Summer 2010

Scratch and Sniff

Diagnosing the allergic reaction

Gary Leggett

Examples of troublesome pollen and the plants that produce them.

A report on indoor air pollution published by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2005 states:

There is little known about the particle dynamics that could affect particulate matter exposure. For example, there is believed to be a “personal cloud” in which an individual’s exposure to particles is not influenced solely by ambient contaminant levels, but also by particles that become airborne due to one’s own physical activity.[1]

Charles Schulz’s Pig-Pen comes to mind as the perfect poster child for the EPA. Unabashed by his grime, he’s shunned by most characters in Peanuts due to the filth constantly orbiting his body—a cloud of dust and dirt that surges and triples his width every time he moves or takes a deep breath to sing. Only Charlie Brown, who traces Pig-Pen’s body crumbs to a farther, purer birthplace, defends him against his classmates’ complaints in true Orientalist fashion: “Don’t think of it as dust. Just think of it as maybe the soil of some great past civilization, maybe the soil of ancient Babylon. It staggers the imagination! He may be carrying the same soil that was trod upon by Solomon or even Nebuchadnezzar![2] But Pig-Pen never sneezes. He’s blithely immune to Solomon’s soil. He inhabits his filth and nothing outside him, no treatment or full-body scrub, can wean him from his cloud.

In the 1930s, a giant cloud of dust swept through the United States, blackening the sky, displacing farmers, leaving vast swaths of barren land in its wake. “Black blizzards,” or “black rollers” as they were called, shrouded the Great Plains. Two hundred and fifty thousand tons of ragweed pollen rolled along with them.[3] While the Dust Bowl may have carried most of the symbolic weight of the Dirty Thirties, it was pollen, not dust, that came to have the more abiding influence over the American psyche. John Ruskin’s storm-cloud of the nineteenth century, “that thin, scraggy, filthy, mangy, miserable cloud,” from which every “breath of air you draw is polluted, half round the world,” found in this pall of dusty gametes its twentieth-century double: a cloud that was a product not of death, or “dead men’s souls,” but of an excess of life.[4] Popular Science in 1916 reported: “Pollen, under the influence of nasal secretion, germinates and sends out its germ tubes” inside you.[5] It was this germination in vivo that was imagined to cause the irritation associated with hay fever, not the body’s defense mechanisms. Or as a blogger recently put it in reference to allergy season: It’s like we’re being fucked by air.
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