[permaculture] My Microbes, Therefore I Am: Fermentation, Health, and Human Identity - A Sensing of Place

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My Microbes, Therefore I Am: Fermentation, Health, and Human
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02/08/2014

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 *My Microbes, Therefore I Am: Fermentation, Health, and Human Identity*

*Do I contradict myself? *
*Very well then I contradict myself, *
 *(I am large, I contain multitudes.)*
* -Walt Whitman, Song of Myself*

*My microbes, therefore I am. *
* - Satish Kumar*

I’ve recently developed an obsession with the diverse and time-tested food
tradition of fermentation. Jars of kimchi and sauerkraut, kefir and
kombucha, are regulars on my kitchen shelf, quietly teeming with life and
effervescence. Little did I know, when I first chopped and salted cabbage,
pounded it until my knuckles were pink, and left it to it’s own mysterious
processes, that this simple act would take me on a journey through time and
space, from the emergence of cellular life on earth 3.5 billion years ago,
to the complex nature of human identity, to the inner workings of my own
gut.
------------------------------
Kefir grains
Allow me to introduce fermentation properly, personally, through one of my
newer acquaintances: kefir. A fermented dairy drink known as “the champagne
of the Caucasus Mountains” (Margulis and Sagan, 70), kefir is thought to
have originated amongst nomadic shepherds who inoculated cow, goat or sheep
milk with kefir grains, over time selecting for the best starters and
thereby propagating certain microbial individuals and eliminating others.
Kefir grains form from a symbiotic community of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY)
which share nutrients and coordinate reproduction. While some of the
microbial members of this community have been identified, the synergistic
effect of their relationships has so far defied replication in the
laboratory. In the words of biologist Lynn Margulis, “Kefir can no more be
made by the ‘right mix’ of chemicals or microbes than can oak trees or
elephants.” (Margulis and Sagan, 74)

The grains look a bit like troll boogers. They form white, rubbery, pea- to
walnut-size clusters which grow and reproduce quickly when fed and kept at
the right temperature. I’ve learned that the fermentation happens more
rapidly if the milk is stirred at least once a day, exposing more liquid to
kefir grain surfaces, where metabolic activity is highest. The pace of the
fermentation process has worked its way into the rhythm of my days; how
long it ferments strongly influences its consistency, effervescence, and
sourness, down to the hour.

It’s inevitable to begin regarding these strange little blobs as animate
organisms. I admit to developing an affection for them. When I went away
for Christmas, I left them in the fridge without milk to slow down their
metabolism, and asked a friend to feed them every few days to keep them
alive. She forgot, and I returned to find a sad, yellowing lump of grains.
I assumed they were “dead”, their microbial composition irreversibly
changed, no longer the coherent system that I had come to know and care
for. But, just in case, I picked out a few whiter, plumper clusters beneath
the exposed surface and transferred them to a jar of fresh milk. Within a
few days, they had doubled in size, and the milk had soured and fizzed
promisingly. I sipped it with caution, trusting my nose and tongue to know
the difference between kefir and milk-gone-off. Joyously, the kefir grains
had persisted, resilient little buggers. We’re back in business.

Next to “What is that?”, the most common questions I get while preparing
kefir is, “Why should I drink it?” At first, I cobbled together a vague
adaptation of the sales pitch for yogurt, saying something about
“probiotics.” But what is fermentation, really? And what does it have to do
with the human body?

