Grasping the Nettle

My arch-nemesis, the Nettle.
grasp the nettle
phrase of grasp
1.  BRITISH:  tackle a difficulty boldly.

It should come as no surprise to most of my readers that I read a lot as a child.  The fact that I moved to Asia at the age of 3 meant that I had minimal access to the typical media absorbed by most of my American peers in the 70s and 80s.  I did see the occasional American film, listened to some English and American records, and did watch TV on Sunday evenings - a sacrosanct hour devoted to 'The Wonderful World of Disney,'  aired on the Armed Forces Television Network, which was the highlight of my week.  Disney, in fact, was the major contributor to my generally vague concept of the geography of the continent of North America, which was heavily influenced by the landscape of California, where the majority of Disney's filming was done.   The majority of my information about Life in America, however, was based on what I read, and by the time I headed back to the US shortly before my 10th birthday, I had composed a mental picture of the USA that was heavily influenced by Yosemite National Park, Louisa May Alcott's Massachusetts of the 1870s, Archie comic books, and Nancy Drew.

It wasn't always immediately obvious whether the things I was reading about were products of another time or simply products of another culture. While it was clear that no one in the USA was still using kerosene lamps or chamber pots, I was not always quite so sure about the rest of it, and was somewhat disappointed to discover that suburban Northern Virginia (where we moved for a few years before heading back overseas) was distinctly lacking in snowy winter landscapes, pesky but well-meaning bears that broke into your kitchen, blue roadsters, soda fountains, and train travel involving dining cars.

The point is, having grown up reading books set in other places and other times, it was not uncommon for me to run across references to things I knew nothing about, make a contextual guess as to their probable meaning, and move forward in the narrative.  This brings me to today's blog topic:  the nettle.

I had run across the nettle in a number of the English children's books I had read, as well as in Alcott's work (although I should point out that I never once encountered a nettle while living in Alcott's own home state of Massachusetts.)  I remember being highly impressed by a scene in Little Men where tomboy Nan is proving herself to her new friends in a classic 1870s 'double dog dare you' scenario:

".. I never cry, no matter how I'm hurt; it's babyish," said Nan, loftily.

"Pooh! I could make you cry in two minutes," returned Stuffy, rousing up.
"See if you can."
"Go and pick that bunch of nettles, then," and Stuffy pointed to a sturdy specimen of that prickly plant growing by the wall.
Nan instantly "grasped the nettle," pulled it up, and held it with a defiant gesture, in spite of the almost unbearable sting.
"Good for you," cried the boys, quick to acknowledge courage even in one of the weaker sex.

Living in Thailand (or maybe Taipei) at the time I first read this, I was unfamiliar with nettles, but having spent my formative years in countries where venomous snakes, limbless beggars, and insects the size of puppies were part of the daily landscape, the fact that a stinging, burning plant was growing in the family's garden within easy reach of young children did not seem unreasonable to me and I moved on with the tale.

In the following years, when I eventually moved back to live on the East Coast, I never ran across nettles:  thistles, yes, poison oak, yes, poison ivy, yes.  Thorns and brambles, yes, yes.  But never anything called a 'nettle.' I had a vague image of a nettle as something like a thistle:  round, prickly, sharp, and obviously unfriendly. Maybe something like a cactus.  In subsequent years, MrL and I would end up moving Out West, raising our children in an environment that included scorpions, rattlesnakes, the occasional wild javelina, and every other possible sort of prickly and aggressive plant one could imagine.  The nettle floated down into the sediment at the bottom of my consciousness and remained there.

Then, I moved to England.  

I knew, of course, that there were nettles in England, and vaguely assumed that I might run across one, say, if we happened to be hiking across a desolate moor somewhere in Yorkshire or maybe on a remote Scottish hillside.

The nettle, I imagined, would be large - maybe like a burr or a pinecone - and would, like most prickly plants I had come to know, look sinister and foreboding. It would live out on a windy mountaintop or in a dense forest.

This, of course, was entirely wrong. My first introduction to the nettle was in my local park, just around the corner from my house.

Learning About The Nettle was a result of every dog owner's least favorite experience:  cleaning up after one's dog, only to find that there is a Hole In The Bag and that one has been left with a handful of body-temperature dog feces.  With nothing to wipe my hand on, what I needed was something with broad, soft leaves - nature's handkerchief, so to speak.  My eye scanned the hedgerows along the park path, and fell on a medium-sized plant sporting greyish-green, fuzzy-looking leaves about the size of a large post-it note. From my perspective, it appeared perfect:  large, absorbent, and not too stiff, and with a soft-looking texture like lamb's ears. 

As soon as I grasped it, I realized that something was wrong.  At first, I thought I'd accidentally caught hold of a stinging insect, but turning the leaves over and examining my burning fingers (while still stupidly holding the leaf, I should point out), I could see nothing - no insect, no stingers, nothing.  But my fingers continued to burn and sting.  At that point, I realized that the leaf itself was to blame, but by then, it was too late. For the rest of the walk home, my fingers stung, burned, and itched, no matter what I did to them.  By the time I  was able to wash them off and examine them, they were sporting tiny red dots, some of which later turned into blisters. A quick perusal of Google informed me that, yes, I had indeed, grabbed a handful of nettle leaves like an idiot, and should not have been surprised to find that it did, in fact, hurt.

Always willing to learn from experience, I resolved then and there never again to grasp a handful of nettle leaves, and considered that to be the end of the story.  

