It’s midnight and I’m with four high school biology teachers and a couple college bio students. We’re campers on private Speiden Island, one of the lesser San Juans, and enjoying a bright full-moon hike, looking for owls. One of the college girls goes after some small nocturnal animal in the bushes, hoping to catch it. She stops and announces that she stumbled into nettles and has nettle stings all over her legs.
Anyone from the Northwest knows that nettle stings aren’t fatal, but they burn and itch like a bastard and there never seems to be a treatment at hand. You can’t pee on them like you can a ray sting; antihistimine pills and creams don’t help, either. (Do a Google search for remedies and you’ll find that there aren’t any good ones.) And of course, on a private island far from a druggist (much less one who will open for a nettle victim at midnight) there’s never anything handy. Or is there?
“In nature, the antidote grows next to the poison.”
We look at one of the bio teachers who says this odd bit of woodsy lore. Even if it’s not true, it sounds kind of poetic, the kind of metaphoric thing that you’d find on a Yanni CD or some hypnosis recording. I love biology teachers. They’re the ones who continually validate my odd urge to do Anything for Science. So there we are, with our flashlights, dodging circles of light around where our itchy colleague stands. We pull her out of the depression where she’s standing in the nettles and can see her skin is starting to welt. We take a few guesses at the remedy the teacher suggests. Soil? Blackberries? Deer poop? Nope. Much easier to find year around: Slug slime.
We round up a good one, a banana slug, of the magnificent variety found in the woods around here. How do we get the slug to “give it up”, so to speak? They leave little shiny trails but won’t throw off a large enough quantity of mucus without some encouragement. Or aggravation.
Another kid gets a small stick and starts rubbing the slug. It throws off slime to protect itself, and the quantity is enough to gather on the stick. We thank the slug and rub the stick on the student’s leg.
“Well? Well? Is it working?”
“I think it is. We need more slime,” she says. “More slime.”
So the kid with the stick forgets about the stick and picks up the slug. She rubs the slug directly on the student’s leg, and the slug doesn’t like this any better than being attacked by a stick. More slug mucus ensues. The nettle victim declares the treatment a success.
So I offer this as a badly-formed metaphor, more a science lesson than a deep thought worthy of Windham Hill background music. Instead of roaming far afield for solutions to the toxic nuisances that plague you or your loved ones, take a closer look. There are things and people happily co-existing with the thing that vexes you. See if you can use them as salve.
Dock leaves, also found near the nettles (and the slugs) are also thought to be good for treating nettle stings. Go to Washington State University’s page on the Dock plant which shows some good identifiers. If you’re outside at midnight without internet, this isn’t going to help, but it might make good conversation later.
Slug photo courtesy of Colin Purrington of Swarthmore College (no surprise) Biology Department – see his Flickr collection.