In these shocking times Canberra (Australia's federal capital city and this columnist's home) is sometimes sporting the much-reported, mask-requiring "worst air in the world".
What is making this so newsworthy is the fact that Canberra's air (at this unnerving time polluted with the smoke of terrible bushfires) is usually so sparklingly clean and clear.
For First World Canberra to suddenly have air even more unbreathably awful than it regularly is in some of the world's always-wheezing cities is a weird, newsworthy oddity.
And when you know a little history it is, too, a poignant and paradoxical oddity.
Your columnist is an historian of how the spot where Canberra has arisen was chosen* from a competitive field of umpteen spots vying to be the site of the federal capital city. This place's air, sparklingly, invigoratingly clean and crystal-clear when parties of deeply-impressed federal politicians inspected it on August 13, 1906, and then again on August 23, 1907, helped get this spot the federal capital city guernsey.
And when the discerning ACT government hired me (ahead of this city's 2013 centenary) to research and write up how the Canberra site got chosen, I found that air quality was a big thing on the minds of all those doing the moving and shaking of the choosing of a site.
Although everyone thinks the federal capital city was plonked where it is to be out of reach of the big guns of enemy navies, in fact this had nothing to do with it. No one talked about that.
Instead what everyone talked about and acted on was the perceived need to site this ideal city somewhere where there would be a "bracing" health-promoting climate with, at least in winter, "cheek-tinting air" of a guaranteed frostiness. There were sound health reasons for this notion, and some far less sound and really rather shocking racial reasons, that we have no room to discuss here.
In these recent days, with Canberra's air so filthy-foul, its filth-murk created by bushfires and by drought's dust, my historian's mind has flown back to February of 1902 to alight the Albury-Wodonga and Wagga-Wagga district. Canberra as we write has some of the shocking qualities of those places, then.
In February 1902, senators and journalists set out from Melbourne by special train on a tour of proposed federal capital sites. One witty senator called it all a "pilgrimage".
This pilgrimage took the pilgrims out into a New South Wales being baked and burned by the prevailing "Federation" drought. The pilgrims went out on a special train and gathered at a sweltering Albury and went out to look at the district on February 12 when there was, Senator Neild reported, "a temperature approximating to the Black Hole of Calcutta".
On the early morning of the awful day they all had what Neild called "a warm and dusty time of it" and then "the morning progressed to a greater degree of unpleasantness as 11 o'clock was reached, when a lively dust storm enhanced the unhappiness of the pilgrims".
Albury did not seem to "catch on" with the pilgrims, Neild noticed.
" 'Nice position for a federal cemetery' says one. 'Hot as a stokehole' says another; and, in view of the sirocco blowing from the west, and filling eyes, nose, ears, mouth, hair, and clothing with a surfeit of filth and covering every object a hundred yards distant with a curtain of yellow dust, pilgrims may be forgiven if they fail to recognise Albury as the Federal Mecca ...' "
Then they went on to just-as-awful Wagga-Wagga where, Neild recorded, they met "a tornado of dust".
The Albury-Wodonga and Wagga-Wagga sites, their many virtues hidden then by dust and smoke, never recovered from this awful impression they made on horrified senators in 1902 and never got back into the running.
By contrast the Canberra site really turned on the scenic and meteorological charms when on the 1906 and 1907 days mentioned above pollies and press had their cheeks tinted by the air of the idyllic spot beside the Molonglo.
Breathing Canberra's air on a "clear, frosty morning such as can be enjoyed at these high altitudes", was, the deliriously impressed man from the Daily Telegraph reported during the 1906 visit, "like drinking 'a draught of champagne' ".
"In a district of fine landscapes," he rejoiced "Canberra is one of the most picturesque of spots and presented a charming spectacle this morning under the sun from an unclouded sky."
In 1906 pollies and press breathed air that was like champagne and (from high up on Mount Ainslie) marvelled at fine landscapes that included distant mountains. How different their experience, their assessment of the Canberra site would be if (using magic and time-travel) we could put them up on Mount Ainslie today, all fine landscapes blotted out by filthy haze, the air vile and hazardous.
"Nice place for a federal cemetery," one can hear them scoffing to one another, their voices muffled by their P2 masks.