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.