Archives for the month of: December, 2020
Happy New Year

Symbiosis, we now begin to realize, is more common in the living world than we ever imagined, fundamental even. Symbiosis, defined as the living together of two or more more dissimilar organisms, in more or less intimate association, in either of three kind of relationships.  One is where both species benefit from the relationship (mutualistic), two, where one benefits and the other does not benefit nor is harmed (commensalistic), or  three where one benefits and the other is harmed (parasitic). Each organism engaged in either form in such relationship is termed a symbiont.

And no, the title is not a typo. 

Humans are symbionts. We could not survive if not for the microbial gut community we host. We are co-dependent, we need to nurture and nourish our microbiome to stay healthy. We, whatever we are, are the protagonist in the play. And that is when it becomes interesting. We, with our assured selves, often ignore the importance of this mutualistic relationship, what can go wrong anyway, we are hosting, they should be happy to have a home. We think.

As we can read in the wikipedia entry, “the Klyntar are a fictional species of extraterrestrial symbiotes”…most well known in association with Spider-Man. It further reads “ The symbiotes form a symbiotic bond with their hosts, through which a single entity is created, They also are able to slightly alter their hosts’ personalities, and/or memories by influencing their darkest desires and wants, along with amplifying their physical and emotional traits and personally granting them super-human abilities”.

Although they originated in a dark past, their malevolent leader Knull was defeated on Earth by Thor, and subsequently the symbiotes began to explore notions of honor and nobility as they bonded to benevolent hosts and desired to spread and maintain peace throughout the Cosmos. “However, these altruistic goals were imperfect, as the Klyntar symbiotes could be corrupted by hosts with harmful chemical imbalances or problematic personality attributes, turning them into destructive parasites who would spread lies and disinformation about their own kind in order to make other people fear and hate the Klyntar species as a whole.” *

A symbiote of sorts, maybe they are among us, maybe they form at very different space-time scales unable to detect by our sensors and senses.

When fiction meets facts; it sounds eerily real, a hypothesis of sorts to explore the role of our microbiome. The gut-brain axis is something we have come across, the complex bidirectional crosstalk between gut and brain, it not only assures the proper maintenance of our gastrointestinal homeostasis, but is likely to have “multiple effects on affect, motivation, and higher cognitive functions.

 And is extraterrestrial life a possibility? Research in astrobiology* * certainly entertains this possibility as it seeks to understand the origin of life, the steps that led inanimate materials, such as rocks and water to come together and build living organisms, and why should it only have happened on our planet? And “is it possible, likely even, that life exists elsewhere based on elements other than carbon and a system different than DNA? Could such life even exist here on Earth, but is as yet undetected?

Whatever the reality of the symbiotes may be, the description of their ability to influence lies, misinformation, the fear of and desire to destruct microbial ‘enemies’ sounds awfully like our current reality. Benevolent hosts is what we need. 

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Symbiote_(comics)

** https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4367209/pdf/AnnGastroenterol-28-203.pdf 

*** https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/about/ 

Despite the turbulence we’ve experienced during the year that is ending, it is comforting that our Earth keeps spinning and moving as always. Happy solstice. 

“A herder is a worker who lives a pastoralist life gathering and caring for a herd of domesticated livestocks…herders move with livestock wandering around open wild pastures in a nomadic/semi-nomadic fashion.” It sounds simple enough, people have lived this kind of lifestyle for a long time, but these days it is rare and considered romantic. Since my first dip into herding I’ve leaned that it is not so simple and the more I learn, the more it becomes a philosophy.  It is guidance with a purpose, I want something from those animals, milk or meat, the animals are raised in some form of dependency. In my case, I have been semi-nomadic, moving between lower and higher elevations on the mountain. 

Following the animals, the animals follow me. The goats select their food, I observe them. Sometimes they are indecisive, I guide them. Our relationship grows over time, as I get to know them better, as a herd, as individuals. It is an interesting exchange of affection and knowledge between species and specimens. It is this interdependency that I really enjoy, of taking the lead, and being led, oscillating, and I imagine, this symbiotic exchange happening all around me, continuously. Yes it is something we associate with other species,  but why not our own?

To be continued….

But as a prelude, please read my essay at: POLAR-IZATION (artez.nl)

A short, much needed, farm-life break to visit friends and family, also gave me a chance to visit the exhibition Trembling Landscapes, Between Reality and Fiction, at Eye film museum in Amsterdam. Under this title, the exhibition shows the work of “Eleven Artists from the Middle East” who work with film and video to engage in relationship with the land, as a source of identity, history, tradition, territory and imagination. Very different stories, depending on the history of the artists themselves, where they come from,  but also the approach they have taken. A region known for violent conflict, it is refreshing to watch these works, while stemming from these conflicts present a more complex, humanistic side of the story. 

The Middle East, a colonial term, land between the Near and far East, if taking the perspective of the, Eurocentric West. Mesopotamia, the Fertile Crescent, fertile lands between the Euphrates and the Tigris, the cradle of civilization. The Levant, Al-Mashriq, there where the sun rises. Older names that color the region in a different light. It is also what these artists do. 

Eye Film Museum:

https://www.eyefilm.nl/tentoonstelling/trembling-landscapes ; open until January 3, 2021

photo of current exhibition: work by Jananne Al-Ani  – Shadow Sites –
photo of current exhibition: work by Ali  Cherri – Trembling Landscapes
photo of current exhibition: work by Larissa Sansour – Nation Estate

It is getting cold, the first frost is here. Still enjoying the vegetables that my farm mates are harvesting. Soon Brussels sprouts will come from the fields, a bit of frost only makes them taste better. 

