Craving Earth

If dirt, as William James put it, is matter out of place, then the dirtiest dirt of all is the kind you put where you're absolutely not supposed to: in your mouth. We teach children not to eat dirt even before they can talk; conversely, telling someone to eat dirt is a powerful expression of contempt, a way of demoting them from human to animal. Yet as Sera L. Young explains in her quirkily informative book Craving Earth: Understanding Pica, eating dirt—in particular, certain kinds of dry, crumbly clay, as well as other non-food substances like uncooked starch, chalk, and ice—is a very widespread human practice, and always has been. Pica, as this behavior is known—the name comes from the Latin word for "magpie"—is especially common among pregnant women.

 

This has been recognized since ancient times: Hippocrates, the 5th-century BC Greek physician, noted that pregnant women often had cravings for earth or charcoal, and a classic Indian poem describes a pregnant queen who "set her heart upon clay in preference to all other objects of taste." Today, Young reports, Americans with pica buy boxes of chalk at Walmart, or bags of ice (the cubes at the Sonic fast-food chain seem to be especially popular), or even order prime Georgia dirt over the Internet.

 

Yet the stigma attached to eating dirt is so strong that few people will readily admit to it. One of Young's most fascinating chapters, "Dismissal and Damnation," shows that European scientists who observed pica among African or Asian peoples described it as a degenerate vice. An Amazonian explorer who noticed the practice among "the natives" cited it as evidence that they "appear to be sunk in an abyss of moral filth and depravity from which nothing but a strong tide of European immigration can save them." Among the illustrations in Craving Earth are chilling images of the iron masks that American slaveholders used to prevent their slaves from eating dirt; in Jamaica, slaves alleged to have died from pica had their corpses decapitated as a warning to others.

 

This stigma depends on the idea that pica is both unnatural and unhealthy. But is it? That's the question Young, a medical doctor, sets out to answer in Craving Earth by reviewing the scientific literature on pica. Operating on the assumption that a behavior could not be so widespread and apparently instinctive unless it was adaptive in some way, Young considers two hypotheses. The first is that pica is a way for people to get nutrients missing from their diet, especially iron. This idea seems to be supported by the observed correlation between dirt-eating and anemia: in fact, a Roman writer mentioned the connection between "pale complexion" and "a morbid appetite for earth" some 2,000 years ago.

 

Yet Young goes on to show that the correlation is ambiguous: adding iron to the diet of a person with pica does not seem to eliminate her cravings, nor does eating earth seem to add iron to the blood. On the contrary, one study shows that eating dirt reduces the body's ability to absorb iron, raising the possibility that pica actually causes anemia, instead of curing it.

 

More plausible, though still not definitively proven, is the idea that dirt-eating helps to protect the body from toxins and pathogens. Clay, Young explains, is a perfect natural filter, binding poisons and bacteria to its porous surface; indeed, clay is commonly used in water filters like Brita, and in many anti-diarrhea medicines. (Kaopectate is named after kaolin, a kind of clay that used to be its active ingredient.) It is suggestive, then, that most people who engage in geophagy—from the Greek for "dirt eating"—prefer clayey soils. What's more, the populations that seem most prone to pica—pregnant women and people in tropical regions—are also the most vulnerable to poisons and parasites. Without more study, Young concludes, we can't yet say exactly what pica means or what harm it may do. In the meantime, Craving Earth offers the best account we have of this oddly fascinating subject.


 

Footnotes:

 

There's something simultaneously wonderful and a little creepy about Google. An indispensable tool, it is also a powerful, self-interested corporation that now controls much of the world's information—a potential free-market Big Brother. In The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry) (California), Siva Vaidhyanathan sounds the warning bell about Google's power, and proposes a more democratic way to organize our knowledge.

 

 

 

In Adam's Gift: A Memoir of a Pastor's Calling to Defy the Church's Persecution of Lesbians and Gays (Duke), former Methodist minister Jimmy Creech tells the story of how an encounter with a gay parishioner, Adam, led him to start questioning his conservative denomination's views on homosexuality. After years of soul-searching and Bible-reading, Creech came to the conclusion that homosexuality is not a sin, and began to officiate at same-sex weddings—leading him to be stripped of his office by the United Methodist Church.

 

 

 

Jim Kristofic has an unusual perspective on Native American life. Born in Pittsburgh to a white family, he moved at the age of seven to a Navajo reservation in Arizona, carried along by his mother's fascination with the tribe. In his memoir Navajos Wear Nikes: A Reservation Life (University of New Mexico), Kristofic writes about the culture shock he experienced, the natural beauty of the reservation, and how he learned to negotiate between two worlds.

July 28: Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin eloped on this day in 1814.

Crime fiction legends Dennis Lehane and Michael Connelly discuss the new book that unites their beloved sleuths Patrick Kenzie and Harry Bosch.

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Paradise and Elsewhere

Canadian short story marvel Kathy Page emerges as the Alice Munro of the supernatural from these heartfelt tales of shapeshifting swimmers, mild-mannered cannibals, and personality-shifting viruses transmitted through kisses.

Pastoral

When a persuasive pastor arrives in a sleepy farm town, his sage influence has otherworldly results (talking sheep, a mayor who walks on water). But can he pull off the miracle of finding kindly local Liz Denny the love of her life?  Small wonder looms large in this charmer from Andre Alexis.

The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).