Poison What?

My dog and I both moved to California from England, where nature is fairly tame and lovely and mostly on your side. I was delighted to find that nature here is even more lovely and couldn’t wait to go exploring.

However, I observed the strict Californian dog leash laws with utter contempt. Why should my well-behaved pooch be on a leash? He never was back home and all was well. Rebelliously I went to a local open space preserve, looked around and then unclipped the leash, letting Jake (dog) happily bounce off in pursuit of foreign territory. I was stood in a small clearing, watching him go about his business, as a middle-aged couple approached me, calling out friendly hellos. We chatted for a bit, before the wife – clearly troubled – blurted out: ‘Do you realize your dog is sitting in a field of Poison oak?’ I asked: ‘Poison what?’ at which she looked positively panicked at my ignorance.

This was the beginning of my education within ‘nature that isn’t entirely on your side’. It turned out to be a valuable first lesson – Poison oak is one thing that will affect us less educated the most as it is very common and thus likely to be around even if you’re not out hiking in the wilderness, but perhaps just out jogging in far more suburban environments. On contact, Poison oak causes allergic reactions, ranging from an annoying itch to hideous blisters.

Some people aren’t very affected, others very much so. As you’re dealing with an oil, secreted from the leaves, it’s a good idea to wash properly with something that will dissolve oils when you suspect you have been in contact with the plant. Remember that it transfers easily, meaning that if your trousers (or dog…) have brushed against it and you later touch your trousers, (or dog) you may pick it up.

Lesson number two, which made me become an instant leash law convert was running into my first Rattlesnake. If you are out hiking in the summer, chances are you will come across one or two snakes. The majority of snakes in California, with exception of the Rattlesnake aren’t poisonous. However, the Gopher snake can look pretty damned much like a Rattlesnake, so don’t take any chances. If you’re interested in knowing the difference between the two, it is very helpfully demonstrated in a display cabinet at the Arastradero preserve visitor’s center, which is next to the car park.

Snakes will do their best to avoid you, so just give them some space. Coyotes are also frequent and remarkably tame, though usually nonchalantly uninterested in people. However, if you live near where these guys hang out, don’t leave small pets unattended in your garden overnight as they risk making tasty snacks.

Mountain lions are around and if you ask anyone who’s lived here a while they will swear to knowing someone who knows someone who’s seen one. Even so, Mountain lions are relatively rare and shy – statistically you are more likely to be injured by a deer encounter than by a Mountain lion one. Do take the warning signs seriously though – these are big cats!

The Black Widow spider apparently creeps about too, allegedly preferring dark spaces where they can comfortably make their netty homes, however – like the mountain lion, they don’t appear to be too commonly sighted.

Smaller still, but much more frequent are ticks. Do look out for these as some of them carry Lyme disease. (I flicked one out of my hair in the grocery store just the other day – I would love to say that I disposed of it properly, but sadly it was last seen scurrying towards the bread department in Portola Valley Roberts. Sorry.)

I do occasionally still let Jake off the leash when we’re out walking, but I definitely have developed a healthy respect for the locals, in all their different forms.

Nature here is amazing and deserves to be enjoyed. Just don’t touch any of those shiny, green leaves that come in threes…

Maria from Sweden/UK blogging from Menlo Park

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