Life Trees (Justin Stewart)
When I was a younger man in school I had read about tribes in Africa who were given a life tree when they were born. After a birth, people would take the fresh placenta to a sapling coming up in or around the village and bury it in the roots. As the child grew, the family could ask the child about the tree and the child would learn to see it as a sacred place for peace and reflection. As an adult, perhaps that child would have a heightened awareness to see such spaces everywhere. Beautiful.
To my knowledge, the placenta in western culture has typically gone out with bad gall bladders, circumcisions, and ganglion cysts. These people-parts go into red bags in hospitals that are labeled biohazardous and cared for as special trash, mandated by OSHA for safety. A biohazard is defined as any waste containing infectious materials or potentially infectious substances. I don’t imagine they fertilize trees, or go back into the ground at all. Landfills are lined and covered with heavy plastics for health and environmental reasons. The western world is far from this little village in Africa in more ways than one.
My girlfriend, now wife, Tasha, and I were not trying to get pregnant. Yet truth be told we had never used birth control, and as we fell deeper in love we almost intentionally pushed the boundaries of a couple not trying to get pregnant. Wouldn’t you know that in late October, when Hillary was a shoe-in, we got pregnant.
Over the last while I’ve heard of women, some friends even, who take their placenta home with them and have capsules made for ingestion. My friend Weldon told me it staves off “postpartum depression for the mother and also reissues important nutrients to the baby through breast milk. Jenny did it, with both kids.” I asked him about the process. “It was kind of weird,” he twanged in small-town Texan speak, “we just dropped it off in a beer cooler on this lady’s porch, paid her $200, and a week later we got pills. She boils it up and dries it out right there in her house. Glad I don’t live next to her.” He scrunched his face and touched his nose. “I guess it worked ‘cause Jenny never got depressed and our kids are fine. Who knows?” I liked the idea, but it seemed a bit like a closed loop to me. Tasha and I had bigger concerns with the baby itself; we never talked about it.
“Would you like to keep your placenta?” the nurse asked as she went down the checklist upon admission. “Yes, we want it,” I said emphatically. My wife had no idea what I was talking about. “We want it.” I repeated.
It was a hard delivery, Tasha lost blood with the placenta and went pale. I took off my shirt and held the baby and her hand, got faint, and drank some of her diluted apple juice. She pulled through with the help of two bags of O positive blood. I crawled into her bed when the needles were out of her left arm.
As we waited to be discharged two mornings later, I said “I want to put the placenta on a tree in our backyard and also on a tree in the park. Tribes in Africa do it. The park is somewhere Luciana can visit throughout her life.” I continued, “Who knows how long we can afford to live in our house.” Tasha liked the idea. It rained that night. The new crib fit perfectly in the piano room and the baby would quiet for an hour at most. Tasha didn’t sleep and I had lucid dreams.
Late the next morning I pulled a reclining chair to the window for her to watch me dig a hole next to the chinquapin oak while she nursed Luciana. I had recently moved the oak in my nervous nesting; it wasn’t happy where I had placed it three years earlier. And with the recent renovations we now had a bigger window and a nice view down the backyard toward the alley. I had moved the struggling tree to frame our vista, imagining its orange and red fall colors, and estimating the shade it should eventually cast on our dining room. I dug the hole deep just off the root ball until I hit the backland prairie red clay. I unwrapped the placenta and held it up briefly toward the window with a smile. It was bigger than I had remembered, intricate with giant capillaries, like a floating creature Ernst Haeckel would have drafted at the turn of the century. I could see where the water broke and it indeed smelled like the ocean. I didn’t want to study it too long because it was time to bury this once-world for the baby, Tasha, and myself. We were separating from the delivery, honoring the baby’s old container, and giving back. We were making a story. I used a shovel to cut a piece off for the park and buried the bulk of it, including the umbilical cord I had cut just days prior. I covered it carefully, leaving no blood or trace for varmint curiosity. After I packed the ground, I shook the thin trunk as if to say to the tree, “Here she comes to help you in your transplant, it’s time to grow.”
I told Tasha through the window I’d be back in 20 minutes and headed to the park. I knew of a five-year-old bald cypress that was planted close to a perennial stream as a community project to restore a forgotten urban creekway in historically-underserved east Austin. I knew it was there because I had helped plant it. I don’t know that there are many times in your life when you get to plant a bald cypress as they have to keep their feet wet constantly, and well, constant water is hard to come by in Central Texas, particularly east of Interstate 35. Bald cypress live forever if the conditions persist. You’ve seen them, taller and thicker than the rest with old rope swings and strong swollen knees along the banks of swimming holes your uncles took you to.
Another reason I like this tree is that there is a bench by it looking off over the babbling brook. With my cooler of split placenta, a shovel, and a pick axe I headed down the short path toward the tree. Two women surprised me from the bench. “Are you going to bury somebody?” the thin black woman said. It was a profound question as I was, in essence, burying part of my family. “Well,” I smiled, “my wife had a baby two days ago and now I have the placenta and I wanted to bury it in the roots of the tree that is in front of you, to give her a place of refection within the city. Would that be okay?” “Sure,” she said and then slowly put together “Why didn’t you leave it at the hospital?” I told them I had read about an African tribe who buried their placenta in tree roots to keep the newborn connected to nature. I could tell they were high, but they seemed amicable and I wasn’t there to judge. I had drunk beers and smoked joints with my tennis partner many times in the same park and actually welcomed the company for this ad-lib ceremony I was practicing.
I dropped my gear and then to my knees and got to work. I didn’t want to disturb the roots. That’s severely frowned upon by plant people, particularly heading into summer, and the action is certainly against city ordinance. But this cypress was planted a little high on the bank and I knew all the roots were going down to the water. I used a small pick axe to cleave the soil and carefully explore. The other woman lit a cigar. “That smells great,” I said. “I wanted to bring some incense but left the house in haste.” “What smells great, the cigar?” “Yes, it’s nice.” I was sweating profusely. I looked up and one of the women was slumped over. The other woman was glazed over in a manner beyond a buzz. “What are you planting?” she said. I couldn’t believe her question. “Fertilizer,” I replied.
I don’t know my hard drugs; I don’t know what smoking crack looks or smells like versus smoking black tar heroin. I would guess it was an opiate. It doesn’t matter. The next time I looked up both women were slumped over and the cigar incense left the thin corridor. By the time I finished up, one woman was upright and replied “You too,” when I told them to have a blessed day. I went home to my new family and it rained hard again in the afternoon. I was happy thinking of how the soil would settle nicely in the backyard and along the lightly disturbed creekside.