While my hikes often include “stopping and smelling the roses,” I should apply the phrase with caution if acting literally. I could sneeze. I probably will sneeze.
As the weather warms, my serotonin levels skyrocket, and my nose begins to run. I can’t wait to see the flowers grow, and yet my throat itches and my eyes water. Spring is in the air and so are thousands of pollen molecules. Emily Dickinson exalted her spring’s daffodils in her poetry; Antonio Vivaldi captured his spring’s breezes in his concertos; and yet I always welcome spring with a wince.
Sometime in my teenage years, I discovered that-—like my mother, like my sister—I was allergic to pollen. Hay fever is not a debilitating sickness, but it is a frustrating one. I soon learned which meds (sort of) helped, and which ones only made me sleepy. I soon became well-versed in the habits required to cope: Shut the windows and turn on the AC; this will filter out some pollen. Avoid stepping on freshly mown grass with bare feet; otherwise, you’ll be itchy all day. Shower at night, or at least scrub your face; this will wash away some pollen. Avoid some fresh flowers and all flowery perfumes; otherwise, you’ll be trendy but bleary-eyed.
Pollen allergies seem to be a strangely modern affliction. If not, no Chinese or Roman or Egyptian person seems to have scribbled about it. But by 1564, writers were attempting to describe pollen allergies—or at least, the sufferings of someone who, like me, has an “aversion to the smell and presence of roses.” That symptom was, in fact, the distinguishing feature of summer catarrh in the sixteenth century.
By the 1800s, doctors and scientists had started to document the sickness in detail. John Bostock described the symptoms in 1819: “…a feeling of want of room to receive the air necessary for respiration, a huskiness of the voice, and an incapacity of speaking aloud for any time without inconvenience.” The miserable patient in question? Himself.
I know my summertime sadness, and I also know the consequences of ignoring it. Back when the school year determined my rhythms, the onslaught of allergy season always coincided with the onslaught of end-of-semester finals. I was very busy, incredibly overwhelmed, and rather sniffly. My friends would invite me to study sessions underneath the white-flowered trees, and I’d accept, knowing exactly how I’d feel that night. I’d brew the day’s fifth cup of ThroatCoat and cross my fingers for a miracle.
A few decades after John Bostock, more and more people seemed to be coughing and sneezing in June and July. Doctors suggested that the summertime sickness must have something to do with the newly in-season hay. Thus “hay fever” cemented itself as the common name for allergic rhinitis. Nowadays, scientists wonder if the surge in pollen sufferers was the result of the Industrial Revolution, which had released many pollutants and moved many people to new environments.
As much as my body fights the beauty of spring, my mind cannot ignore it. My grey January walks have turned into colorful April strolls, and I spend the minutes watching for a new crocus, tulip, or hyacinth. This evening I walked past a willow crowned with pink flowers, the strands floating in the breeze. I smelled the fragrance first, and my body flinched. But a part of me still felt the joy of Wordsworth dancing with the daffodils.
In the 1850s and 1860s, scientists like Charles Blackley narrowed down the cause of “summer colds” to pollen. Soon hay fever became known as an aristocrat’s disease, a fashionable way to explain a nagging tickle in the throat. Sea air was one of the only known treatments, and—even if pollen didn’t actually bother your immune system—hay fever was a great excuse for a trip to the beach. If you were less fortunate, though, you might not have had time to ponder your symptoms. The livestock needed to be fed, so you gathered up the alfalfa (cough, cough) and got to work.
In the meanwhile, scientists and doctors got to work on treatments for pollen-averse bodies. Already by 1898, Samuel Solis-Cohen was experimenting with epinephrine, the hormone now injected by the EpiPen and other devices. Still, no matter how many decades we’ve spent searching, humanity still hasn’t discovered the cure for the summer sniffles. And in the meanwhile, we’re often making the problem worse. Carbon pollution increases the amount of pollen released in our increasingly longer growing seasons. Urban planners’ aesthetic preference for male trees keeps city streets “litter-free,” but the choice also keeps city air highly pollinated (much more so than with the tempering presence of female trees).
Pollen will probably bother me, in one way or another, for the rest of my life. Thankfully, I live in an era with pollen count forecasts, and thankfully I live in an era with whole pharmacy aisles devoted to my comfort. I’ll spend the warm months enjoying the plants I can adore close up. I’ll wear my closet’s somewhat ironic abundance of floral prints, and I’ll plant my herb garden and buy unscented bouquets from the farmers’ market. I can’t celebrate spring and summer with the full-hearted joy of Dickinson and Vivaldi. But I can love the seasons in my own way: sniffling and sneezing, still determined to catch a few glimpses of the nature my body can’t yet recognize as beautiful.
I am no expert on medical history, but many thanks to those who are. Thanks, too, to Chloe Selles for teaching me about pollen and the environment. Please follow the links in this piece to discover more about John Bostock, immunology, and the history of allergic rhinitis. All historical and scientific mistakes are my own.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.
My symptoms aren’t as severe as yours, but seasonal allergies started creeping into my life around high school and never left. This is a great run-through of the hows and whys! Also, I’ll never forget the first time I read about the choice to plant cities with male trees, forcing us to breathe in clouds of arboreal sperm every year. Ugh.
What a fun way to start a new season. People and spring will find a way. Even if there are some bumps along the way.