Animist Encounters with Poison Oak
Lessons from the Poison Path
As many a seasoned hiker can tell you, an incautious encounter with poison oak can turn a happy memory of a forest walk into a drawn-out ordeal of incapacitating anguish. The merest brush against the plant’s green and ruddy leaves—or even its bare stem—is apt to trigger a singular suffering perversely described by some as the pleasure.
Despite centuries of hard-won wisdom among Native Americans and colonial settlers alike, many mysteries still surround the wily nature of Toxicodendron diversilobum. How does the plant adapt and morph to thrive in a variety of wilderness environments? Why are some people seemingly immune to its toxins? Can its excruciating rash re-emerge on its own years later? And, most perplexing of all, could the plant be possessed of an intelligence beyond human understanding?
Scratching beneath the surface of science and legend, author Erik Davis keenly discerns poison oak’s anthropomorphic qualities, including that of a fierce and mercurial guardian, a tricky teacher, and a vigorous ally to the endangered wilds.
Erik Davis is an author, teacher, and scholar based in San Francisco. He is the author, most recently, of High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experience in the Seventies (2019). His other books include The Visionary State: A Journey through California’s Spiritual Landscape (2006), a critical volume on Led Zeppelin (2005), and the cult classic TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information (1998). He writes the online publication The Burning Shore (burningshore.com), and in 2022, he co-founded the Alembic, a Berkeley center for meditation, movement, citizen neuroscience, and visionary culture.
David V. D’Andrea is an artist and freelance illustrator based in Olympia, Washington, where he runs the charitable imprint Samaritan Press. His painstakingly detailed art envisions natural and transcendent worlds, drawing inspiration from mystic traditions, biological illustration, typographic history, and classic psychedelic posters. D’Andrea’s graphics for bands including OM, Sleep, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor have garnered international acclaim. His work is his spiritual path.