I was walking in the woods yesterday though a shady summer Northern California hillside of madrone, bay laurel, and oak. On either side of the trail, between the trees, everywhere, poison oak was at the peak of crimson.
And I had the urge to pluck a leaf, a red poison oak leaf, and pop it into my mouth to let it dissolve like candy on my tongue.
I'm fascinated by the way people use and relate to poisons. In my short story "Mishpocheh," the protagonist thinks about planting a poison garden:
Digitalis, soft pale green leaves, stalks of colorful flowers; waxy daphne, smelling like the cool halls of the underworld; California lupine, toxic seeds and roots; treacherous nightshade. A quiet garden--no birds, all dead.
And one of the themes in my novel The Oaklanders has to do with poisons, too; in my book, as in our lives, poisons are everywhere, not just in the larger physical environment. My characters poison themselves and each other, even while they're trying to lead these Politically Correct, non-toxic Northern Californian lives.
If you go into a bar, the bartender says, "Name your poison," and the three P.O.V. characters in my novel do name their own poisons: drugs, porn, money, inappropriate passion, body modification/pain. Sometimes they do it out of self-destruction, sometimes they do it as inoculation; poisons taken in small doses don't always destroy, sometimes they protect or heal. The American Indians used to eat poison oak to build up resistance to the rash.
Poison has other positive uses: medically, we often poison ourselves to make us stronger or to get the results we want: chemotherapy; Mifepristone and Misoprostol... All societies take stimulants and mind-altering drugs which, in the wrong quantity, can poison. The Japanese eat blowfish sashimi -- mortally toxic if not prepared correctly. We poison selectively (rats, weeds) to improve our lives.
"Danger and delight grow on one stalk," the old English proverb goes. And that proverb is the epigraph for The Oaklanders.
Sometimes the mere fact that something is poisonous makes it intriguing. There's a strong relationship between poison and magic; personal poisons like drugs and misplaced passions provide magic in mundane life, even if it's a dark magic. People, in general, use self-poisoning to play on the edge of darkness and mortality because they yearn for wizardry and transformation. Poison is a little bit of death in a (hopefully) controllable container, so maybe people also play with poisons for the thrill of control over death.
Theme-heavy novels never work, and all this talk of poison makes it sound as though The Oaklanders is grim. It's not. In the writing of the book, the family drama took over, the characters and storyline became the trees: the oaks and madrones and bay laurels. They're what you primarily experience as you walk on the trail through the woods.
But under and around the trees, there are scatterings of crimson leaves. Midsummer poison oak. The poisons are still there in The Oaklanders, just subsumed. Which is exactly where they belong.