Ouch and Double Ouch

I feel the burn instantaneously. The merest touch, no more than a glancing blow, scalds left forearm and leg. I don’t see my life pass before my eyes, exactly, but it’s a close thing.

My attacker has been lying in wait — not quite in ambush, maybe, but cleverly camouflaged nonetheless. In this jungle of thigh-high weeds, who’s to notice one stinging nettle until it strikes?

Coming home after 10 days away in high summer, I find that my previously manageable backyard is suddenly (and totally, totally) out of control — if not exactly overnight, then at least depressingly quickly. Weeds, it seems, do not take vacations. Wading into the mess, I make good progress — after all, everything I’m ripping out is full grown. But then I reach for a weed lurking near the sprawling Korean lilac and tug. It releases easily — too easily, perhaps — and as I swing around to put it into the designated yard waste bag, it breaks, and the bottom half swings down and brushes the inside of my forearm. Not content with that, it breaks off and strikes my leg in passing.

Ouch. Double ouch. And damn.

This is not my first encounter of the first kind with stinging nettles. After moving into this house four years ago, I was happily scratching my long-suppressed gardening itch by pulling little weeds out of the front flower bed. I reached under a spreading conifer of some sort and the top of my hand suddenly went numb, and then all prickly. Ouch. Double ouch. And damn. What the heck was that?

A few minutes with the good Professor Google convinced me that I had run afoul of a stinging nettle, Urtica dioica. At 55-plus, I had never hit it before, which I could take as just good (aka dumb) luck, since it is widely distributed in North America. And so I learned to wear gloves while weeding — even while pulling out only itty-bitty weeds. Urtica dioica is nasty from the ground up. But gloves are no protection against a stinging nettle three feet tall that topples from your hands. Timber!

Coming inside after this latest assault, I check with my medical authority. As Wiki helpfully informs me, the nettles deliver three chemicals: a histamine that irritates skin (Check!), acetylcholine which causes a burning feeling (No kidding!), and serotonin (Hey, wait a minute ““ I thought serotonin was a feel-good thing ““ or was that the endorphins?). Lacking an antihistamine cream, the available treatments involve smearing baking soda or mud or — Get this! — the sap from Yet Another Weed on the afflicted area. The mind boggles at trying to find the appropriate plant at this exact moment and, anyway, I believe Nature has had its chance with me this morning. I wash the afflicted spots and apply a slimy mess of baking soda and water. It doesn’t help much. Of course as the good Doctor Wiki sums up: Alternatively, one can simply ignore the stinging sensation and let it run its (harmless) course. Okey-dokey.

For the next several days I nurse both burns carefully, but it’s the one on the arm that really bites.  Applying any pressure at all is more than irritating, it’s downright painful, and the natural resting position of the arm brings it into non-stop contact with something. Ouch. Double ouch. And damn.

I point out my affliction to everyone I meet.

Look!  I was attacked by a stinging nettle.

Husband, Spanish tutor, colleagues, elevator buddy, drugstore clerk, neighbour — no one doesn’t need to know, if you see what I mean.

I don’t know what the doctor was thinking.

It is just days after my backyard brush with death, and a friend and I are visiting said friend’s father, who is recounting a long and somewhat jumbled story about his recent and ongoing health tribulations. I don’t get all the details but it’s clear he’s at that nasty age and stage where problems don’t just multiply, they interact. Medication for one condition is contraindicated for another. Activity that would relieve one set of symptoms would aggravate another. Diet required for one problem is out-and-out prohibited for another. Diagnosis itself gets more complicated — What’s pathology and what’s just old age? He is not a happy camper.

Taking our leave, my friend and I head back to her car in silence. As we get in, we each glance sideways at the other and then start to laugh. The next few minutes find us in violent agreement: What the heck is her father thinking, focusing on his health problems like that? He’s in a bad place, no question about that, so why doesn’t he think about something else, focus on something agreeable for a change? Here he had two young-to-him visitors and he didn’t even use us to distract himself from his problems, not for a minute. What a way to spend your life. Yikes.  And so on.

As I finish strapping myself in, the inside of my forearm comes to rest against my side. There’s that stinging sensation again, the one I’m supposed to ignore while it runs its course. Ouch. Double ouch. And damn. I turn to my friend and hold my arm out.

Look! I was attacked by a stinging nettle.

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2 Responses to Ouch and Double Ouch

  1. Jim taylor says:

    In INdia, it was said that wherever there was a noxious weed, there was an antidote growing close by. Sure enough, whenever we found a patch of stinging nettles — they didn’t come in individual plants, but in large patches into which bullies could push lesser mortals — we also found a patch of dock leaves (dok? dawk?) nearby. As I recall them, they looked a little like rhubarb leaves, but more divided up. We crushed the dock leaves, and rubbed the juicy mess on the nettle stings, and presto! Pain gone!
    In both Belize and Honduras, we took a tour of some natural medicine farms. They took delight in pointing out the plants and trees that would cause you to blister if they so much as dripped rain onto you. I asked about the proximity of antidotes. The principle held (more or less). That is, if you knew what to look for, the antidote was almost always fairly close by.


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Yes, dockweed is what Wiki cites as the natural antidote. Not sure I’ve seen any next to my stinging nettles, which tend to be lone-guns. But I like the idea of the two growing together en masse. There’s an interesting idea in there, to do with the remedy being at hand when the insult is egregious enough. Sort of reassuring.

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