Rooting a new life under a juniper tree

‘Trees know about belonging.’

My husband asks what I plan to do with my placenta.

It is spring, and we have been unexpectedly gifted some elk meat. He removes all the contents of our freezer to make room for portions of another animal’s body. Parts of its shoulder, its haunches, and pieces of its belly line our counter, wrapped and packed into neat blocks of meat. 

My placenta has been in the freezer for months, and now it is sitting on the counter, too, frozen like a steak in a biohazard bucket. I insisted this part of my body come home with us to Wyoming after I gave birth, and now I can’t decide what to do with it. 


The word “placenta” is derived from the Latin word for cake. Most mammals eat their placentas immediately after birth. I don’t want to eat this particular cake, but I do make some Marie Antoinette jokes about it. A girlfriend sends me a webpage about how to “encapsulate” my placenta — you dehydrate it, grind it up and then tuck it inside pill capsules for easy ingestion — though she swears I’ll have more energy and heal more rapidly postpartum if I just eat it. Instead, I just push the bucket farther back into the freezer and cover it with pints of ice cream, frozen burritos and a casserole I made in anticipation of the baby. 

My daughter was born last year, on a crisp fall night. She was six weeks early, so I was transported by helicopter to a hospital in Colorado, as there is no NICU in our rural Wyoming town. For the first weeks of her life, she was sustained by medicine, lights, IVs, monitors. Her room was a cocoon of plastic and masks and gloves, completely cut off from the natural world. We were masked at all times, owing to COVID-19; she could not feel our breath, or the fresh air outside the hospital. 

I asked to see the placenta after she was born. They took her away quickly; she weighed only 3 pounds, and she looked like a baby bird. The team that had moments before filled the room disappeared. Now it was just me, my doctor and a nurse. The nurse held the organ up. It looked like a sapling, I thought: Like a ball of roots, the thin cord like a trunk. The nurse asked if I wanted to keep it, and I didn’t hesitate. Of course. 

IN SOME CULTURES, the placenta is treated like the baby’s twin. Others believe it is the baby’s guardian angel. And many, many cultures believe in burying the placenta — that picking an auspicious place will give the child meaning, will connect them to place. I spent hours postpartum reading about placental traditions and superstitions, and I finally told my husband that we had to bury it to give our daughter a home. 

“Isn’t our house her home?” he asked. I thought of the crib he assembled, the rocker he moved up the stairs to be near our bed, the outfits that were washed and waiting on tiny hangers, the walls we painted yellow for her nursery. 

I didn’t want her to feel like me, unsure of what home means. Home for immigrants is slippery. I know about making a home, but I also know how it feels to miss one. Home is more than a house. Home is land. Home is having a solid place to come back to. Home is something I still have trouble explaining.

I grew up in a place marked by transience. My hometown of Casper, Wyoming, sits on the Pony Express and the Oregon, California and Mormon trails. So many people passed through here on their way from one home to another, heading farther West. Those who stopped here and stayed for good must have felt like us: here by weird happenstance or happy accident. 

Those who stopped here and stayed for good must have felt like us: here by weird happenstance or happy accident. 

My family moved to Wyoming from Singapore when I was 10 months old. Wyoming is what I have always known; I took my first steps on Wyoming soil. And yet I have always felt othered, even though I am part of a long history of settlement, one that begins with the stolen homes of the Arapaho, Shoshone, Lakota and Crow. Every time I see or hear a land acknowledgment, all I can think about is all the homes that were lost. 

When I was in my early 30s, I lived in India for a year. For the first time in my life, I was not in the minority on a daily basis. In India, people commonly asked me, “Where is your home place?” I knew it was because I did not seem Indian: My attempts at Tamil were laughable, my clothes not right. 

“Wyoming. I am from Wyoming?” I would place Wyoming by its distance from better-known states. “Two states over from California?” Or I would just say “Yellowstone.” 

In the U.S., when people ask where I’m from, my answer — “Wyoming” — doesn’t satisfy them. “No, where are you really from?” They can’t imagine the West as home to someone who looks like me. 

MY MOM LOVES big-box stores because they are some of the only places you can buy big bags of rice. We don’t have an Indian or Asian grocery in Casper, and my mother laughs at the 32-ounce bags at the grocery store. Only in the membership stores can you find 20-pound burlap sacks of rice with images of the Taj Mahal stamped on them. 

At these stores, we see other Indians. I recognize their carts, overflowing with boxes of mangos, tins of butter cookies and rice. The one thing I love about being Indian in a rural place is that the usual divides fall away: In the West, we are too few to segregate ourselves by language, caste or geography. Instead, we all recognize kin. We all see home when we see others who look like us. And yet we are all strangers, all explorers in this place. 

When I think my placenta looks like a tree, I remember reading at a museum exhibit that trees recognize other trees of the same species in a process known as kin recognition. 

Trees know about belonging, so I finally decide to bury the placenta under one of them, a juniper tree I pass every time I walk my dog on the prairie outside Laramie. A tree that, despite unforgiving wind and little moisture, continues to thrive. At my first in vitro fertilization transfer, I kept a branch of it, laden with navy berries, in my pocket in my hospital room. Months later, I gave birth to my daughter, Juniper. 

I don’t know if burying my placenta next to the juniper tree will give my daughter a sense of home or place. But I plan to teach her the things that have made me know home: birdsong, the familiar profiles of mountains, seeing patterns in the stars so far away from city lights, the smell of ponderosa bark, the conversation of the wind. And the special kinship that forms in this sometimes unforgiving place, where only a few stop to stay.  

Nina McConigley is a writer and professor at Colorado State University. She is the author of Cowboys and East Indians. In her “Township and Range” column, she writes about the intersection of race and family in the interior rural West.

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