Late this winter, a rainstorm broke the drought and pushed the stands of poison oak into leaf. The scraggly branches of the bushes and shoots awoke. From dull gray tips, three tiny twists of magenta appeared, their color more subtle than the fire-engine red of the leaves in fall.
Early April is the perfect time for Curt Beebe and his wife, Sandra, to visit Morro Bay, their former home, from Santa Monica. Along the roadsides and sunny paths the placental red of the young poison oak has morphed into clumps of luscious, shiny green.
In the dim woods, the foliage is larger and the color is flatter. After the telltale trio of leaflets has matured, a spray of tiny berries, like a frog’s necklace, appears on the ends of the female plant.
Though he’s been infected a dozen times, Curt Beebe is entranced with poison oak.
When he and his wife retired to the Central Coast in 1999 — he was a 63-year-old psychiatrist and she was a psychologist — Beebe became a docent for the Morro Bay State Park Natural History Museum and quickly took up a new project: He decided he would become the area’s leading expert on poison oak. The plant’s formidable reputation intrigued him.
“I’d heard it was terrible stuff,” he says.
As a boy in New Hampshire he’d flirted with the poison oak’s cousin, poison ivy. In early spring he and his chums would squeeze the new ivy leaves between their fingers, tempting the rash, before rushing to the sink and washing off the oil, which they knew was not at full potency yet. As another New Englander who came West, I can imagine how an outdoorsy personality might become obsessed with it.
“Deliberately visiting poison-oak country can be an interesting and exciting challenge,” Beebe writes.
Beebe majored in biochemistry at Harvard College. On his website (www.curtbeebe.com), which is dedicated to all facets of poison oak, he has sketched the biochemical structure of urushiol. Urushiol is the liquid in the leaves and stems that rubs your immune system the wrong way and causes an outbreak of itchy dermatitis. Urushiol is pronounced you-RUE-she-all; the word sounds like someone who holds a universal grudge against the stuff.
But that’s not Curt Beebe. Beebe volunteered for any job that needed doing in Morro Bay and Montana de Oro state parks. Maybe that’s why State Parks let him grow bushes in a fenced plot, where he studied the development of the leaf structure. He realized that “leaves of three” was not an iron rule.
“I found I could pause by any patch of poison oak and identify a five-leafed plant,” he says. To him it was like finding a four-leaf clover.
He takes a pencil, and haltingly draws the five-pointed shape — first the standard three leaves, crinkly like an oak’s, and then the two extra leaflets springing from gaps in the main cluster.
One day on State Park Road in Morro Bay, Beebe noticed that a car had run off the road and exposed a major root of a poison oak bush. He wondered: Does poison oak have a taproot, diving deep into the soil, or do the roots spread horizontally near the surface, like a Monterey pine?
Digging a hole that eventually grew to 12 feet wide and five feet deep, Beebe pursued the wily root as it oozed black urushiol. (The compound turns black when it contacts the air.) He learned that poison oak roots grow both wide and deep—“a mixed root system.”
And inevitably, though he was careful, he got a rash on his arm. The photo on the home page of Beebe’s website shows what can happen when you’re not wary of poison oak roots.
In 2006 Tom Wilzbach had just joined Beebe’s trail volunteers, who call themselves the Black Hill Gang. In widening a trail Wilzbach and Beebe uncovered a difficult root that had to be removed. Soon Wilzbach noticed that his bluejeans were streaked with black, “as if I had gotten careless with black paint.”
The urushiol soaked through, and 12 hours later a rash began on his knee. A few days later blisters covered his leg so thoroughly that Wilzbach’s wife took a horrifying picture titled “That’s a Knee!”’ Beebe’s website, which he no longer is able to maintain, is full of advice.
There are sections on when to combat the rash with home remedies and when to seek medical attention. For example, if your eyes swell shut or both hands balloon up, see a doctor. The more frequent your contact with the plant, the worse your allergic reaction is going to be, but it works the other way too, in that the longer you avoid poison oak, the smaller the chance of major infection when you do get into it.
Because Beebe’s trail work required constant exposure, he took to wearing two pairs of pants as well as neoprene gloves, which he washed after every use.
“Only you know how hot your duds are,” he warns.
Family members can pick up urushiol from your dirty clothes. Covering your body entirely is a faultless strategy. But, like a poison-oak whisperer, Beebe has been known to do the opposite. In the Los Osos Oaks Reserve, wearing shorts and short sleeves, he has glided among the slender stalks and brushed his hands and legs gently against the leaves. As long as the stems or veins of the leaves don’t break, no urushiol is released.
If there is a counterpart in the human brain to urushiol, it might be the substantia nigra, which means black substance. The substantia nigra is dark because the cells there secrete dark dopamine, an important biochemical. If the cells of the substantia nigra die, Parkinson’s disease, a movement disorder, can result.
A few years before Curt Beebe developed his fascination with poison oak and urushiol, his substantia nigra was disrupted, and he was diagnosed with the early signs of Parkinson’s. Everything he accomplished as a volunteer in Morro Bay before he and Sandra moved away, in 2010, was done in spite of his incurable disease.
The doctors credit the heavy exercise of the trail work for slowing his symptoms. Until recently he didn’t lose strength in his arms or legs, although his movements gradually stiffened. Because of his fading voice, Beebe had to give up leading walks as a docent. To project his words to the members of the Black Hill Gang, he wore a battery-powered microphone.
Now and then his body would “freeze up” — he’d lose his balance and tumble into the brush. Constantly Beebe tried to outthink the disease by introducing accessories like the microphone, a walking stick, and a helmet to protect his head against falls. To control the tremors in his hands, he had a battery-powered stimulator implanted in his skull. Near the end, his idea for transportation in the back country was a bicycle that he pushed up the trail with shuffling steps. But the first time he tried to descend, Beebe crashed five times, gashing his face.
“I’m glad I didn’t fall off a cliff,” he says.
Curt Beebe still looks fit at 78. He wears a short, steel-gray beard, without the mustache, per his wife’s preference. Parkinson’s patients have difficulty making expressions, but Beebe manages a courteous smile, slowing bending his features, and even a grin, as when I told him about my own sorry experience with poison oak.
His voice is a pleasant rumble, good for telling stories to children of all ages. I remarked that he didn’t appear to feel sorry for himself.
“What for?” he replied evenly. His disease puts his hobby into context. Next to Parkinson’s, poison oak is an itch that’s fun to scratch.
Jeff Wheelwright is a writer and author who has lived in Morro Bay since 1992. His most recent book is The Wandering Gene and the Indian Princess: Race, Religion, and DNA (WW Norton, 2012).