Monday, January 06, 2014

My Enemy, the Birch.

In tenth grade, my English Honors project team and I videotaped a stuffed-animal rendition of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. We lined up animals along the fence in my backyard, behind which was a row of bushy poplar trees, their long trunks standing at attention as young King Arthur--a stuffed bear? a giraffe? (I no longer remember)--pulled his sword out of the proverbial stone. Our backyard then was lush--all those poplars, a tall bushy evergreen that today towers three times my height at least, a lilac, a flowering dogwood, and a white birch tree on the northern side of the front yard. 

As a child, I rolled in the tall green grass, picked lilac blossoms to use as beds for the miniature animal figurines I played with, and hopped the back fence when the poplars were still skinny enough for me to jump through the spaces between them. But the birch tree was the least of my outdoor acquaintances. I remember asking my mother its name because of its oddly colored trunk. Birch trunks are white, I noted, pleased that I could classify a leafy green thing by name, and then I moved back into a world where I was oblivious to nature’s--and the birch tree’s--particulars.

When I was a pre-teen and gripped with daily asthma attacks, the allergy doctor scratched me with allergens common to the region. Ten years later, another allergist did the same. With a strange sort of ironic pleasure, I repeated over the years that I was allergic to every known allergen in the state of Iowa except the moth, the cockroach, and the caddis fly. (The wheals, raised pale welts on my skin that resulted from testing, indicated extreme antipathy for trees, weeds, dust mites, pollens, molds and household pets. The doctor measured the length of each wheal and its accompanying flare (surrounding red area) with a ruler marked in millimeters. 

The years of allergy symptoms were many and varied. Sometimes, I wasn't able to breathe through the summer without a battery of inhalers, rounds of prednisone and daily antihistamines. I stepped out of the air-conditioned homes I lived in and was assaulted with unseen pollens, mold spores, and the essence of grasses drifting in on the breeze, all wreaking havoc inside my lungs and sinuses. It was unsettling to not know the particular identity of my attacker at any given moment. To not see it head on, or know its rationale, it's motive, in this case, for flooding my veins with histamines. 


Last winter I ate a pear, and it made my mouth burn, my sinuses flare. I sneezed repeatedly. Random hives appeared on my neck and abdomen. I felt as if I had swallowed a cat (I am allergic to cats). In the spring of this year, I ate an apple and it did the same. Disbelieving that this long-friendly fruit was making war on my insides, I ate another one. It made me sick again. Then peaches were added to this short, but growing, list of produce that did not like me. After months of eating the occasional apple and experiencing the same extreme reactions, I mentioned it to my allergy doctor, who pulled out a colorfully illustrated chart of known allergens and foods likely to give allergic patients cross-reactions. It turns out that apples, pears, peaches and assorted other produce all have a long history of producing reactions in people allergic to birch tree pollen, which I'd been highly allergic to for as long as I'd been allergic to anything. 

When my daughter was first diagnosed with food allergies, we were told about cross-reactivity in foods. I am not a scientist, so you won't get the technical explanation here, but basically, some foods' molecular structures are so similar to others that the body can mistake one for the other. For instance, we heard a story about a peanut-allergic kid who almost died eating lentils.

One theory about food allergies is that exposure precedes the allergy. One eats peanuts one time, for instance, without a reaction. The second time it’s all a slick madness of inflammation, phlegm, and dilated bronchioles, sometimes anaphylaxis. Like I said, it’s a theory, but it made me think hard about birches, remind myself that I’d noticed one once, next to my childhood home. And I wondered how I’d crossed it, how and why the species had pegged me as its target (was my ambivalence offensive?), or why--rather--my body made birch trees the enemy without my consent. Was the birch tree pollen a symbol to my subconscious and immune system of all that didn’t go right on that plot of land and in the house that stood beside it?

But now, that’s irrational. And, then, so is illness much of the time. The rogue cancer cells, the Parkinson's, the ways our bodies betray our spirits and we end up having conversations with our bodies (like I do), saying it's taken things too far: people are not allergic to apples (for instance) because they are allergic to birch trees! They are not allergic to apples--most mundane, most innocuous of foods, staple of my last three decades: Baked with cinnamon in winter. With peanut butter or sharp cheddar cheese in a brown-bag lunch. In pies at Christmastime. Dipped in whipped cream in the heat of summer. Shredded and stirred into pancake batter. Dried into slices. Pureed and dehydrated into fruit leathers for my children.

To question the apple is to question the birch tree, which is also to question ourselves, our responses. And sometimes, those questions flutter into particles drifting on air like tree pollen looking for a place to land.

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