I’m at the checkout counter. “Your eyes are red,” says the girl at the scanner.
“Yup,” I agreed. “Itchy, too.”
Living through juniper season is a bonding experience in Santa Fe. People in the throes of allergy symptoms commiserate with one another. Non-sufferers sympathize, while inwardly giving themselves credit for having sturdier constitutions.
Juniper season really is bad. It drives some people out of town, not just for the season, but for good. Others prowl the palliative aisles in drug stores, looking for a panacea. I fill a prescription from my doctor, something that’s reasonably effective without putting my brain on hold. So my throat is bearably scratchy, my eyes are bearably itchy, my sneezing is not too frequent or too explosive, and I can mostly breathe through two nostrils.
Most days now the tree pollen count is high, as it will be for weeks, but the occasional medium or even low day doesn’t seem to help much. What did help was driving north, to Colorado. I’m not taking the pills and I’m feeling fine.
Meanwhile, did you know that junipers come in male and female versions? I’ve posted pictures of both, pictures I took a few days ago on my favorite quick-walk-in-the-hills trail. The tree with the blue berries is the female. Gradually last year’s berries are dropping off and creating a blue halo on the ground around the trunk. In other times and places these are the berries that give tasteless alcohol the flavor of gin. The tree with the brownish buds is the male. These boring little flowers are the pollen-making culprits. Sometimes, from a distance, a grove of junipers looks dead. It’s not. It’s just thick with male trees in full bloom.
From now until the first frost or so, of course, there will be an endless procession of pollens to antagonize the vulnerable mucous membranes of one poor soul or another, and the sad truth is that pollens that initially have no effect may gradually turn into serious irritants after repeated exposure. Last year I had to pull whole clumps of bright yellow New Mexico sunflowers out of my garden. These flowers had given me great pleasure at first, but suddenly the poison they were manufacturing just outside my open windows was driving me crazy. Even my skin felt itchy. They had to go, and I could yank them out because they were on my own property.
Meanwhile, some fellow citizens with similar fall allergies were agitating to mow down a vast carpet of New Mexico sunflowers and other late yellow bloomers. A particularly dramatic display of offenders occupied a public park called Frenchy’s Field. Imagine acres and acres of golden blossoms shimmering in bright sunlight under an aquamarine sky. But that was just one patch, actually. In the fall here every vacant lot and every roadside, including the median on I-25, is populated with bright yellow, pollen-spewing blossoms. Eliminating the array at Frenchy’s Field, obviously, wouldn’t have reduced the season's sneeze tally by a single ker-choo. Fortunately the authorities didn’t capitulate to the understandable but irrational irritation.
This brings me to a question of social justice, perceived or actual. Although a percentage of the population suffers mild or major allergic symptoms from the exuberant blooms of the season, the vast majority is able to enjoy the visual glory without a box of tissues at the ready. So where should our public priorities lie? Root ‘em out or let ‘em stay? Even though I must medicate to make my life bearable when the pollen count soars—and even though I’ve minimized my own pollen crop, I’ll happily pop my pills for the privilege of beholding those gorgeous golden fields every year. I may sneeze or even wheeze, but the sight fills me with intense pleasure, even joy. More to the point, I don’t believe my own discomfort justifies a campaign to deprive my neighbors of this annual display of sunflower splendor.
Similar questions of how far to go in accommodating the substance-sensitive minority crop up elsewhere. Often, at residential meditation retreats, the norm is for participants to wear and bring only fragrance-free products so that people who can’t abide scented products may also attend. Although I am not afflicted with such allergies, thank goodness, I’m happy to oblige. Down with stinky shampoos, skin creams, deodorants, soap, whatever! As for exotic perfumes, such status enhancers have no place in a meditation retreat in the first place. However, a super persnickety participant in a recent retreat crossed the scent-free line, it seems to me, and the organizers went too far to oblige her.
This retreat was taking place in a large hall. It was mid summer. All the windows were wide open to the elements and to innumerable ambient pollens. There was constant breezy cross-ventilation. One day a vase with four roses appeared on the altar. An offering of flowers is traditional in such settings, and it’s hard to see how four roses could have sent anyone sitting sixty feet away in such an open airy space into annoying sniffles let alone life-threatening paroxyms, but a complaint was lodged and the roses were banished. So much for the beauty that the other 100 participants were enjoying! Compassion is always in order, but intelligently applied, in or out of retreat. And who, in this case, was suffering from a shortage of selflessness?
Let’s banish perfumed cosmetics. Let’s identify and eliminate as far as possible the unnatural industrial and chemical fumes that make normal life impossible for the super sensitive few. The latter, odorless or not, can’t be good for anyone, hyper-sensitive or not. Natural fresh clear air should be a universal birthright.
But should we also get rid of roses? Or even sunflowers? I don’t think so—and I say this even as I contemplate returning to Santa Fe, where I will take my pills and rub my itchy eyes and sneeze, accepting these annoying trade offs for life in a beautiful place.