Mother Rhus

For the third post in our series The Plant Practice we travel to the South Appalachian forest where artist and lichenologist Nastassja Noell faces the stinging backlash from poison ivy and learns how to balance a toxic inheritance of centuries.
is a lichenologist who struggles to stay within the fenced pastures of science. She has led lichen biodiversity research projects throughout the Americas, co-authored the book Delmarva Lichens (Torrey), and her writing has appeared in scientific journals as well as Radical Mycology, Patagon Journal, and NW Travel. Nastassja lives in the Southern Appalachians, in a cove forest that whispers stories while she sleeps..

‘This can’t be Poison Ivy,’ the doctor said.

‘It is,’ I said, rotating my swollen leg around.

‘It looks like a chemical burn.’ And the doctor is right, it does look like a burn. Blisters the size of acorns cover my calf. The rash of Poison Ivy is usually small, itchy but minor.

‘It’s Poison Ivy.’

After a few moments, the doctor relented and inserted a large needle into me, flooding my bloodstream with steroids. ‘That should do it,’ he said. I left his office, hopeful.

A week later, the Poison Ivy rash stretched from ankle to hip, swollen, leaking blood and serum. I couldn’t bend my leg, much less walk. The other leg raced to catch up, to mirror its twin. Wrapped like a mummy in medical gauze, I hobbled to another doctor.

‘Plastic wrap,’ the new doctor said.

I looked at him, confused.

‘Three times a day. Use this steroid cream and wrap your legs in plastic wrap.’

I don’t own plastic wrap. I don’t want to own plastic wrap. I hobbled out of the office, dismayed, and picked up some fucking plastic wrap from the corner store.

After two weeks of creating enough plastic waste to wrap an entire beach like a casserole, the Poison Ivy rash finally left. Fresh pink skin emerged beneath flaking scabs. But it wasn’t long before the wrath of Poison Ivy consumed me again.

And again.

And again.

And again.


Poison Ivy, a trifoliate perennial plant known by botanists as Toxicodendron radicans, grows thickly around my home in the Southern Appalachians. But my home is not a backyard that can be sprayed with herbicide, as so many doctors recommend. My home is a forest, a young forest that has grown out of old fields. A young forest that is recovering from two centuries of disturbance. Recovering like I am, like you are, like we all are; recovering Cove Forests and Humans, Carolina Flying Squirrels and Red Wolves, Spreading Avens and Rock Gnome Lichens. How can I kill a native plant that covers entire landscapes? Hundreds of thousands of acres of disturbed lands that were once ancient forests of trees wider than traincars, spilling chestnuts and acorns and butternuts onto the ground.

During the cycles of Ice Ages and warm periods, these forests were a refugium for species from north and south. But then, within a hundred years, they were cleared into bare fields by the cutting edge of settlers, dozed down, sold away. And yet now, those fields are returning to forest, reclaimed by the remnants of the forest and its mighty seed bank. It is a story of reclamation, but it’s also why Poison Ivy is out of balance.

Poison Ivy loves disturbance. That’s its niche. Every plant has a particular niche, an ecological preference, a place in the landscape where it thrives and ultimately brings an ecosystem into balance by filling that niche. 

My personal disturbance regime concerns cultural poison. I’m filled with the poison of a civilisation that perceives itself as separate from the more-than-human world

The problem is that my personal disturbance regime concerns cultural poison. I’m filled with the poison of a civilisation that perceives itself as separate from the more-than-human world, separate from each other, separate from time. My conscious mind perceives myself as isolated in thought and action and beingness. 

This collective consciousness that lives within me, it shoves dreams out of my waking life. When the forest carries on its daily conversations, the collective consciousness pushes those out of my knowing too. My imagination is only my own, the collective exclaims within me, an individualist enterprise. But that collective consciousness isn’t me. So I chose to dive deeper, into the unconscious; to explore the portal at the base of our unconscious where doors open between worlds. 

Mother Rhus  by Nastassja Noell. Coloured pencil on paper

‘What do you hear?’ Beatrice asked in her British accent from the laptop sitting on the edge of my bed. Beatrice had led me into a trance, and now I was journeying to the spirit of the Poison Ivy as I stood in the middle of my bedroom.

‘I don’t know. Something … her name is Mother Rhus.’ Taxonomic nomenclature flashed through my mind, Rhus toxicodendron, an older botanical name for Poison Ivy.

The spirit vines of Mother Rhus reached out of the wooden floorboards, wrapping around my ankles, curling up my legs. Fear echoed through my body.

‘What’s happening now?’

