Knowing Nature through Labored Breathing: A Modern History of Allergy
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Knowing Nature Through Labored Breathing:
A Modern History of Allergy
Gregg Mitman. Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape Our Lives and Landscapes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. xv + 312 pp. Figures, maps, appendices, and notes. $30.00.

While researching the history of soil erosion in the South, I was recently cruising through early issues of The Land, the quarterly published by Friends of the Land. Founded in 1940 by a group of New Deal conservationists and agricultural reformers, Friends of the Land took as its goal the promotion of "permanent agriculture."1 Most of the articles in The Land reflected that interest. But in the midst of the third issue, I came across an unexpected essay, titled "Hay Fever," by "R.G. Tugwell." Rexford Tugwell was, of course, an agricultural economist and member of Franklin Roosevelt's Brain Trust who rose through the USDA during the 1930s to become head of the Resettlement Administration. He was also a founding member of Friends of the Land. But why was he writing about hay fever, and what did hay fever have to do with agricultural reform?

Tugwell began his article by defining hay fever sufferers as a misunderstood tribe who got little respect from those who did not experience their seasonal symptoms. Then he made the puzzling claim that those afflicted with hay fever constituted an elite with special sensory powers. "It is well known that the allergic are better informed and more cultivated than the run of people," Tugwell insisted. "It is a matter of inner cognizances, of more delicate responses to the affairs of the world. Is not allergy itself more properly described as a sensitivity?" His suggestion that allergy was a mark of privilege seemed as audacious as it was curious, but his point about sensitivity raised an intriguing question. Could the allergic be more attuned to the natural world in certain ways?2

In his discussion of the causes of hay fever, Tugwell aimed most of his wrath at ragweed. He praised the New Deal relief projects, which he oversaw, that aimed to control the weedy scourge in urban areas, and he celebrated the growing knowledge of ragweed geography, a mapping project critical to those seeking seasonal escape. He fastened in particular on the American West, a [End Page 108] region blessedly free of ragweed in its arid sections. He had been regularly journeying to Arizona to escape his late-summer allergies, eschewing the treatments of physicians, which he thought ineffectual. And he intimated that moving West was a liberating alternative to older, more proximate migratory options: "We are no longer the victims of the resort keepers in Michigan, Pennsylvania, or the White Mountains," he crowed.3

Finally, Tugwell came to the connection between ragweed and agricultural conservation that I had been wondering about. "It lies within our collective power to abolish the ravages of rag-weed altogether," he instructed, "merely by cultivating our land in a civilized way." Ragweed, Tugwell noted in a brief primer of its ecology, is a pioneer species that colonizes exposed soil, and its prodigious "pollen-producing and broadcasting apparatus" makes it ideally suited, even evolutionarily adapted, to such a function. "There was so little ragweed when Indians owned North America that hay fever was unknown," he postulated. "But the careless agriculture characteristic of so much of America, along with the speculative over-development of urban and suburban areas, has furnished many times as much area as was contemplated by nature." As Americans sloppily transformed the continent, Tugwell argued, he could literally feel the effects in his body. Allergy connected his health to the nation's environmental history.4

Within days of reading Tugwell's article, Gregg Mitman's new book arrived on my desk. Breathing Space delivers not only an enlightening history of the very themes Tugwell explored, but it also shows how a view as privileged as Tugwell's missed a huge part of the story of "how allergies shape our lives and landscapes." On one point, though, Mitman and Tugwell agree: "With overly sensitive immune systems that react too strongly to the world around us," Mitman writes, "we allergy sufferers have special powers of perception" (p...


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