Besides some of my cheesemaking duties, this weekend I also participate in an online conference of the biosemiotic society, an interdisciplinary field of research that for long has helped me frame my thoughts. Especially for exploring why and how humans relate to the land in such different ways. I am inspired by indigenous ways of thinking, and their and other land based knowledge systems. Languages of the land, grounded in experience of the sensory world; not just humans, but all organisms communicate in incredible ways. All of us, sensing and experiencing, making meaning of the world in different but overlapping ways. Awareness of these communications and of  physical phenomena in our ecosystem is how we can connect. What has always struck me as strange though, is that as an academic I have to study experience as if I am just a thinking vat instead of a sensing organism making meaning of my surrounding. 

It is because humans are thought to be unique, because we are not just signaling and responding, we have language, the only species known to use symbols and capable of abstract thought . But does that mean we don’t have connect to the physical world, to our supporting ecosystems? Reasoning superior, Sensing subordinate, has for long been the ideal of the modern world. 

Through learning about the richness of land-based knowledge and the ideas behind biosemiotics I now am convinced that the sensory connection to the physical (natural) environment is the foundation of knowledge. Embodied knowledge, not just the mind is important. 

The biosemiotic conference is where I would like to share these ideas and my experiences, now online of course, communicated electronically. But then… the more papers I hear, the more uncomfortable I become. I am familiar with the terms and concepts, but everything is sooo…. abstract. It is like being trapped in Plato’s cave.The allegory of the cave, in which a group of people are chained in a cave, in front of a blank wall. Their reality exists of shadows on the wall,  casted objects moving along a fire in front of the cave. Some prisoners don’t want to escape, it is the only reality they know.  I feel I have entered such a -symbolic- world. People discussing models of experience. As if real-world examples are only selected to support theoretical models, instead of being intended to help us understand our physical surroundings.  I want to escape.  Have I strayed so far from my academic background, or is academia more and more turning on to itself to avert real life’s complexities?

My current lifestyle is a bit unusual, I know, driven by aha moments and flashes of dissatisfaction, an unbeaten path which I have no idea whether it will lead me to something meaningful or if I willI hit a proverbial wall to bang my head. It is my dilemma. To be immersed, to be in between. To find a balance. Maybe best to give an example of my current situation.

When I started out on my current farm, I was milking goats, by hand, and took them out for their daily foraging trips along the forest rim. Eating lots of acorns when the days were getting shorter, changing the taste and consistency of the milk they were giving. It was a pleasure to be involved in the cheesemaking process, knowing that the goats enjoyed their outings as much as I did, noticing that besides acorns, goats are very selective in their dietary choices along the way. They know what they like, what is good for them and their kids.

My herding life has not been long enough to notice recurring patterns, of herd movement, of herd relationships, but the closeness the land, the animal, the cheese and me, can be felt immediately.  I don’t have specific words for seasonal variants of milk, supporting different bacteria that turn milk into distinct flavors. The cows spent their summer on the pasture of mixed herbs, come winter they stay in the barn, but mostly still enjoying dried grasses that my farm mates have culled from the fields during summer.

Winter milk. The farm is growing, the milk of the cows is no longer enough to support the member base, and milk is sourced from elsewhere, organic, of course. My colleagues and I have to process this milk as fast as we can, usually on the weekend. Although the milk looks the same, something is changing for me: I have never seen the cows. Understanding the quality of their milk is no longer related to my interaction with the animals, but comes to us as laboratory results, fat and protein content, and absence or presence of pathogens. A reduction of the complexity of the relationship between the animal, the land, and us. to a chemical analysis. Slowly it seems the firm ground under foot is dissolving, is it temporary I ask myself? Or are we getting used to changing expressions of our relationship to the food we are producing, protein and fat, and packets of bacterial mixes representing different flavor profiles. My memory of complex ecological relationship reduced to bio analytics and chemical expressions.  I long for the acorn-infused milk, milked in my small bucket. The goats that make me smile, intelligent creatures, to whom I can relate in meaningful ways. 

The industry is well aware. About twenty years ago, a EU project was already conducted to isolate starter bacteria of natural fermentation of the cheese made by Southern European farmers, who are known for their unique taste of their cheeses. The major objective of this project, was to “isolate and preserve strains of lactic acid bacteria from these natural fermentations for possible use as industrial cultures.” Since that time, I have met some farmers in Italy, who were no longer able to make and sell cheese to local markets, because of rules and regulations that require cheesemakers to invest in equipment in order to comply with EU hygiene and production standards. First approached for handing over their knowledge, then robbed of their way of life, it is a form of aggression that happens over and over in human history.. 

It is a mystery to me. How we pay tribute and regurgitate the work of scholars who have gone before us, lauded in scientific conferences and papers, to safeguard this scientific knowledge, but we have no qualms squandering knowledge of time-honored traditions that should be kept alive, not only in support of cultural traditions, but also for the benefit to us all, to give meaning to our relationships.

To be fair, I did learn a new word this weekend: semiocide, a concept that is maybe best described as the destruction of meaning (for instance as in disappearing languages, meaning making systems). It saved my belief in the integrity of the biosemiotic community and the possibility to take collective action.