Why Where You Were Born and How You Were Born Can Really Matter

The story of Hansel and Gretal was originally titled “Little Brother and Little Sister” and told of a time of extreme famine in Europe, when families ate their shoes, or one another. That gingerbread house is not just fanciful, but a visualisation of deepest yearning.

Excerpt from Big Pharma, Dirty Lies, Busy Bees and Eco Activists, chapter 17

The first question that springs to mind is, is geological and environmental health really a thing? Historically (at least in the sense of modern science), geology and medicine have been regarded as quite discrete disciplines. Yet, as Hippocrates appreciated, there is significant overlapping:

Whoever wishes to investigate medicine properly must … also consider the qualities of the waters, for as they differ from one another in taste and weight, so also they differ much in quality.

Over time, people and animals have learnt by trial and error what to eat and what to avoid in their areas. All along the sub-tropical eastern margin of South Africa, people would have known not to eat the fruits of the forest poison rope, Strophanthus speciosus. The capsules contain a deadly cardiac glycoside called strophantin that has been used as an arrow poison.

Unfortunately, this was not something the straggling castaways of the Grosvenor, which wrecked on the Wild Coast in 1782, would have known. By the time they reached Brazen Head (about 50 kilometres south of the wreck site), fewer than half the survivors were still alive, and they were already starving. Several who sampled the fruits of the deadly vine died right there.

Plants get many of their basic elements and compounds from the soils in which they grow. On his journeys along the Silk Road in the 1270s, Marco Polo noted that the party’s horses became distressed in the mountains of central Asia: some of the horses lost their hooves and had to be dispatched. We now know that it was selenium poisoning from plants they’d eaten.

Farmers know selenium poisoning as the blind staggers that can affect any grazing stock. In South Africa the chief culprits are the delicate yellow daisy-like flowers of the various species of Senecio, commonly known as ragwort, poisonous ragwort or grasshopper bush. The genus is one of the largest groups of flowering plants, with some 1 200 species occurring mostly in Mediterranean regions and temperate montane grasslands.

I have a 3,5 kilogram, 777-page book that expounds upon the subject of geological health in great detail. My favourite chapter is about “geophagy”, and it’s one most parents will identify with: when your toddler ingests soil, ants – and worse.

Humans have been eating earth, or soil, for millennia. There are numerous accounts of when people, entire nations in some cases, have been driven to eating soil (among many unsavoury things) through extreme starvation. Also of slaves who, singly or en masse, committed suicide by eating soil, sometimes voluntarily to escape hell on Earth, but also sometimes through sheer hunger.

Some old tribes have long practised geophagy, mostly of clays, as an aspect of folk medicine. They might have learnt it from primates that regularly eat clay to combat intestinal parasites. Parrots are known to eat clay in the wild: some of the nuts they eat contain toxins, so it might be to neutralise these.

The list of animals known to practise geophagy is long and includes both Tabby and Spot (like when they swallow grass to help void something they’ve eaten), and livestock that are given mineral “licks” as dietary supplements. The old safari clanger “do giraffes hunt in packs?” has its origins in the towering camel-leopards chewing old bones for their calcium.

There is some evidence that eating soil and generally mucking about in mud is not just good for us but even essential. There is an idea being bandied around medical corridors that as human societies grow increasingly distanced from their rural roots, allergies seem to be increasing proportionately.

Our immune systems need contact with Mother Nature in order to develop fully. The apparent allergy pandemic in urban kids is also often attributed to all the bad stuff being put into mass-produced foods. Some say it’s the pesticides and herbicides with which crops are sprayed. It’s most likely a combination of all of the above.

But don’t panic, keep calm and carry on, because we are all going to die. The only things that need to be negotiated are when and how. That could well depend on where you were born (farm or flat) and how (natural or by Caesarean section). All other things being equal, the best scenario health-wise would be on a farm and by natural childbirth. The opposite would be by Caesarean section delivery in a high-rise. These factors could also determine how you fare in life in the years between.2

We each have inside of us around 38 trillion microbes, which we acquire in the first five or six years of life. Naturally born children are gifted a very large number in their mother’s birth canal and are thus buttressed against many maladies awaiting us in the big bad world. The rest we get along the way, but children with close contact to nature get theirs much earlier, and thus their immune systems are more robust much earlier. Eating soil – and even dog poo – is all part of that process.

Medical studies have gone even further, suggesting at least some part of our personalities are also formed in those early years, through the assemblage of tiny organisms with which we come into contact during this time.

Speaking of children, the story of Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm has delighted youngsters for many generations. It recounts the travails of two children of a poor German woodcutter and a nasty stepmother. They get lost in a forest but manage to outwit an old witch who lives in a gingerbread house and had planned to eat them, in short. The backstory is there was a famine in the land, so the horrible stepmother takes the siblings into the woods and leaves them there to starve, so she won’t have to feed them.

Originally Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm did not set out to write children’s stories, but rather to preserve German folklore. The story in question was originally called “Little Brother and Little Sister”, and it was set, quite specifically, between 1315 and 1322. At that time, Europe was in the grim vice of a terrible famine, precipitated by extensive volcanic eruptions in the west Pacific Ocean.

In the first year of the famine, mostly only the poor serfs suffered the hunger of failed harvests. However, as the years dragged on and the famine worsened, landowners and eventually even the squires and ladies resorted to eating their leather shoes, their children or one another.

Some parents starved themselves so their children might survive. Others ate the children so they might. It was the worst food crisis of the Medieval Period in Europe, and millions died all the way from Dublin to Moscow. Just a quarter century later the region was ravaged by the Black Plague.

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