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The allergy apocalypse

A skeptic of the pollen pox finds herself at the mercy of nature

Sarah Bird Special to the American-Statesman
Blown by the wind and creating a green tint on everything it lands on, oak pollen is a scourge to the allergy-afflicted in Austin. [Alberto Martinez/American-Statesman file]

It was an outdoor literary festival with readings by a few dozen of Austin’s finest young writers and one grizzled old-timer. Held on the bucolic grounds of the Elisabet Ney Museum, it was to be a celebration of both the written word and spring. Imagine one of those perfect Austin days sandwiched between the last blue norther that froze all the tender seedlings you impetuously planted and the onrushing sweat bath of a summer. Imagine a day when the breezes are soft and the air is filled with birdsong.

Yeah. It wasn’t that.

As international literary luminary and emcee Elizabeth McCracken noted, instead of the pastoral bliss that the organizers — award-winning novelist Mary Helen Specht and museum director Oliver Franklin — envisioned, the weather had turned “freakish.” Temperatures had plummeted from shirtsleeves to shivering in a parka on the edge of a folding metal chair. The wind made all the readers up at the microphone sound like weather heroes reporting during a hurricane while trashcans and lawn furniture flew past their heads.

But the cold and wind weren’t the freakish part to me. As I warmed my hands in my armpits and listened to the truly sublime prose being shared by an impossibly gifted group of writers, I noticed the air taking on an alarming greenish hue. The wind whipping the pages out of readers’ hands was churning through the branches above our heads and unloosing a mighty cloud of pollen.

Pollen, the stuff that nightly transforms my vehicle into an art car fashioned out of chartreuse velvet, had become an additional component to the air we all were breathing. I was not the first to start coughing, but I did lead the way in sneezing into my sweater because none of us had thought to bring tissue on such a fine spring day.

Through eyes now itching and streaming tears, I gazed up at those magnificent oaks, those venerable elms, and wondered why, why when the trees have sex am I the one who gets an STD?

For my first couple of decades in Austin, I scoffed at allergies, wrote them off as some sort of hypochondriac’s urban myth. During my single year of actual employment — also the most miserable year of my life — it seemed every person in that windowless, fluorescent-lit state office suffered from allergies. When they would drag in, breathing through their mouths, droopy-eyed as basset hounds and speaking in mucoid grunts, I would think, “Weaklings.” How could I work up any sympathy for, or even belief in, an “illness” that didn’t involve germs or fevers or death? An “illness” that was so relentlessly, so unpleasantly moist.

My cozy little sense of moral superiority lasted until the morning after I’d celebrated my 20th New Year in Austin. I awoke and thought, “Too much bubbly. Far, far too much bubbly.” Then I recalled that I was the mother of a 3-year-old and we had rung in the New Year with a double-header viewing of “The Muppets Christmas Caper” and “The Great Mouse Detective” washed down with a flight of Capri Suns. Clearly my son had brought home a cold from the microbe factory of a preschool he attended. I felt so wretched, though, that I was ready to claim that mic drop of upper respiratory infections: This had to be the flu.

Mucoid and mouth-breathing, I dragged into the doctor’s office where, with one swift diagnosis — cedar fever — he demoted me to the sad, morally inferior ranks of weaklings who can be taken out with microscopic grains of tree sperm. Though cedar — unlike Boogie or Saturday Night — is not one of your more fun fevers, at least it was confined to the winter months when everyone who is anyone is honking into a Kleenex. The weaklings I pitied were the poor schlubs who had springtime allergies. Losers.

My hubris awakened the wrath of the Phlegm Gods who long ago decreed that should one choose to live in Austin, “It’s not if you will develop allergies, it’s when.” To chasten me they sent us one of the wettest winters on record just to get every tree, shrub and blade of grass within breathing distance in the mood. Then, when they had the entire biosphere trembling with lust, they plopped me down in an outdoor literary festival beneath a bounteous canopy and let those trees have their way with me.

Now that I am the victim of repeated nasal violations, I’d like to apologize to my long-ago coworkers for ever doubting them. For all the rest of you out there sniffling, sneezing and Googling “is it a cold or allergies?” here’s your answer: If you’re living in Austin and it’s not the sunbaked heart of a desiccated summer, it’s allergies. And to you, the amorous trees and plants of Austin, could I make one humble request? Could you, please, put a bag on it?


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The first installment of Tales of the City — an occasional series of personal essays from readers and American-Statesman staff — appeared in our pages in 2006. The last essay was published in 2014. Now, we're bringing the series back. We want to hear tales of Austin from the people who bring the city to life every day. Submit your original essay of 1,000 words or less to for consideration by our editors.


Sarah Bird is an award-winning author, screenwriter and journalist who lives in Austin. A collection of her articles and essays, "Recent Studies Indicate: The Best of Sarah Bird," was published by UT Press earlier this month. She'll sign books at a happy hour at Hearth & Soul (2727 Exposition Blvd.) from 5 to 7 p.m. April 18. Bird's latest novel, "Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen," was published in 2018.