It turns out, we humans are vast, complex collections of bacteria — host to
ten times more microbes than human cells. The plural nature of self is an
ancient poetic truth, now increasingly affirmed by scientific inquiry. “Do
I contradict myself?” Walt Whitman asks in *Song of Myself*, “Very well
then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Not only do
we “contain” approximately 100 trillion bacteria; emerging theory suggests
we evolved in symbiotic relationship with them. Early life forms,
single-celled bacteria, gradually incorporated each other to form more
complex collectives, from which the processes fundamental to our existence
— such as photosynthesis, respiration, nitrogen fixation,  sensing, even
movement — developed. Various ideas about how exactly this process happened
bring forth many more questions than definitive answers. What is clear,
however, is that the infinitely diverse, self-willed, highly networked and
adaptive natures of bacteria are inextricably linked with our experience.
Our story *is *their story. In this tale of symbiogenesis, “the merging of
individuals into new collectives,” (Margulis and Sagan, 31) we are linked
by what ecologist Stephan Harding calls a “continuous thread” running “from
us right back to our earliest bacterial ancestors.” (159)

Like Michael Pollan<http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/magazine/say-hello-to-the-100-trillion-bacteria-that-make-up-your-microbiome.html?pagewanted=all>,
I’ve begun conceiving of myself “in the first-person plural”. This happened
gradually, over many months of engaging in practices - fermentation among
them - that bring me into direct contact with the more-than-human world.
Increasingly, I find myself feeling less like an outside observer of nature
and more like a participant. The membranes that define “me” are, at all
scales, semi-permeable; my body is a community of bodies, all sensing and
responding to their environments, taking in and transforming energy, and
communicating. This concept of “self” Dorion Sagan and Lynn Margulis refer
to as *chimera*. “Humans are one kind of self,” they write, “but we are
composed of smaller selves, and we form parts of the more inclusive
selves.” (Margulis and Sagan, 28)

Emerging research suggests that what goes on in our gut may have much more
to do with our sense of self than was previously assumed. Food pyramids and
diet fads are fed to us constantly, as if simply ingesting the proper
ratios of protein and carbohydrates is the key to good health. But it’s
much more complex than that. For instance, the vegetables we eat — viewed
as a panacea to many Western diseases — tend to have much lower nutrient
content than their botanical ancestors. Our physiological state while
eating also has an effect; high levels of chronic stress and a sedentary
lifestyle can cause systemic inflammation and interfere with organ
function. Preparing a meal ourselves whets our appetite, priming the body
for digestion; purchased meals rob us of the metabolically important
experience of anticipation. And of course, not all carrots are created
equal, as the organic food movement has highlighted. As Wendell Berry
famously said, “Eating is an agricultural act,” linking us culturally and
physiologically to the context in which our food is grown.

Eating is microbial act, as well. Just as a good gardener attends not
merely to the health of individual plants, but to the health of the soil,
we can eat in ways that support our microbial ecology. I’m not implying
that it is possible to fully control the complexity that is a soil or an
intestine — it isn’t. But by regarding health “as a collective property of
the human-associated microbiota,” (Robinson et. al, 2010) perhaps we can
begin to ask questions that humble us, and help us align our food choices
with the diversity and resilience of the internal ecosystem upon which we
depend.
------------------------------
Kimchi and kefir, Schumacher College kitchen
These questions led me to fermentation. Fermentation refers to a process of
anaerobic metabolism which, in the context of foods that we eat, creates
the conditions for bacteria and enzymes to pre-digest food (and in doing so
release by-products such as alcohol, lactic acid, or carbon dioxide, that
change the quality of the substance in a way that pleases our palates).
These bacteria have remarkable ways of self-organizing to inhibit the
growth of undesirable bacteria. For them, this keeps their environment
hospitable and their communities intact. For us, this can extend the “shelf
life” of our food, make nutrients more available to our bodies — and
diversify and refine our cuisines!

