Nothing to Sneeze At

pollen 2

“A big part of the problem is most people don’t know much about trees, and think, well, trees are good and no trees are bad,” he says. “But trees are just like people, they have a multitude of differences. Some trees are human-friendly, and some are just the opposite.”
~ Tom Ogren quoted by Sabrina Imbler

When us old guys get together these days, our talk often turns to our various ailments — the expected aches and pains of growing old. We know each others’ missing or replaced parts, and what keeps us up at night. In sharing our woes, I often learn what meds have worked for what, and some tricks to save on costs. Recently, as I suffered through an allergy attack, one of my buddies explained that his allergies wouldn’t respond to just one medication, and he recommended that I try taking two different allergy pills.

It got me thinking that a lot of people I know have what my father used to call “hayfever”, the seasonal attacks that often accompanied his hunting outings. It’s hard to aim at a flying quail through watery eyes and sniffling nose.

Author and reporter Matt Richtel notes, “Hay fever is a catchall term for seasonal allergies to pollen and other airborne irritants … The immune system responds to our environment. When we encounter various threats, our defenses learn and then are much more able to deal with that threat in the future. In that way, we adapt to our environment …We survived over tens of thousands of years. Eventually, we washed our hands, swept our floors, cooked our food, avoided certain foods altogether. We improved the hygiene of the animals we raised and slaughtered for food … Particularly in the wealthier areas of the world, we purified our water, and developed plumbing and waste treatment plants; we isolated and killed bacteria and other germs.”

He quotes an 1872 medical journal, “Hay fever is said to be an aristocratic disease, and there can be no doubt that, if it is not almost wholly confined to the upper classes of society, it is rarely, if ever, met with but among the educated.”

We have strived to take control of our environment, and in many ways, we have succeeded. Richter opines, “The immune system’s enemies list was attenuated, largely for the good … We have created a mismatch between the immune system — one of the longest surviving and most refined balancing acts in the world — and our environment.”

In the spring, when the wind comes down from the north and west, our neighborhood receives a fine yellow dusting of pine pollen, a reminder of the expansive forests just over the hills. But these natural areas aren’t necessarily the main contributor to the annual pollen invasion, our street trees may be the worst culprit.

Writer Sabrina Imbler has learned that we are subject to “botanical sexism” that contributes to the current “pollenpocalypse.” It seems that the focus on greener cities that accompanied the post-WWII growth spurt led to an alarming sexist bias by the US Department of Agriculture which advised, “When used for street plantings, only male trees should be selected, to avoid the nuisance from the seed.”

Of course, normally, male trees send out pollen that the female trees trap to fertilize their seeds. So, planting only male trees reduces the number of seeds produced, keeping the sidewalks and streets cleaner. But without the female trees’ absorption of the pollen, it increases the amount of pollen in the vicinity.

Imbler quotes forestry academic Paul Ries, “Anytime we plant an overabundance of one type of tree, whether it is a single species, a genus, or, in the case of so-called ‘botanical sexism,’ male trees, there are bound to be problems.” In addition, climate change has an effect. Imbler notes, “The increase in extreme temperatures contributes to more potent allergy seasons. Summers come earlier and last longer, and certain species, such as cypress and juniper, have begun blooming again in the fall”

While hayfever is annoying to most of us, Richtel explains that it can be serious, “For most people, urban allergies are a seasonal nuisance. But for vulnerable populations, such as children or adults with respiratory conditions, they can be much more serious — even deadly.” According to Tom Ogren, “pollenpocalypses will only become more and more common. It’s easy to see these clouds (of pollen) as freak occurrences — like a megadrought or superstorm — but they may be a sign of things to come.”

Climate change — rising seas, extreme weather, food shortages, mass migration of people and animals — it all seems overwhelming. Now I can foresee having to face it with a runny nose through watery eyes.

Additional information:
Sabrina Imbler , ‘Botanical Sexism’ Could Be Behind Your Seasonal Allergies, May 17, 2019, Atlas Obscura
Matt Richtel, Your Environment Is Cleaner. Your Immune System Has Never Been So Unprepared, March 12, 2019, New York Times

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