise.”

It was while I was riding home, looking down at Rosie’s beautiful eyes above that dinosaur mask, that the vertigo came over me again.

I am raising a daughter in a world I can’t understand.

The world I grew up in, and was raised to live in, does not exist. I grew up in a dream world in the 80s and 90s, a Charismatic Catholic and a Cloud Chaser who panicked at the thought that the Three Days of Darkness were coming, where demons would knock on the window and scream at us to be let inside. I thought that was Catholicism. Then I woke up, in a world with a different set of nightmares. The world I am awake in is full of things that can hurt and kill. Some of those things I learned about in my own childhood: poke and hemlock, may apple, poison ivy. Other threats I wasn’t taught to expect: shale oil and the frackers who bleed it from our valley may well kill us. The air is slowly boiling with excesses of methane and carbon, and that may well kill us. The breath of strangers may well be infected with a brand new virus that could give you a cough or suffocate you, only God knows which, and only God knows when or if that will go away.

I’m raising a child in this nightmare, and not the one I was brought up in.

I think all mothers have found themselves in a similar state.

The bus rolled up to LaBelle. Rosie hopped off; she ripped off the mask and stuffed it in my purse.

And then we were home.

 

Image via Pixabay

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross

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