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Comments (8) Posted 12.14.09 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Michael Erard

Notes on Being Born on Soil


Soil

1. I was born on soil; so were you. Which is to say, we were born in a place and no other, to which our forebears feel attached, and if we do too we may proclaim, "I was born on the soil of this place," in order to stake a claim of identity. From time to time you hear stories about patriots in exile who make the leap of enabling their children to enjoy the symbolic equivalence of having been born in the motherland through an implementation of the metaphor in its most literal way: putting dirt under a woman who is giving birth.

2. You may not think this practice actually exists. It's true, you don't hear about children born on, say, Delaware soil. In 1993, the Weekly World News reported on a woman from Texas, a "Lone Star lady," who wanted her baby born on Texas soil in New York City. "The soil was sterilized, sealed in a sterile pouch, and placed beneath the woman," read the article. "Baby born on Texas soil — in New York!" the headline exclaimed. When I moved to Texas in the early 1990s, I heard similar tales. Apocrypha, I thought. Then I left the state, and it was my turn.

3. Not that I count myself as a patriot in exile, but figuring out how to honor the semantics of being "born on Texas soil" seemed like an interesting problem. In the early days of a pregnancy, when the baby is still an abstraction, like next year's hurricanes, there's time to establish that, at minimum, the birthing should happen somewhere over the soil, which doesn’t have to touch either the woman or the baby directly, though I wondered (because there was time to really mull problems of this scale) if the bed should somehow be in contact with the soil, to trigger some transitive property of motherland symbolism. Do I put the bed posts in buckets of soil? This was rejected as inconvenient — I imagined our bed, which doesn't have posts, laying in trays of dirt — then I abandoned any sort of contact altogether, even though it meant that we'd conflate "on" with "over," even though no one would say, "my son was born over Texas soil" (though strictly speaking, he was). There was also the question of how much soil is ceremonially minimal but symbolically significant. I winged it here — it's something greater than a cup, something you could sprout a seed in, I decided.

4. Do I sprinkle it on the bed or on the floor? Does a light dusting satisfy? No — I assumed you want volume, not a mere presence. One gets to think of these things in order to keep from worrying. Then there's the question of the definition of "soil." Sweeping up a cup of dust from Texas houses seemed profane. I wouldn't say, "I'm proud my son was born on Texas dust." If I sterilized the cup of motherland soil, making it biologically inactive, does that mean it's not soil? I wouldn't say, "I'm proud that my son was born on Texas dirt."

5. The midwives were remarkably unperplexed by the request. We thought you were going to ask for something really out there, like a lotus birth, they said. What's a lotus birth? I asked. It's when you don't cut the umbilical cord but leave the baby attached to the placenta, which is salted and wrapped up with the baby, until the cord detaches naturally, usually after a few days. A bag of soil, by comparison, that's straightforward.

6. My wife's mother's family, at their annual reunion on the family farm, a place that we love and where we've spent a lot of time, went out and gathered about a pound of soil and shipped it to us in Maine. It came sealed in a freezer bag, labeled "Farm Soil" (so you don't, I suppose, confuse it with the other soils you might keep around). I'll deal with this when the time comes, I thought. What happened was I forgot about it completely.

7. Looking back, it's clear that if making soil meaningful at a birth is your main concern, you're probably enjoying one of those stress-free pregnancies that allows idle whims, or maybe your worry is that you won't have enough to do at the actual birth, so you can occupy yourself orienting the bag's seam in the direction of the Alamo. This particular birth, which was at home, was a whirlwind of activity at the center of which was neither a bag of soil nor nostalgia for the motherland but a courageous woman working very hard and never looking more beautiful than she did, and amidst all the moving parts and the feelings of the moment, all of the predetermined symbolisms and the emotions we had so neatly assigned them plummeted in priority, then right off the radar. She breathed in, and I breathed in, and she breathed out, and I breathed out, and we did that for a while, and the baby finally saw his way clear, and it didn't really matter where it had happened, only that we were all together.

8. Except that at one point in late labor, we had hit a plateau and cruised for a bit, and then I'd remembered the soil and gestured to one of the midwives. She found the bag of soil and she stuck it under the bed in the general vicinity of where my wife lay, and then was in charge of moving the bag around several times, ending up under the other side of the bed where he was born, on Texas soil, as we'd planned all along.

9. Later I read in a thread that the office of the governor of Texas will send a package of hospital-approved dirt along with a certificate (which suggests that being born on soil is not, in fact, enough). But the woman who answered the governor's information line told me she'd heard of no such thing.

10. We live in Maine, but every night since the baby was born, we've slept on Texas soil.
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Comments (8)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT >>

Thanks for a fun journey. This was a nice aside from the normal content.
Mat
12.16.09 at 04:33

What a strange essay. Not one of the 10 points offers a real explanation of why the damn Texas soil is so important, unless he actually IS a "patriot in exile," and then, well, why be coy about it? (Too embarrassing even for the governor's office to own up to? Or a conspiracy against a carpetbagger who wasn't himself born on the sacred soil? Do they check those things in Austin?) And on that photo: I know we're supposed to be convinced of its authenticity via the casual "snapshot aesthetic," but that dirty sock gives the whole piece a slightly creepy feel.
plakaboy
12.16.09 at 05:24

Plakaboy, I did draft something about that but got more interested in the how, and thought this audience would rather I stay away from the why. But since you asked, it's complicated, but one part of it is that I'm married to a 10th generation Texan. As for "carpetbagger," sir, I will have you know that I was born in San Antonio, and though I was taken away as a babe against my will, I returned as soon as I was able. (And that argument was good enough to persuade the University of Texas at Austin to charge me in-state tuition for my last semester of grad school.)
michael erard
12.17.09 at 10:35

Ok, the in-state tuition story is confirmation. My apologies for doubting your bona fides, since apparently they do keep a list in Austin. Hook 'em, Horns. But still....sweep!
plakaboy
12.17.09 at 01:26

Great post! keep it up pal, just bookmarked this one and I'm hoping for more! ;-)
alex grinsk
12.17.09 at 11:23

Great essay, Michael -- congrats on the baby! Those not born in Texas may not appreciate the symbolism, but as a native, I understand completely. More than 95% of the land in Texas is privately owned, so the fact that your child came into the world on "family" soil makes it that much cooler. I've also heard of touching the baby's feet to the soil, before they are ever allowed to walk on any other surface.
Morgan
12.18.09 at 06:43

Here's a thoughtful blog post responding to/thinking about my essay, by an American expat who was born/raised in India: http://coromandal.wordpress.com/2009/12/26/the-soil-you-were-born-on/
michael erard
12.29.09 at 10:14

My Grandmother, who was in Bastrop, TX at the time, sent some dirt from the Lone Star State to Yokohama, Japan for dad to put under the hospital bed before my birth so he and mom could say I was born on Texas soil. A very popular tradition among TX Military. Posted this on my FB page googled it got here.
kemahnet
02.22.12 at 02:24



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Michael Erard is the author of Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners (Free Press). His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Wired, Slate and many other publications. His book about what we say (but wish we didn't), Um...: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean, came out in 2007 (Pantheon).
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