A scream erupted from my throat, and pulled me to the ground. A lifetime of fear cracked across my vocal chords. It was not the fear of a rash that was scaring me, it was something much bigger than that. It was my father running from Germany near the end of World War II. My great grandparents escaping from Poland in the early 1900s. Unspoken memories that live in my flesh. The An-igiduwagi (Cherokee) People ripped from these mountains, their lands stolen and sold to others fleeing from Scotland and elsewhere. Unspoken memories that live in these lands. Writhing within us. Guilt, rage, unprocessed grief. Trauma compounding. Poison.

Mother Rhus pulled more from me. A field full of heads covered my bedroom floor, humans who were dug into the ground with their heads sticking out, gasping for breath, eyes swollen shut, bruised, bleeding. Unable to move. Each one, an ancestor, by blood, or place, or unlimited time. Not dead. Not alive. 

Each one Mother Rhus pulled up through me. 

I saw myself as a woman holding a baby. Townsfolk approached my cabin in the forest, demanding to take the child away, as I debated whether to kill the child along with myself to save her from being raised apart in hatred and fear.

Then I became another woman, running through a forest in autumn. Men were chasing me, shouting. Panic flooded and pumped through my muscles as I ran. And then suddenly, wings sprouted from my back and I turned into an owl and flew to the top of a branch, watching as the men ran beneath me. The last man stopped to look up at me, the owl, before continuing on. 

From the Mother Rhus years: Turtle Woman by Nastassja Noell. Pencil on paper

And then another, a woman whose village of huts was in flames. A group of people were pillaging my neighbours, and I ran into the forest, and turned into a turtle who now lives along the shore of a giant lake.

Mother Rhus sucked and pulled at the poison. The outcomes of these traumas didn’t disappear, not at all, but they transmuted, from a trauma that is stuck in time, into a critical moment in evolution. Mother Rhus wasn’t teaching me how to be a plant – she was teaching me how to be a human, how to be an animal. For her poison itself isn’t deadly, it’s the avoidance of it that creates the toxic reactions. 

Urushiol, the chemical in Poison Ivy that the human body reacts to, is an inert chemical. No other animal is known to react to it. Many human bodies don’t react at all, Japanese woodworkers even use it for varnish. But most modern human bodies treat it as a poisonous agent, isolating it. White blood cells engulf it and try to kill it. Like we so often do with grief. But just like with urushiol, the rejection of the process is what turns grief into a poison. Rejection of climate change, or ecocide, or exploitative economics gets woven into poisonous political campaigns. If we were to fully feel all the unprocessed grief that’s built up over the generations we’d probably fall to the ground, unable to function as we grappled with it all, at least for a time. But grief is not a poison. The poison comes from avoiding the process, I reminded myself.

Back on the floor of my bedroom, the field of heads loomed, groaning noises echoing through the trance. Spit pooled below my mouth as Mother Rhus crept her vines around my body. My body was crippling under the weight of the grief.

Beatrice’s voice echoed through the laptop screen, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. All I could hear was Mother Rhus.

‘To hold only grief will cripple you,’ Mother Rhus said. ‘Without joy, grief remains unprocessed. Without processing grief, joy is fleeting.’ 

Without joy, grief remains unprocessed. Without processing grief, joy is fleeting

In that moment, three other friends joined me in the field. One by one we went to each head, touched it, felt its memories shift underfoot, and then watched the head disappear underground, finally buried, no longer caught between worlds. Even though the pain feels so much bigger when it’s being witnessed, having friends to process grief with is joyful. Another teaching from Mother Rhus.


From the Mother Rhus years: Burrowing Owl by Nastassja Noell. Block print on paper

Years later, I flip through the art I created during that period of time, and what strikes me is how few were about plants. All the drawings were about animals that I transformed into as I faced the intergenerational grief. Myself as a burrowing owl, emerging from beneath the ground. Myself as a lizard scurrying to the precipice of a canyon’s edge. Myself as a snake, breaking through old skin and bravely exposing the young skin beneath. And Turtle Woman, who escaped her village burning, and lives to this day on the side of a giant lake. The worlds that Mother Rhus opened up within me are palpable, as real as childhood memories, as connected to my nervous system as my partner holding me as I cry. But her teachings are not finished. 

To this day, Mother Rhus still reaches inside me, pulling out poison. Poison that’s bigger than me, but lives in me. It’s never ending. And I’m learning to be OK with that. I’m practising holding joy and grief simultaneously. But when I forget, Mother Rhus gives me a little touch, a little rashful reminder that we’re living lives beyond what we comprehend, that we are processing poisons that go back generations, and forward for millennia.


The Plant Practice is edited by Mark Watson. Next week: Tamara Colchester reports on the art and skill of sleeping with trees.


Dark Mountain: Issue 22 – ARK

Our full-colour Autumn 2022 edition is an ARK carrying a cargo of testimonies, stories and artwork gleaned after the flood


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