In a few years of experimenting, I have found fermentation to be a fun,
easy, and empowering way to enrich my relationship with the food that I
eat. Meanwhile, my microbiome is nourished by the live bacteria,
particularly *befidobacteria* and *Lactobacillus plantarum*, which are
believed to directly benefit the digestive tract, the immune system, and
even the mind. In a society where food has become extremely sterile, we’ve
lost a connection to it as something alive — and the perceptual and
practical skills to properly nourish ourselves. Making kefir requires me to
attend to a dynamic process on a daily basis, as do other fermented foods
like sourdough or sauerkraut. Sauerkraut, for example, is perfectly edible
for an extended period of time, but during that time, it’s quality can
change significantly, going from being quite crunchy and mild to a bit
softer, with a stronger, tangy flavor (at which point it’s wonderful served
with raisins!). While learning to make sourdough bread, I sought advice
from experienced sourdough baker when one of my attempted loaves did not
rise. “Why?” I asked him. He gave me no straightforward answers, instead
inquiring about the temperature, timing, salt content, and so on, thinking
out loud about myriad factors that could have affected the sticky, sloppy
dough still sitting limply in its tin.

Industrial-scale food processing and refrigeration have incubated a
perception of food that is fixed, static, standardized, and impersonal.
Fermentation as a home practice engages our capacity to observe and
interact with the nuance of living processes.

To me, this practice is as much political as it is practical and
philosophical. It is tool for cultivating a more participatory role in my
own livelihood, in the community I grow, cook, and eat with, and,
consequently, in the larger food system. As Sandor Katz writes in The Art
of Fermentation, “Reclaiming our food and our participation in cultivation
is a means of cultural revival, taking action to break out of the confining
and infantilizing dependency of the role of the consumer (user), and taking
back our dignity and power by becoming producers and creators.” (Xix)

We’ve inherited a long legacy of culinary artistry and an even longer
legacy of microbial innovation. What do we do with such an immense, refined
gift? How do we give thanks, and keep that gift in motion? Cultural critic
Lewis Hyde describes gratitude as an active labor, a living-up-to the gift
in order to pass it on in an authentic and generative way. What will we
offer to the microbial ancestors still living in us and keeping us alive
today — and to the microbiomes, food traditions, and identities of our
children?
------------------------------
Resources:

Berry, Wendell. 1990. What Are People For? Essays by Wendell Berry. San
Fransisco: North Point Press.

Brown, Cynthia Stokes. 2007. Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present.
New York: The New Press.

Farnworth, Edward R. “Kefir: A complex probiotic.” Food Science and
Technology Bulletin: Functional Foods 2 (1) 1–17 DOI:
10.1616/1476-2137.13938. Published 4 April 2005. Accessed January 14, 2014.

“Food Failures: How to Spoil Your Food and Eat It, Too.” (2014) Science
Friday, NPR. Accessed January 10. 2014.
http://www.sciencefriday.com/segment/01/10/2014/food-failures-how-to-spoil-your-food-and-eat-it-too.html

Harding, Stephan. 2006. Animate Earth. Vermont: Chelsea Green.

Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property.

Katz, Sandor Ellix. 2012. The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration
of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World. Vermont: Chelsea
Green.

Lozupone, Catherine A., Jesse I Stombaugh, Jeffrey I Gordon, Janet K.
Jansson and Rob Knight. “Diversity, stability and resilience of the human
gut microbiota.” 2012 Nature 489: September 13: Accessed Jan 17, 2014.
doi:10.1038/nature11550

Margulis, Lynn and Dorion Sagan. 2007. Dazzle Gradually. Vermont, USA:
Chelsea Green.

Pollan, Michael. “Some of My Best Friends Are Germs.” New York Times, May
15, 2013, accessed January 20, 2014.

Robinson, Courtney J., Brendan J.M. Bohannan, and Vincent B. Young. 2010.
“From Structure to Function: the Ecology of Host-Associated Microbial
Communities.” Microbial Mol Biol Rev. September; 74(3): 453-476. Accessed
January 28, 2014. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2937523/

Robinson, Jo. “Breeding the Nutrition Out of Our Food.” New York Times, May
25, 2013, accessed January 14, 2014.

Stein, Rob. “Gut Bacteria Might Guide the Workings of our Minds.” NPR. Nov.
18, 2013. Accessed January 3, 2014

Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself. Accessed online January 10, 2014. Poetry
Foundation. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174745


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