©Joe Medieros

Living Lightly

Rivers of Birds, Forests of Tules: Central Valley Nature & Culture in Season


23. Grasping the Nettle

In the sharp, sweet light of early December, before tule fog began to blanket winter mornings, a group of Modesto Junior College students gave up a little sleep to help out at the San Joaquin National Wildlife Refuge. Under a canopy of swirling geese, spiraling pelicans, and fast-moving ducks, Nirona Barmiyourghanlouyjan, Julie Harper (and friend Holly), Grigoriy Ivaskevych, Sandeep Gill, Ken Juacalla, Randy Green, Jessica and Sergio Artea, Tamara Talbot with son Jason, and Camilla Altstatt with husband David and children Isaiah and Lilly, clipped wild rose hips; collected elderberry, quail bush and box elder seeds; pulled old fence stakes; and removed weeds and trash. At the end of the work day, Isaiah and Jason scattered quail bush seed on refuge property to reestablish some of the native vegetation along a freshly plowed canal bank.

As usual, the occasion was convivial. Fueled by coffee and banana bread, our team was given the task of pulling fence posts out of the ground. Sergio and Grigoriy quickly became stake-pulling champions, the former because of his strength and skill, the latter because he had the idea that we should pull the most stubborn of the rusted metal stakes together. It worked.

Grigoriy, who is Ukrainian, regaled us with a rush of memories triggered by the riverine vegetation of the San Joaquin. The winged seeds of the box elder reminded him of a childhood game: in a miniature duel, a pair of kids would square off and each would try to chop the other’s double-winged seed in half with an identical winged seed. He demonstrated and seemed pleased that I lost.

The most dramatic incident that day was Nirona’s discovery of a flourishing nettle plant. Before we could warn her, she had touched the plant and then put her fingers to her nose to smell the plant’s fragrance. We all gasped because we knew that nettles protect themselves with hairs that act like hypodermic needles (the English name derives from the Anglo-Saxon word for needle), injecting a combination of formic acid, acetylcholine, and histamine into the skin, causing first a burning, then an itching sensation. One hair would not do much, but a leaf-ful is the equivalent of a bee sting. Sometimes small blisters will appear. An Indian friend once told me he loved to play tricks on the unsuspecting by inviting them to “smell this lovely plant.” Grigoriy remembered that his grandmother would place a stalk of nettles next to his plate as a warning or swat him across the arm with it if he continued to misbehave.

Nettles have been used by people for a long time. Fibers in the stalk can be twisted for fish line, bowstrings, and basketry strands. The green part of the plant makes a green dye, and the root a yellow. In Europe cloth was woven from the fibers: nettle cloth fabric was found wrapped around a body in a Bronze Age burial site in Denmark, and used as cloth again during WW I in Germany when cotton cloth became scarce. In one of the oldest fairy tales, “The Twelve Wild Swans,” the princess had to weave twelve shirts from wild nettles so her brothers could be restored to their human forms.

If you can tolerate them in a vegetable garden, nettles are supposed to stimulate plant growth and attract beneficial insects that prey on garden pests. Nettle brew is a good fertilizer, and in your compost heap, nettles can speed up decomposition. Towhees and chickens love them, and although some people regard them as weeds, nettles are a nutritious food, containing significant amounts of Vitamins A and C. Cooking nettles removes their sting, and anyone can make a delicious soup using fresh nettles sautéed with butter, garlic, onions and potatoes; pureed in a blender; and served with or without cream. As teas, tonics, curdling agents (in cheese making), or shampoos, nettles persist.

As they do in our language: to nettle is to sting or “to irritate, annoy or provoke.” A nettlesome person is irritating or annoying. Nettles are members of the genus Urtica, so the practice of slapping a paralyzed or rheumatic limb with nettles is called urtication; apparently the Romans believed that a good thrashing with nettles on the kidneys and below the navel could “improve a man’s virility.”

Meanwhile, back at the refuge, Nirona is the unhappy learner of an old proverb: “Though you stroke the nettle ever so kindly, yet it will sting you.” She is miserable even as we suggest a dozen home remedies. “Nettles in, dock out,” goes another saying, but there is some dispute that sour dock, mullein, or even the juice of the nettle would have helped, even if we had been savvy enough to suggest them.

Nettles are just one item in the vast riparian encyclopedia of plants and animals flourishing in the old flood plain of the San Joaquin River. By February 14, 2006 U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton will have to make Salomonic decisions regarding allocation of San Joaquin River water to restore flow, an issue we could call nettlesome, at best, to powerful interests which see water purely as a commodity.

Modesto Junior College is taking the lead in presenting a series of films, lectures and events--in January and February 2006 — promoting the understanding of a living river, and the various constituencies which depend on it, at this critical juncture.

ACTION: The fate of the San Joaquin River is in your hands. Please come, inform yourself, and speak out to your legislators. The Australians have a phrase, “grasping the nettle,” which means to undertake or to tackle an unpleasant or complicated task. The time has come for grasping the nettle and for making sure there will be some nettle to grasp.

Sources: Charlotte Bringle Clarke, Edible and Useful Plants of California; Claire Kowalchik & William H. Hylton, Editors, Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs; Starhawk & Hilary Valentine, The Twelve Wild Swans.