The coyotes rested beneath a dense bower. I could see them but couldn’t find a clear view. Earthen shadows mingling in a world of shadows was all they appeared to be, yet a bit of movement here and the flash of an eye there told me what they were and where they were.
These woods are closed woods, thick woods with every available space occupied by verdant flora. In winter they are passable; from spring through autumn they are at best difficult to navigate and at worst impossible to get through. I moved slowly along the drip line, briers and brambles reaching skyward and embracing each other to create impenetrable brush. Every few steps I caught a glimpse of the coyotes. But I wanted photos and this riparian jungle was doing everything it could to ensure that didn’t happen.
I slowly made my way around a curve in the forest edge. That’s when I came upon a young woman standing motionless near the trees. She stared intently through heavy foliage and around ligneous obstacles. She seemed to be looking in the direction of the coyotes.
My sudden and silent appearance gave her a brief start. She recovered quickly and turned to me. Her eyes fell upon the camera for a short moment, then she looked at me and said, “What are you photographing?”
I hear that question a lot. I gave my standard reply: “Everything.”
“Oh, cool,” she commented, then she added, “I think there are some coyotes right there.” She pointed. “But they’re hard to see.”
“Yes, I was just looking for a way to get some photos of them.”
“Then I should get out of your way.”
I had every intention of working around here. I’m not pushy. Still, I appreciated the gesture. “That’s kind of you. Thanks.”
She took a few steps backward. Behind her rose a leviathan tree, an eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) that seemed to hold the sky atop its highest limbs. Already our summer snow had been falling for weeks, so beneath the tree was a blanket of seeds and seed hairs that colored the ground white, and the air moved in a constant, dizzying slow falling of snowy particles.
To the trunk of the tree clung two vines, each winding its way toward the heavens. In places the lush growth mingled together and in others the two plants seemed to avoid one another. The woman backed against the tree and leaned into a thick patch of one of the vines.
“Uh, you shouldn’t lean on that stuff,” I immediately said.
She glanced over her shoulder before replying, “Oh, it’s OK. It’s not poison ivy. That’s what’s growing over there.” She pointed at the second vine partway around the tree.
“No, really, you’re in the poison ivy. That other stuff is Virginia creeper. Remember, three leaves means bad and five leaves means good.”
“Are you sure?” Her eyes widened a bit.
“Yes, I’m quite sure.”
The damage had already been done. The ivy had rested in her hair, on her clothes, on her bare neck and arms, on her legs. If she’s allergic to it, she was going to be in a world of misery quite soon.
Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and Virginia creeper (a.k.a. five-leaved ivy; Parthenocissus quinquefolia) often grow in the same places. They both like the same conditions: soil, light, drainage. So where one is found, the other shouldn’t come as a surprise.
For people like me who aren’t allergic to poison ivy, recognizing the three-leaved pattern is a convenience, not an imperative. Though it goes without saying that repeated exposure to the plant’s oils will sensitize me to them, at which point I become allergic. So I don’t go around touching it intentionally, but I also don’t panic if I find myself in contact with it (which in my life has been a handful of times, at least that I know of).
Knowing the five-leaved pattern of Virginia creeper, on the other hand, is a matter of being a good naturalist. Since the plant poses no threat, recognizing it is the same as recognizing a dandelion or a bald cypress tree. Then again, perhaps knowing that the five leaves are harmless is another way to remember that three leaves could be a problem.
As for the woman, I can only imagine her anguish if she’s allergic to poison ivy. When I was quite young, one of our neighbors found herself in the thick of the vine. She swelled up and broke out in a horrible rash. We—as children are wont to do—laughed because she looked like a sunburned chipmunk packing peanuts in her jowls.
And those coyotes? I never found a clear view of them. When I tried to work my way into the woods hoping to locate a clear view, they bolted. Which sounds all too familiar.
— — — — — — — — — —
 Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) with a bit of Virginia creeper (a.k.a. five-leaved ivy; Parthenocissus quinquefolia) visible on the left edge of the frame. Note the woody vines beneath the poison ivy; those are poison ivy from previous seasons and, though they look dead, they aren’t and they can pass on the same chemical attack as the green vines.
 Virginia creeper (a.k.a. five-leaved ivy; Parthenocissus quinquefolia) with a bit of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) on the right side of the frame.
 Poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). Notice the oily appearance of the leaves.
 Virginia creeper (a.k.a. five-leaved ivy; Parthenocissus quinquefolia).