By Inez Castor

It's a good thing that I never aspired to being andquot;normal,andquot; because it's never going to happen. I was a toddler when it first became apparent that I had species confusion.

We lived in an old house on Second Street in Eureka, before it was fashionable andquot;Old Town.andquot; We were surrounded by greasy spoon restaurants and noisy dockside bars.

Beside the porch steps was some sort of evergreen conifer. Assorted critters of the furred and feathered sort lived in the tree, where they sang and squeaked and carried on fascinating conversations. I would sit happily on the stairs for hours, talking with the tree.

Of course staying there wasn't really an option, since I was attached to the tree by a long leash. My mom worked nights, and in order to sleep during the day, she had to keep me from wandering off.

I had toys, food and a bowl of Cheerios to feed the tree. I'd carefully hang each tiny 'O' on the needles. Sure enough, by next morning the tree would have eaten my offering.

Poison oak

Over the years I've continued to develop special relationships with plants, and like relationships with humans, some are easy and some are not. My relationship with the cottonwood tree in the back yard is one of the easy ones.

Twenty-five years ago I saved it, a mere sapling, from a man with a chainsaw. Ten years ago it repaid my kindness by sacrificing its top, dropping it into the greenhouse, which saved me from trying to make a living as a market gardener.

My relationship with poison oak is much more difficult. Most people react to poison oak in the summer, but I've had a poison oak rash nearly every December of my life.

When I worked in the woods, the naked winter vines would reach out to stroke my face, since every other part of me was covered. I tried everything to make friends; I offered it Cheerios and told it what a beautiful, powerful plant it was. It's like trying to make friends with a cougarI'm somewhat ambivalent about the entire process.

Problem solved?

When I quit working in the woods, nice men brought me firewood, and poison oak oil would invisibly go into the stove. When I opened the stove door to add more wood, essence of poison oak would caress the side of my face.

When Polly Pellet Stove came to live here I was sure the problem was solved. I don't hike in poison oak areas during the time of year that it's invisible.

But then Smoky moved in with me. In the night, I come half awake, bury my face in his warm, fragrant pelt and feel his purr rumble against the side of my head.

He apparently spends his days slipping quietly through the poison oak. So once again, here it is December, and I've got a big, ugly patch of poison oak on the side of my face.

I may have species confusion, but poison oak has no such issue, and considers me easy prey.

Reach Inez Castor, a long-time Triplicate columnist, at