Toxicodendron radicans v. Parthenocissus quinquefolia

 

I was barely coordinated enough to drag a rake across the grass when my dad introduced me to the chore of yard work. The backyard in Princeton Corners was packed with pine trees, and every couple weeks my sisters and I faced the dreaded task of "picking up sticks." We always protested - we faked sick, feigned exhaustion, and occasionally if it was Sunday we played the devious and manipulative (but in retrospect, pretty funny) God-card on our Jesus-loving father, reminding him that the Lord commands us to rest on the Sabbath and his orders sounded contradictory. I can't believe he put up with us all those years. As we got older the three of us learned to do our work with mostly good attitudes. And when our dad started to trust my sisters with tools like the leaf blower and chainsaw, it even became somewhat enjoyable. Any kid who was subjected to hours of weed pulling, hole-digging, hedge-trimming, and stuffing thorny foliage into brown lawn bags, is bound to learn the classic virtues veiled in light manual labor, getting dirty, and collecting a few scratches and splinters here and there. But aside from anything character building, one of the most valuable lessons I picked up in my amateur landscaping days is how to tell the difference between Toxicodendron radicans and Parthenocissus quinquefolia. That is, poison ivy and Virginia creeper. Both plants are around the same size, have the same coloring, same leaf shape, and grow in the same environments. Poison ivy has three leaves and does horrible things. It makes perfectly good people become puffy, discolored, uncomfortable, and contagious. Virginia Creeper has five leaves and does nothing at all. The problem is the two can look so similar; it's easy to mistake a harmless patch of leaves for a sea of something poisonous. 
During those years growing up in Atlanta’s suburbs I lived in a neighborhood with a gaggle of other curious children, some who also had to do yard work, and others whose parents let the pros handle it. Any given day after barreling off the school bus we could be found trolling and trespassing through strangers' back yards, stashing our bikes and backpacks between boxwoods, and setting out on foot to explore, presumably in search of a suitable headquarters for our mischief. Occasionally we came to a rocky creek that we would valiantly ford. Other times we had to jump a rusty fence or crawl through a gap in some scraggy hedges. Few barricades would deter us, and the particularly lionhearted soldiers ended up with a cast - or if they were lucky, crutches - to prove it. But one thing we were always wary of was poison ivy. If you touched it, it was game over, and we simply knew better. We were girl scouts and boy scouts, after all.

When we set out to adventure with bright eyes, fast bikes, and low expectations, the world was alive - host to a grand scavenger hunt we got to take part in. The very last thing any of us wanted to stumble upon was a poisonous sprawl lying between where we were and where the next treasure might hide. Traversing a creek only to promptly face a devastating obstruction on the pathway to magic can be absolutely crushing. And while at times, yes, poison ivy spanned too far to navigate and we had to find a new route, there were other times - more frequently than not - when we simply needed to look a little closer at what was impeding our progress and make sure it wasn't just a patch of Virginia creeper playing tricks on us. Having the simple knowledge of this subtle difference could make or break an entire day of exploration. It was the difference between forging on to find an abandoned barn or cluster of magnolia trees (nature's perfect fort, as any southern child knows), and giving up, turning around, and going home to watch Nickelodeon in someone’s dimly lit basement.


Learning to spot the difference between what is truly dangerous versus what is just scary can arguably make or break a life over the course of time. It is the difference between moving forward and backing down; saying yes and saying never mind; growing and recoiling; stepping out in faith and shrinking back in apprehension. It's not to say fear isn’t palpable, indeed it can paralyze and captivate, but fear has no place in our ultimate reality – the Good reality that lasts forever. Fear occasionally helps us avoid real danger, but there are other times - more frequently than not - we let fear sprawl across its boundaries and block us from experiencing a whole lot of goodness, too. Such trickery requires heightened vigilance on our part. We need to make sure we’re looking close enough at the actual matter in front of us to see it for what it truly is, because it just may happen the poison ivy we’re so afraid of is only a patch of Virginia creeper.