Things Even Big Money Cannot Buy

By Jheri St. James


Federated States of Micronesia

If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. Ursula K. Le Guin

The Federated States of Micronesia is an independent sovereign island nation consisting of four states from west to east—Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae—that are spread across the Western Pacific Ocean, comprising around 607 islands, a combined land area of approximately 271 sq. mi., just north of the equator. While this land area is quite small, it occupies more than 1,000,000 sq. mi. of the Pacific Ocean.

We here at Common Ground 191 have learned more than once that some soil collections take much more time to complete than others and than anticipated. And money won’t necessarily help either, in any amount.

The collection from the Federated States of Micronesia began in earnest in September of 2006, with Gary Simpson’s receipt of the volunteer form from the first person interested in joining the project for that country. However, it was not until July of 2009 that Garrett Johnson filled out the final volunteer form documenting the collection from the Yap State of Micronesia, writing, “very traditional sites: men’s house and stone trail.” Nearly three years.

Of course, as the project itself began in 2001 and has been active for 12 years so far (2014 at this writing), it has already gone way beyond what anyone projected in the beginning. So one country’s soil collection taking three years is just a small part of the whole. Kind of like Micronesia itself—many small bits making up a whole country.

In 2006, an anonymous embassy employee made the first attempt. Then came the red tape. We learned that land, ergo soil, is an extremely precious commodity and sensitive issue in this country. There are bureaucratic hoops through which to jump. One cannot just dig up some dirt, put it in a box, send it to Common Ground 191 and have an account of this activity show up on a web site. It would most likely cause serious political, social and cultural problems. And so 2006 came to a close with the empty box lingering in an embassy building.

(Aerial view of 70 of the Federal States of Micronesia below, www.fansshare.com)

Aerial View of 70 of the Federal States of Micronesia

“Tenacious” and “patient” are words that describe Gary Simpson, founder of this international project. After the fizzle in 2006, he began 2007 with email queries to potential sources, leading to referrals to others—uncooperative officials, unreachable military men. As it turned out, Pohnpeians were a bit touchy about their sacred island. The recommendation was soil collecting was best done by the government as they would know how to work with the traditional leaders.

Months passed while National Election Day came and went in the FSM, the biggest country-wide election, held once every four years. People did not want to get involved until some okay was given by some authority. A lengthy email discussion followed, asking, what does this collection of earth imply? How comprehensive does the collection need to be? Is it as easy as just going to my own land and collecting some Pohnpei earth? Who pays for shipment? How will the quarantine folks react? At the top of the list of worries was how Pohnpei, FSM leaders finding out about the earth sample much later could backfire on any collector and their organization for not being channeled properly.

Gary wrote a hard copy letter to the President of Micronesia in March, emails to the Assistant Secretary for Cultural Affairs, but at this time, the efforts to collect soil from FSM went cold for another year until August 2008 when an erstwhile collector wrote, confident that she could complete the collection, and from whom we never heard again. Would it ever be possible to succeed in our quest?

Wachaelaeb Stone Trail

(Wachaelaeb Stone Trail)

January 2009 brought an email from Karen who recommended Simon Ellis, a marine scientist who lived in Pohnpei. At this point, there was some overlap in communications regarding FSM and the Marshall Islands, where a young boy named Zac would arrive after sailing around the world alone. Then another email from Karen from the Big Island in Hawaii. These leads all fizzled out too.

At the end of July a website named Couchsurfer came into play when Kathleen Larsen wrote, “Gary, I’m about to leave the FSM, so I’m sorry that I will be unable to help you in the endeavor. I’ll ask around however and see if someone who is here another year might be able to help.” Another year?

No. Later in July, our hero Garrett Johnson submitted a volunteer form from Yap and subsequently wrote, “Yes, I can get some from some WWII sites around if you like and some from the Stone Money trails around here—that’s sort of Yap’s claim to fame--world’s largest currency. Do you want each soil sample in a separate bag or it can all go into the same container?” Yay!!

The plastic bag of soil from Maap, Yap, Micronesia

(The plastic bag of soil from Maap, Yap, Micronesia)

And so the story of the little plastic bag of dirt from the Federated States of Micronesia came to a happy ending, as the other 192 stories have done, some as simple as the bicycle rider who picked up soil in more than one country on his rides, and some as complicated as the anonymous helicopter pilot who gathered some dirt from Iraq during a military exercise.

Who would ever think that something as innocuous as soil would entail such a literary mystery trail? One thing is certain: no amount of money could ever have purchased this soil, or any of the soils in our collection. Not even Yap’s stone money (rai stones), large disks usually of calcite up to about 13 ft. in diameter, with a hole in the middle. The islanders do not necessarily move them when ownership changes. There are five major types: Mmbul, Gaw, Ray, Yar, and Reng, the last being only 12 in. in diameter. Their value is based on both size and history, many of them having been brought from other islands as far as New Guinea, but most coming in ancient times from Palau. Approximately 6,500 of them are scattered around the island.

As time passes and rising waters endanger island nations like Micronesia, people become more and more aware of the fragility of our Great Mother Earth. Many writers have begun to celebrate the literal holiness of soil, its distinction in the universe as the substance from which all life springs on our planet, a wealth beyond price. No wonder Micronesians are reluctant to part with their soil; it’s in danger of being drowned!

Many thanks to Garrett Johnson for his participation, which brings this story to a joyful conclusion.

Traditional Men's House in Maap, Yap, Micronesia

(Traditional Men's House in Maap, Yap, Micronesia)

Micronesian Money

(Micronesian Money)


“I'm a dirt person. I trust the dirt. I don't trust diamonds and gold.”
Eartha Kitt, Singer







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