Fear and the sharp, pointy bits of nature

A month or two ago, I began to notice dogs wearing nets over their heads. I couldn’t imagine their purpose, but one day, I asked a couple walking by why their dog was wearing the net.

“Foxtails,” they replied, pointing to the plants nearby. They went on to explain the multiple expensive surgeries ($500 a pop) their dog had to endure after inhaling foxtails. They tried to reassure me. “Your dog will probably be fine because you keep her on a leash. Ours likes to wander through the grass, and that’s where he picks them up.”

I looked at the yellow plants choking out everything else and wondered how on earth I could possibly keep my dog away from them, short of a head net.


My usual path is lined with these plant beasties, and in some places, they completely span the trail.


Not to spoil the surprise, but these aren’t foxtails.

Uncharacteristic for me, I didn’t immediately search online for more information. I told my husband about the nets and the thorny plants—we had both wondered about the nets to each other—and he said, “Oh, I hate those plants. They have vicious thorns.”

They do, these yellow plants. Brush against them as you walk or run past, and you’ll come away with scratches. Ouch. But it turns out they aren’t yellow foxtails.


These weeds are called yellow starthistle. I really think these should be called Runner’s Bane, or some other equally descriptive warning.

I finally got around to that online search, only to discover the plants I had been so dutifully avoiding with the dog are called yellow starthistle. They’re an obnoxious, invasive plant that thrives in hot drought conditions.

Estimates suggest starthistle covers 10 to 15 million acres in California alone. They are toxic to horses who graze on them, and they will scratch the heck out of your legs, but dogs are generally safe. These are not the nasty little plant bits that get into a dog and start wreaking havoc.

Real foxtails look completely different. I hadn’t even noticed them on my morning route, but now I’m learning to recognize them. All this time, I’ve been afraid of the wrong plant.

There are plenty of things in nature that scare me, and most of them are sharp, pointy and capable of causing pain. Sharks, snakes, coyotes, mountain lions: these things I fear because of their sharp parts, and I try my best to avoid them all. Even the owl and the cat have sharp parts that can incite fear, or at least a healthy respect.

So while I’ll still avoid the yellow starthistle, I won’t fear it anymore. It may scratch me, but it won’t kill my dog. Perhaps I should even be grateful that it’s crowding my path, keeping the foxtails at bay.


Foxtails do not look sharp and dangerous. They’re so innocuous I had never even noticed them. I’ve been too busy watching the starthistle and keeping eyes and ears tuned for rattlesnakes.

I realize there’s a lesson about fear in all of this. I walk around fearing things I don’t need to (well … rattlesnakes). All the while, there are other things I assume to be safe—or don’t even notice—that could do far greater harm. And I don’t even recognize them to fear them. There’s caution and good sense (again, rattlesnakes), but there’s also crippling fear. I’ve let my fear of foxtails/starthistle change where and how I walk with my dog.

It’s time for me to dive back in to God’s “fear nots” for a refresher in trust and confidence. I want to walk without fear. I do not want to rob myself—or the dog—of enjoying the beautiful place we’ve been blessed to walk each morning.

Do not fear, for I am with you;
Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you, surely I will help you,
Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand …
Behold, I have made you a new, sharp threshing sledge with double edges;
You will thresh the mountains and pulverize them,
And you will make the hills like chaff.
You will winnow them, and the wind will carry them away,
And the storm will scatter them;
But you will rejoice in the Lord,
You will glory in the Holy One of Israel.
—Isaiah 41:10, 15–16

How about you? Do you have a fear you’d like to set down?

By the way, I haven’t recently updated the score in the North Carolina vs. Northern California debate, but I have to give North Carolina the win in this round:


No foxtail, no yellow starthistle and no rattlesnakes (at least not in the parts where I lived).

1 thought on “Fear and the sharp, pointy bits of nature

  1. Pingback: The mercy of summertime trees | The Flourishing Tree

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