Huichica Creek has its headwaters on Sonoma County’s southeastern boundary. Its name comes from Rancho Huichica, a Mexican land grant that covered over 18,000 acres, extending from the Sonoma pueblo east to Carneros Creek and south to San Pablo Bay. Huichica is believed to be the Spanish version of hu’tci, a Coast Miwok village located where the City of Sonoma now sits.
One version of local lore holds that “Sonoma” means “place of sickness” thanks to all the hay fever and other allergies caused by the valley’s lush vegetation.
The idea may hold a thread of truth; while the significance of hu’tci is lost to the historical record, a nearly identical-sounding word in another Coast Miwok dialect is hátsi, meaning “to sneeze.”
Say hátsi or hu’tci aloud and you’ll hear something very close to “achoo!”
In fact, languages all over the world have similar words for sneeze. In German it’s “hatschi!,” in Finnish, “atshii,” and in Vietnamese (where ‘x’ sounds like ‘s’), it’s “hat xì.”
No matter how you say it, there’s a lot of it going around right now.
It’s estimated that up to 30 percent of the population suffers from hay fever, enduring runny noses, coughing, watery eyes and itchy skin.
The condition was first described by a London physician in 1819 who believed the cause was an “invisible emanation” from new hay, which is harvested in late spring, when the condition is most common.
We now know that hay doesn’t cause hay fever, but it is caused by something invisible to the naked eye: microscopic pollen grains.
Some of the worst culprits are grasses, which rely on wind for pollination. It’s a shotgun approach to reproduction, requiring huge amounts of pollen be released into the breeze.
One study found that a square yard of grassland produces about a billion grains of pollen. Tiny as they are — ten or twenty fit into the width of a human hair — each one can contain dozens of different allergy-causing substances.
Worldwide, hay fever seems to be growing more common. Most of the grasses causing it here were introduced over the past two centuries, so we can blame our allergies on plants that, like most of us, have ancestors from other parts of the world.
If hu’tci really does mean “sneeze,” then the people who coined the name must have been achoo-ing over other types of pollen. Perhaps they blamed the native oaks and willows, which can also cause hay fever.
A sneeze is the briefest of human experiences, but one we all share.
So if you find yourself in hu’tci or Achooville or Sneeze-noma these days, well, bless you!