Friday, June 18, 2010

PICA (Eating Dirt) IN THE HILL COUNTRY: Parts 1 and 2

by Terry Thornton
Because of illness, I'm not posting new articles at the blog Hill Country nor at my newspaper column at MONROE JOURNAL. Here at the blog I am presenting some of the older articles from HILL COUNTRY (available on CD, Volume 1 --- click here to see contents of the CD and how to order). Today is Part 1 and 2 about dirt eating, Pica, originally posted in July 2007. They are articles # 110 and # 115 on the CD.

I hope to resume my research and writing soon. Meanwhile enjoy these older HC columns.

PART 1: Dirt Eater: Pica in the Hill Country (July 7, 2007)

When I was a child, I knew a woman in the Hill Country who was a dirt-eater. Her eating of dirt gradually became pathological and she died.

What is behind this eating of dirt? Is it an aberrant condition which, since about 1900, has been explained away as just a mental disorder? Or is it something more basic than a mere mental disorder?

Almost all societies report animals eating dirt; almost all parents who have observed their children closely know that their babies love to eat dirt. And some among us can remember when they too were dirt-eaters!

Dust was my favorite, the heavy yellow/orange-dust churned up by days of drought and hundreds of passing cars and trucks and settled in a thick layer on metal tire rims, bumpers, and back windows of automobiles. When I was a toddler I thought the taste of that snuff-like dust licked off of my spit-wet finger was one of the best tasting treats available.

Then I found out about ice-cream.

Seriously, however, the lady I knew in Parham ate large amounts of dirt daily. [What she actually ate was probably red clay rather than soil.] Her addiction to dirt became so pervasive that her husband would drive her about the Hill Country to her favorite spots, road-cuts and gullies, where her "kind" of dirt was exposed. I remember her behavior was described as somewhat secretive; that she would stand at the road-cut eating her dirt with a spoon as long as no one was around --- and that she would gather some dirt in a container to take home with her for consumption later.

She was said to be so consumed with her quest to find the "best" dirt to eat that she would make her husband stop the car when she spotted a likely new source of dirt --- and that she would get out and have a spoon full or two.

Her obsession to eat dirt was so not secretive, however; most everyone in the community knew of it. Over time, her health declined and she died at a much too young age.

She and her husband lived on Firetower Road in Monroe County in a small cabin similar to the one shown here. The cabin had a mud-and-stick chimney. They were constantly rebuilding that chimney as the rains would wash it down.

I've often wondered if the red-mud of that chimney was some of her favorite red clay.

I was reminded of this memory about dirt-eating by a link found at
Atlantic Ave. by Amy Kane, a blog I read daily. The link is to a new article in Discover Magazine entitled Is Dirt the New Prozac? Among other things, the article explores the proposal "that the sharp rise in asthma and allergy cases over the past century stems, unexpectedly, from living too clean."

Maybe there is a biological reason for the craving to eat dirt? And maybe some folks let that craving get out of hand and their obsessive habit then kills them.

I have long suspected that almost all basic human behavior (such as being right handed), all human taboos, mores, and most religious "Thou Shalt Nots" have their foundations in biological survival. Maybe the craving to eat dirt is one of those basic notions that is a type of behavior evolved through eons of survival of the fittest competitions within the biological world where we live. And that craving to eat dirt seems strongest when we are about two years old.

Obviously this assumption is shared by Gerald N. Callahan; see his most interesting article
"Eating Dirt," August 2003 online at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Emerging Infectious Diseases Series. Besides being most informative and interesting, Callahan takes a no-nonsense approach to his article and looks at everything from the historical and cultural background of dirt eating, what his mother said about eating dirt, and how his own children ate dirt. He also attempts to define how much dirt must a person eat on average per day before it becomes a mental problem! And he explains the difference between the eating of top soil by children and the eating of deep soil/clay by adults. But it is the possible benefits of exposure to dirt, and yes the possible eating of dirt, that makes Callahan's article so interesting.

Callahan states, "For humans, as for rabbits, there is a window in childhood when our experiences, our infections, change everything, once and for all. Inside that window, infection causes lymph nodes and GALT to enlarge and reorganize, to separate into cortices and medullae, into primary lymphoid follicles, and develop T- and B-lymphocyte–rich regions of immune competence destined to someday be germinal centers, where our defenses will muster and the real battle will be fought. This window is a defining moment, when the simplest and lowest forms of life—the dirty, the infectious, the parasitic, and the septic—alter who we are." [Emphasis added]

So have we all been so clean, so free of dirt both inside and outside, that we are not coping as well biologically as we should be?

I don't recommend that anyone go out and find a road-cut with an exposure of clay and start eating dirt. But I do recommend that you read (1) Callahan's article at the CDC, (2) the article in Discover Magazine, and (3) the references at Wikipedia on

The drawing of the cabin used above is from William A. Davis, "Dirt-Eating," Popular Science News, Volume XXXVI. New York: Science News Company. October 1902, page 227. Available on Google Full-view Books.

See also Google Full-view Books for dozens of excellent historical articles about "eating dirt."

Copyright © 2007 William T. "Terry" Thornton. Fulton, Mississippi 38843. All Rights Reserved.

PART 2: Dirt Eaters and Starch Eaters: Pica in the Hill Country (July 13, 2007)

Follow-up recollections: Readers have sent these recollections of dirt-eating and starch-eating, both considered forms of pica. The individuals involved were residents of the community of Parham, Monroe County, Mississippi. Each recollection was edited to protect the identity of the family and of the individual.

Follow-up # 1: [Email information]

"The dirt of Parham must be some of the best in the world! I don't remember the dirt eater [written about in the blog] but [a member of our family] ate his share of the red hillside [on a road near] Thornton's Store. His parents carried him to the doctor it got so bad. He was anemic and the doctor said the dirt probably had iron in it that he was craving. He just went on eating the dirt . . . He quit the dirt maybe in high school . . . He stayed really healthy on the dirt diet growing up! He now a very rare blood disorder and has to have blood transfusion-like processes every two weeks. . . . Maybe he just needs to eat more Parham dirt now. . . I wonder if the dirt caused the disorder or was it what kept him alive back then?"

Follow-up # 2: [Email information]

"My mother's aunt, my great aunt, lived on the north end of Firetower Road in a small but old house. Mother says her aunt would stand and eat the mud from the chimney until they would have to remud it. One of the other aunts, a sister to this one, would also eat the mud of the chimney but not as much. My mother later lived in that house as a child some 70 years old or more ago."

I followed up this email with a notation that I knew the specific house and location but I did not know the family involved with this episode of dirt-eating. This was a white family; the lady written about in the original post was from a black family.

Follow-up # 3: [Telephone conversation]

Another Hill Country family remembers a type of "pica" at Parham --- eating starch. This person ate chunks of starch from the old fashioned boxed laundry starch once used widely to starch clothes prior to ironing. The eating of these chunks of starch was secretive, much like the behavior of dirt-eaters. This individual, however, only ate starch two or three times per week; the episodes were usually triggered by the family's traditional "wash-day" which was always on Monday, weather permitting.

According to Wikipedia, this sort of pica is known as amylophagia and is often common in pregnancy. The person at Parham with amylophagia [which started in her thirties], stopped eating starch in her fifties. Whether her cessation was the result of biological changes within her or because by then boxed laundry starch had all but disappeared from the market place as bottled liquid starch and then spray starch became widely used. The individual died at about 80 years of age.

See Pica at Wikipedia for more information about the various types of pica including amylophagia.

Copyright © 2007 William T. "Terry" Thornton. Fulton, Mississippi 38843. All Rights Reserved.

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