Itchy and Scratchy

When nature calls in the woods, think before you reach

Oct 1, 2005
Outside Magazine
Worst Moments in the World Outside

I LEARNED TO DEFECATE in the woods while I was still in single digits. Our small Wisconsin farm was surrounded by hundreds of acres of swamp and forest, and my siblings and I were often out of washroom range when the urge struck. We became precocious connoisseurs of organic cleansing media. Wipeability factors varied: Oak leaves gave good coverage, but their slickness limited absorption. Pine needles were worthless, even injurious, but had the benefit of smelling like tree-shaped air fresheners. Moss was fragile, soggy, and sandy, but had a decent swab factor. Finally, I can say without reservation that a fat handful of poison-ivy leaves did the job quite nicely. The initial job, that is. The sequelae, to use a physician's term, were untenable.

I was 14, which, given my experience toileting alfresco, made my mistake doubly knot-headed. Grandpa had taken a passel of us to a riverside swimming hole. I still remember squatting in the bushes before jumping in, prospecting for leaves after it was too late to relocate. The only trees within reach were pines. I groped behind me and felt a clump of flat, wide leaves. Bingo!

It took a while for the itching to commence. Early on, while still in the water, I felt squirmy twinges of an intimate nature, but, hey, what's new? Back home two hours later, I was race-walking around the living room, fully prepared to drop my shorts and do the naughty-puppy carpet scoot. Cross-eyed and panting, I racked my brain and reviewed the day. When I got around to reenacting the outdoor toity session, I blanched.

I wound up with such a blistering case that I was taken to a clinic for corticosteroid shots. The doctor also prescribed a topical cream and instructed my mother (a nurse) to apply it daily. Florence Nightingale herself wouldn't have shown up for that gig. I spent a week sleeping on my stomach, fitful and straddle-legged. Standard bathroom procedure went out the window, replaced by a wincing gavotte in which I lowered myself to the seat, did the deed, drew a baking soda bath, and delicately cleansed and patted myself dry. One misstep and I would collapse into a seizure of spastic monkey-scratching. Years later I came across a poster in a print shop that said IT'S NOT THE BURNING, IT'S THE ITCHING, MAN! and I thought, Amen.

For a long time, the fact that I'd wiped my butt with poison ivy was my little secret. I have to believe Mom had her suspicions, even though I explained it away by saying I'd backed into the stuff while changing into my bathing suit. She kept a log of my childhood illnesses, and the entry for August 7, 1979, says, "poison ivy, lower trunk." Delicately put, don't you think?

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