Follow the Pollen

For a few months out of the year, pollen is my enemy.

Birch flowers, a major allergy culprit.

My list of pollen allergies is long, including major ones like oak and ragweed. Growing up in rural New England, for weeks every spring every outdoor surface – and some indoor ones – would be covered in a grainy yellow film of pollen. Pollen moved on the wind, dropped from tree flowers onto cars parked below, and clung to my dog’s fur when she came inside. You could sweep, scrub, mop, take off your shoes, and shower all you wanted, but for those three weeks there was no escaping the pollen.

This spring, I’ve been thinking about pollen through the lens of what anthropologists call “mutispecies ethnography.” Basically, the idea is to take the anthropologist’s toolkit for studying human societies and relationships – ethnography – and use it to study how species other than humans interact with each other and with humans.

The hope is that thinking about how we interact with other species might tell us something about ourselves. For example, Donna Haraway’s work on human-dog relationships brings up challenging questions about why some dogs are pets and treated as part of our families, while others are treated as workers with important jobs to do, and yet others are treated as laboratory materials. These are thorny ethical issues that make one wonder about why some (kinds of) animals are considered companions and others are not. Celia Lowe’s article about H5N1 influenza in Indonesia takes a look how different species, including humans, flu viruses, and birds, live together in close quarters. Her study could be really helpful to flu researchers and global health professionals who are trying to slow down the spread of viruses that can jump between species. And many articles and books have been written (by both historians and anthropologists) about how the mosquito has shaped human society, derailing political movements, increasing the expense of building the Panama Canal, and otherwise shaping global health priorities.

When I think about pollen, I think about how humans have altered their environments over the centuries, making them hospitable to plants that produce huge amounts of highly mobile pollen grains. Maple and birch trees are plants that grow well on disturbed soil. The reason they are so common in the northeastern United States is that early settlers chopped down many of the trees that were already growing here, creating the ideal environments for these trees with their allergenic pollen. I think about how someone chose to plant white oaks in parks and along sidewalks in my Brooklyn neighborhood. These trees are valuable for their shade, which we want to keep us cool and out of the sun in the summer. But prioritizing these principles of city planning means we’re stuck with pollen, even in dense cities.

Linden flowers, minimally allergenic.

I also think about how much stuff can get into the human body without us noticing. Pollen drifts on the air and I breathe it in through my nose. Some makes it past the hairs at the openings of my nostrils and irritates my sinuses; other grains land on my face, behind the lenses of my glasses, to irritate my eyes and skin. The human body is constantly taking in and ejecting substances that originate outside of it. Allergies just force us to notice this. They can also prompt us to think carefully about what else is getting in (or out) and what harm different substances could be causing in our bodies without catching our attention. Chemicals and grains of pollen move of their own volition, by mechanisms that often seem strange to humans. They react with and otherwise affect human bodies in unpredictable ways, and without considering how they will make us feel.

I’m still working out why this might be an important perspective to use in my research on allergies, but I have some leads. I think this perspective can also offer insights into the values of the food allergy community, where contamination is a major concern. That’s for another post, though!

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