Personal Essay


Pollen Capital of the World was first published in the Petaluma Post in June of 2010 as my monthly column titled, In the Shadow of Sonoma Mountain—my take on the Petaluma lifestyle. The columns ran from April 2010 through June of 2016. Updated versions of the articles appear in the blog: intheshadowofsonomamountain.blogspot.com.

Pollen Capital of the World

I think I’ve landed on Dagobah when we arrive home from our two-week vacation in Mexico at the end of April. You know, that overgrown planet where Yoda lived in Star Wars? Ok, so I don’t actually find any trees growing out of my roof, but it takes a machete to hack a path to the door.

Weeds, tall and tangled, sway gently in the breeze over the sprawl of growth hugging the ground.

“What happened to the driveway? Where’d this meadow come from?” I ask my husband in horror, noticing milk thistles, the prickly bane of my garden, already taller than I am. “I could harvest those for liver supplements,” I add, eyeing the lifetime supply growing along the carport.

“Late rain,” he replies as the Prius bounces over tufts of grass patch-worked with super-sized dandelions and bittercress.

David holds the door while I wrestle my suitcase across the pea gravel. The wheels catch in a tangle of burclover that sprawls across the welcome mat. Was this noxious weed here when we left? I can already see the tender-looking seedpods that will ripen into nasty brown burrs and lodge into everything—my feet, the cat, the carpets.

The sight of this herbaceous splendor causes my eyes to water, my sinuses to clog. And then, “Ah-ah-ah-choo!”

I yank my bag over the jamb. “It’s hay-fever season,” I lament and slam the door behind me, bolting it against the spring menace.

“Welcome to south county—Pollen Capital of the World,” my allergy-free husband jokes.

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I’d have laughed but laughing makes me cough. Sonoma County, with its beautiful expanses of grass and forested hills, is one of the worst places for seasonal allergy sufferers—about a quarter of our population, not counting the dogs. My head pounds and my eyes itch just thinking of the days to come. I read that 70% of the pollen in the air comes from grass. The late rains have made mine lush, thick, and bursting into flower.

In normal years, whatever that means these days, the grass starts to bloom about mid-April and continues through Memorial Day, but I’ve heard tell that the misery could continue into July this year. Just thinking about that makes me run to the medicine cabinet for a saline snort off the neti pot.

I unpack my suitcase into the laundry and empty the contents of my cosmetics bag back into the bathroom—shampoo, toothpaste, aspirin, razor blades. I’d forgotten to pack my antihistamines for the trip and I hadn’t missed them. Two weeks of Mexico City smog, blooming jacarandas, dust, bougainvilleas, and nary a sneeze. Was it the tequila? I wonder as I slip the bottle of Herradura Añejo—thankfully intact—out of my bag.

I give my theory a test. The first medicinal sip of the smooth tequila warms my scratchy throat. My headache disappears with the next. This stuff really works! I’m ready to brave the outdoors and visit my California native garden: ceanothus, monkey flower, Cleveland sage and poppies all in bloom. But the bed is so choked by non-native grasses, bristly ox tongue, and sow thistles going to seed that I can’t see my beautiful flowers, not even the taller gooseberries and wild currants.

My oaks and willows that crowd the banks of our creek are in pollen-spewing flower, adding to the miasma of allergens in the air. Soon, I’ll see the pollen blowin’ in the wind, a yellowish particulate smudge. Next it will be the olives, emitting more pollen into my atmosphere. I shoot my little orchard a dirty look.

“Ah-choo. Ah-Choo. AH-CHOO.” My head feels like it’s exploded. Maybe another shot of tequila will help. I flee back into the house.

“Aren’t you teaching tonight?” David asks.

I’ve got my hand on the Herradura bottle, but release my grip. He’s right. Instead, I’ll take a shower and make a cup of hot tea with the Tolay Star Thistle honey a friend gave me. The pollen in this local honey is reputed to help minimize the effects of our local allergens.

I sit in my living room, sipping my honeyed tea, watching weed seed float across the yard on the breeze. My sinuses cleared up in the shower steam and I feel good. Outside the window, a tiny breeze riffles through the tops of silvery eucalyptus, and the green, green grass running up Sonoma Mountain bobs its bloomin’ seed heads, welcoming me home.