the soil you were born on
December 26, 2009, 3:52 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , ,

Patriotism is a source of endless mystery for the global nomad.  And not just the global nomad – someone who grew up between worlds by virtue of his diplomat or international business or missionary parents – but really also anyone who is committed to the precepts of modernism, an interest in the other, difference, the world outside.

Following is an excerpt from Michael Erard’s article Notes on Being Born on Soil at Design Observer.  He describes in 10 points how, with your longing for Texas as strong as it is after you move away, you can make sure your baby’s delivery in Maine is – metaphorically he says – born on Texas soil by slipping a ziplock of dirt under the bed.

Places have a great draw in our emotional lives.  We all exist somewhere between the poles of drifting in the world untethered, and being closely connected to it.  Every time I return to my birth country I feel like – but rarely follow through on – stooping and kissing the ground outside the airport terminal.  I grew up as a foreigner in my birth country India and so my emotions toward it are more complex than were I an Indian national.  In a sense I am allowed to love it, even excessively, and you could never call me a nationalist.  Furthermore, I can call you a nationalist if you are native born and overly emotional about your birthplace and not, like me, a foreigner born on foreign soil, whose emotions derive from extra-nationalist sources.

So what about the baggie with the soil under the bed your wife is screaming in, giving birth to your baby?  At first I thought it is a fetishization of me, where I’m from, my forefathers.  And then I remembered my impulse to kiss the ground outside the airport.  So, I’m ambivalent but still tilt toward judgement of excessive patriotism.  Especially in the context of a culture / country that remains largely silent in the face of the dominant – and highly toxic – tendency toward nationalism and patriotism.

Here is the excerpt:

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.


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.

-excerpted from Notes on Being Born on Soil, Michael Erard, Design Observer


2 Comments so far
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Peter, I appreciate your comments on my essay. Like you I have ambivalent feelings about geographical piety; when asked I have a hard time explaining where I’m “from.” My selfhood has been shaped by so many places, both in the US and overseas. The bag of soil was a kind of play: what would it feel like for me to pretend that I really felt so strongly about Texas that I believed in the fetish? As I wrote, in the end what mattered–what really mattered–was that my son was born healthy, here, together, with us, in the middle of an adventure, and with many more adventures to come. I used to romanticize people like you, and I wish you many adventures and feelings of attachment for as many places as you choose. I’d wish the same for my son too. Today’s my birthday; I’m writing from Montreal, as I’ve vowed to spend as many bdays as I can travelling outside the US.

Comment by Michael

Michael, I should thank you for your essay! In my blog coromandal, I write about the inability to really belong: to a place or group or whatever – there’s a lot of it out there! So I was quickly interested in your being caught between Maine and Texas.
Regarding your essay, I have to stress that I have ambivalence, not judgment, of the bag of dirt. I realized while I was writing the post that my kiss was the same thing as the bag: that the earth and its places pull us into irresistible emotional tangles: an evidence of how lovely – and loving – it is. Something huge for you to show and share with your young son – congratulations!

Comment by peter rudd

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