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Monday, May 20, 2013

If every plant has a toxic relative, why wouldn’t that be true for people as well?

I've painted the Erie Canal all over the place (this one time in Gasport, NY). How much more can it teach me, right?

The plein air instructor has a lot more to do than simply show up and coax brilliance out of her students. She must first reconnoiter: is there a way to get equipment from a staging area to the painting site? Are there bathrooms? Even better, can you get a cup of coffee anywhere nearby?

I aim to know where every
Porta-Potty in the Northeast
is before I'm through.
It also behooves the plein air teacher to have a comprehensive knowledge of plants and trees. Not only does it help figure out when a painting site will be at its best, but it can also help avoid a disastrous encounter with, say, poison ivy.

My friend Mary has been urging me to explore the canal between Schoen Place and the Great Embankment in Pittsford. I’ve painted frequently in both places and many others on the canal besides. What could this little strip of land have that I haven’t already seen?

I found a lovely red barn against which was growing one of my favorite springtime plants, Greater Celandine (chelidonium), which is remarkable both for its lovely yellow flowers and for its many pharmacological and herbal uses. The Celandine will survive a week of rain and be there next week. But what is that lurking next to it? Not a Queen Anne’s Lace, but its toxic and invasive Giant Hogweed cousin, which causes nasty contact dermatitis.

A Giant Hogweed unfurling its leaves in the middle of a view I admire. (Photo courtesy of Mary Brzustowicz)
And just a little further down the path sits another noxious member of the carrot family: water hemlock. It has to be ingested to kill you, but it’s the most toxic plant growing in America and nearly a dead ringer for benign Queen Anne’s Lace.

And another Queen Anne's Lace ringer, water hemlock. (Photo courtesy of Mary Brzustowicz)
It happens so frequently in nature: deadly wolfsbane is in the same family as harmless little buttercups. Sumacs include poison ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, and a whole host of benign and lovely relatives.

In a lifetime of talking people through their problems, I’ve recently concluded that having a toxic person or two in a family isn’t the exception; it’s the rule. But it wasn’t until I was walking in the woods today that I realized that this is the way we’re designed. That isn’t a solution to the problems caused by toxic relatives, but I suppose it makes them easier to bear.

A thousand greens, our canal. (Photo courtesy of Mary Brzustowicz)
(And I must admit that the site Mary found, just east of Schoen Place, meets all my criteria and provides a unique view of the canal. Now to find a time to paint it, since it’s going to rain for the next three days.)

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