Unfortunately, as MrL and I discovered a few weeks later while hiking the Bath Skyline Walk, one doesn't have to actually grasp a nettle to experience its unpleasant effects.  All you have to do is brush up against it ever so slightly with any uncovered skin - in our cases, especially arms and hands, which tend to brush against them as we're hiking along the overgrown trails - and the nettle's nasty little trichomes (hollow hairs) take the opportunity to inject their venomous payloads into your epidermis, leaving you burning and itching and cursing. Since they're so unpleasant, it should come as no surprise that they tend to flourish near human habitation and love places like empty fields, hiking trails, parkland, bike paths  - pretty much everywhere that I walk my dog. Every day.  And yes, they are, in fact, everywhere.

According to Google, nettles can also be found in the US and should therefore should not be a surprise to me, but (obviously) I missed something (note:  any of my N.American readers run across them?)  At any rate, they don't seem to bother our fellow hikers here in Britain, who stride around in tank tops and shorts with impunity, never seeming to worry about them.  Or maybe they're just immune after a lifetime of nettle exposure.

In any case, having familiarized myself with their fuzzy and deceptively benign appearance, I am on my guard. Granted, I probably look a little silly walking through the overgrown field trails of late summer with my hands held up over my head, but no one can say I haven't learned my lesson.


Nance said…
I don't think we have the Stinging sort here, just the dreaded Dead Nettle, which spreads rapidly and is terribly invasive. Oh, and poison ivy, which is our version of Stinging Nettle. We are battling a huge patch of that currently, and losing.
Karen F. said…
Since we do, indeed, learn something new every day, I will count this as what I learned today. I always assumed that nettles were just another name for thorns! Now I know better, but spent the first half of your blog thinking, "Of course we have nettles, what is she talking about?" LOL. I do have a memory of coming across a similar stinging plant, but can't for the life of me remember where. I want to say somewhere in the D.C. area, most likely Virginia and near a river or stream. Not sure, though! Anyway, thanks for the laugh, as always.
PS Could also have been California...Just can not remember!
MsCaroline said…
I am familiar with poison ivy, which I think is a bit sneakier - it's not until a bit later that you start suffering. At least Stinging Nettles are upfront about it: as soon as you touch them, you regret it.
MsCaroline said…
Karen - well, I would have probably sworn up and down that a nettle was more like a thistle, but I guess both of us have learned something new. It's just so sneaky of them to look so benign and then hurt so badly! Wikipedia says that nettles can be found in the US, so they probably are there and I just never connected them with the name - but I think I would have remembered that level of discomfort if I'd run across them before! Needless to say, I am on constant nettle-watch these days. I'm getting quite good at spotting them!
Potty Mummy said…
So NOW - assuming you're not going to start carrying a tube of anti-histamine cream about with you (not a bad idea, available at Boots), you need to familiarise yourself with nature's remedy for the nettle; the dock leaf. Almost invariably found growing very close to nettles, if you pick one (once you've stung yourself), crumple it up in your hand, and rub the crumpled leaf over the sting, it will give you some relief almost instantly.

It won't completely remove the pain / rash, but it's always helped me. It's a simple remedy that any child who's grown up in the UK and fallen off a tree into a patch of stinging nettles learns pretty early on...
MsCaroline said…
Karen - well, I would have probably sworn up and down that a nettle was more like a thistle, but I guess both of us have learned something new. It's just so sneaky of them to look so benign and then hurt so badly! Wikipedia says that nettles can be found in the US, so they probably are there and I just never connected them with the name - but I think I would have remembered that level of discomfort if I'd run across them before! Needless to say, I am on constant nettle-watch these days. I'm getting quite good at spotting them!
MsCaroline said…
Clare - I actually read a couple of articles about the properties of the dock leaf (and, in fact, this is another one of those things I'd read about, but had no idea what a dock leaf looked like) and will try it if needed - but let me emphasize that I am going to make it one of my highest priorities to avoid a repeat of if at all necessary. We did a 4-mile hike around Cheddar Gorge on Saturday and I was positively skittish (some might have said, 'paranoid') out there. I'll ask some of my dog-walking companions to give me a crash course in dock identification the next time we're out and about.
Oh I sympathise completely. I never saw a nettle in the US but the boys managed to get poison ivy every summer we were there. And I agree with you, it's much sneakier because it doesn't hurt straight away, so you could be rolling in a whole patch of the stuff and not realise. Nettles are horrible, but at least they are pretty distinctive looking and you know straight away you've been stung. Also, the stings go away fairly quickly compared to poison ivy which gets steadily worse as you scratch and spread it (Littleboy 1 ended up on oral steroids the first time he got it).

The thing to realise about hiking in England is that there will be a lot of paths that are impassable in summer precisely because of nettles. You would probably do better to stick to open hillsides, moors etc (have you been up to the Quantocks yet?) and leave the little overgrown country paths to the autumn.
MsCaroline said…
You're right - poison ivy can be pretty awful - I've heard a few horror stories, and LB1's steroids are not an unfamiliar story, sadly! The problem with avoiding the paths is that I have walked them almost daily with the dog since March, so the encroachment of the nettles has been a gradual thing and these are her favorite walkies! She does love running off-lead back in the fields, too (I don't let her do it anywhere she might run into cars or approach people who don't care for dogs - she doesn't understand that everyone doesn't think she's fabulous, and is likely to jump up for a cuddle - frightening for non-dog people) so I continue to take her to those country fields - but I don't wear shorts, and I stick with long sleeves when we go. Now that I understand what I'm avoiding, it's been much easier to keep pain-free - although I did take Potty Mummy's advice and figure out what Dock looks like, so I'm better prepared!

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