Asthma and allergies take root in the new West

 

'Mom, would you really have shipped me off to Denver?' I asked my mother recently. 'Absolutely,' she said.

'But imagine,' I said, 'what it would have been like for a 5-year-old living in an institution, surrounded by doctors and a bunch of asthmatic kids?'

'You were very, very sick,' she explained.'Nothing helped.' She told how my doctor had recommended sending me to live at the Children's Asthma Research Institute and Hospital in Denver. In the 1960s, when I was so sick, this was the best facility for asthmatic children in the United States. For many families, it became a last resort. But, luckily or unluckily for me, it was full up, so I got to stay home.

This talk with my mother helped me understand what propelled thousands of sufferers of asthma, hay fever and consumption, from the 1870s onwards, to abandon family and home to seek relief in the cool mountain air of the Rockies or the dry climate of Tucson.

American writer Helen Hunt Jackson was one such health-seeker. Her decade of seasonal wanderings in search of relief from hay fever ended in Colorado in 1873. Dispatched a year earlier by the New York Independent to write a series about life and landscape on the Western frontier, Jackson found in the Rocky Mountain region 'the divinest air' she ever breathed. So divine that she was soon saying goodbye to her friend Emily Dickinson and her beloved White Mountains of New Hampshire to take up residence in Colorado Springs. Once settled, she urged her new community to weigh carefully the value of its healthy air against denuded mountainsides and smoke bestowed by the region's mining and smelting industries.

Another seeker of health, decades later, was Joseph Wood Krutch, Columbia University professor, drama critic and venerable figure in the New York City literary scene. What compelled Krutch to give it all up in the 1950s to move to Tucson? Asthma. The sparseness of life, the vast open space of the West, and the warm, dry air brought Krutch not only physical renewal, but also a deepening appreciation for the ecology of the desert and the spiritual meanings he found there. Krutch championed its beauty in his books, The Desert Year and The Voice of the Desert. But by the 1960s, Krutch was horrified by the increasing haze of smoke and dust that was robbing Tucson of its invigorating air. He was also appalled by the spread of lawns that consumed the city's precious water.

Sadly, the warnings brought by Jackson and Krutch proved warranted. In less than a century, Denver and Tucson became polluted. By the 1960s, Denver's rapid growth and reliance on the automobile resulted in carbon monoxide and ozone problems as bad as those found in much larger metropolitan areas like Los Angeles.

Tucson owed its reputation as a haven for allergy sufferers because of the way in which its plants reproduce. Creosote, cacti, and other flora of the desert rely almost exclusively on animals and insects -- rather than the wind -- to carry their pollen. This quirk of climate and biogeography resulted in allergy relief for Tucson's health seekers. But newcomers from the East favored the 'civilized' look of the cities they'd left, and so planted Bermuda grass lawns and adorned their streets with ornamental mulberry and olive trees. In the 1970s, Tucson's trees reached maturity, grass pollen and mold spores increased, and native wind-pollinated weeds species like tumbleweed and desert ragweed thrived in newly disturbed soils. In just over 20 years, the atmospheric pollen load of allergenic plant species in Tucson increased ten-fold; the city's incidence of asthma was now twice, and hay fever six-to-nine times, the national average.

Over the course of a century, the health-giving hope once found in the Western landscape was washed away by the flood of people, industries, transportation, and plants that came with progress. Asthmatics and hay fever sufferers who came West as a last resort found themselves out of place -- or at least out of breath -- in the promised land. But a new road to Shangri-La appeared, one paved with antihistamines and corticosteroids.

In this happy place, we take a pill or a puff and feel better, while conveniently ignoring how changes wrought upon the landscape have led to the rise of allergy and asthma, not only across Western landscapes, but across the globe.

Gregg Mitman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is a professor of medical history at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the author of Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape our Lives and Landscapes.
High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    Introduction: Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization with offices located in Kanab and Escalante, Utah. We are committed to the conservation...
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • SONORAN INSTITUTE, CEO
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...