This Side of the Pond – Sept. 5

By Sarah Pridgeon

Were I to attach a theme to this summer, I think I would opt for allergies. Excess pollen has assaulted our noses as the storms have jostled it free and we’re besieged by exuberant insects that have nothing better to do than trawl the skies for something to bite.
Consequently, everyone around me is sneezing, scratching, blowing their noses and covering themselves in lotion – and nobody seems immune. Except for me, because I’m not allergic to anything at all.
By which I mean that I’ve spent most of my life denying I have allergies. For at least the first thirty years of my existence, I was surprised by my own nostrils every time the flowers began to bloom. As was the person nearest to me when I bellowed forth my first sneeze.
I had just about cured myself of this odd compulsion when I moved to a new country, with a whole new batch of plants and insects. This served as the perfect excuse to immediately deny I could possibly be allergic to any of them.
I’m not sure what made me decide I would be less susceptible to Wyoming flora and fauna than their timid English cousins. Compared to the ones I’m familiar with, every species on this side of the seas comes with unnecessary spikes, stingers and spiny bits and is twice the size it ought to be.
Poison ivy is the perfect example. Had I been a pioneer, I think an encounter with poison ivy, which is little more than a pleasantly hued infiltration unit, would have sent me packing right back home. I’m probably not allergic to it, because I’m not allergic to anything, but I’m told it stings a good’un.
A friend of mine is currently suffering from a poison ivy encounter and he’s not even sure when and where it could have happened. His allergy is so severe that he’s been oozing and scratching for a week, while every piece of fabric he touches is promptly thrown in the washing machine.
In England, we have nettles instead. Wandering through a patch of these prickly plants leaves a tingle that can linger for an hour or two. It’s mildly irritating, but much less likely to turn an ordinary human being into a swamp creature.
It’s also easily beaten back with a stick and a pair of gloves and, once dissuaded from lurking by the side of the road, can be boiled up to make a pleasant cup of herbal tea. I’m not sure I would be brave enough to try that with a poison ivy leaf.
When the shrubbery itself isn’t working against us, the creatures that live within it are ready and willing to take up the task. On my very first visit to Wyoming, I was viciously attacked by a hornet the size of a pigeon. It actually crossed the street to reach me, so keen was it to spread pain and misery.
I wasn’t allergic to that, either, but my neck puffed up anyway and turned an angry shade of red. Several buckets of calamine lotion later, I was still complaining loudly and to anyone who would listen. That thing’s stinger was as big as a butter knife.
Even our pets, blessed with considerably more common sense than I am, have succumbed to the bad temper of the insect population. Early this week, our dog’s face suddenly swelled to twice its usual size and stayed that way until morning. It happened so quickly that it looked for all the world like we were inflating a dog-shaped balloon.
We have no idea what bit her, but whatever it was really went to town. She appeared to have been stung at least ten times, all across her head. Our strongest suspicion was a sweat bee, but it could have been a ground hornet. It could have been anything, really, because almost every bug is equipped for battle.
In England, we well understand the danger of wasps and bees, particularly during ice cream season. The difference lies in the range of stinging insects: of those commonly encountered, we only have one wasp that will fight you for your candy bar. Our bees are dozy and preoccupied and anything smaller than a house fly will leave you alone entirely.
Sweat bees look just like the tiny versions of wasps that we call hoverflies. Catching sight of one does invoke the panic that makes even the bravest person run screeching across the back yard, but a hoverfly is essentially harmless. Not so a sweat bee, which seems to make up for its size with a colossal hatred of mammals.
I recently came up with the theory that the United Kingdom is a playground invented by God so His children could get used to the idea of danger before they actually encountered any. The spiders are big and hairy but can’t hurt you, the ivy is perfectly ordinary and there aren’t many tall things to fall from.
The pioneers, both here and in countries such as Canada and Australia, therefore grew up in a place where the animals are too small to nip at much more than your ankles, there’s no need to run away from moths with interesting markings and you can trek through the woods for as long as you like without the foliage peeling away your skin.
The first step in solving any problem is, of course, recognizing it exists. The brave few who traveled to the new world did so with the identification step taken and had only to come up with appropriate avoidance techniques. And this is precisely why our Lord is considered to be benevolent.
If my theory is correct, it means that my turn has come to enter the thunderdome and I can no longer rely on my natural lack of allergies to protect me. Everything I want to touch has the potential to hurt me and everything I don’t want to touch does its best to change my mind, with similar results.
This calls for a new strategy each time I leave the house: I must invest in a full body suit to protect me from dive-bombing insects and malevolent leaves. I will begin this project immediately – or just as soon as I’ve worked out what it is that’s making me sneeze, because I’m certain it can’t possibly be allergies.