Spitting into Ecology

It turns out it is quite hard to spit. At least for me, I am not a big spitter. I find it unappealing. It was never something I did, or really could do. Other kids could huck a gob of spit a few meters with great accuracy. Not me, it just kind of sprayed everywhere. Maybe my mouth runs dry compared with spitters. So I still have to work at it. I work up a gob in my mouth, sucking from my cheeks and the back of my mouth until there is enough to dribble out. Then I start again. Suck from the back and sides and dribble out.

This last week I have been taking up learning this skill that I never had. I am spitting into my baking. Every couple of days when I wake up, after putting espresso pot on the stove, I take off the cloth covering the sourdough starter and I attempt to spit. I am adding to the community. After I spit, I add in a small handful of flour and water and give it a slow careful stir. I watch the bubbles rise, stretch and burst as I mix. I sense how it is doing by smelling, feeling and watching this community. Most days this small ecosystem-in-a-bowl is doing just fine, some days the water has separated or the top has dried out. Other than the regular feeding, stirring and the occasional transferring it to a fresh bowl there is little else that I do. After feeding I cover it with the cloth and set it back on the far end of the kitchen counter. It is a living marker of the aliveness of my immediate environment. By then the coffee is nearly done. I slice some bread that I baked the day before. Dense with bubbles I bring it up to my nose. I can still smell the musky aroma of the once living fungi and bacteria world. I split the slice in two and take a bit. Spit returning to spit. Digestion to digestion. It is a daily ritual of joining and working with my extended biome. I am feeling and acting across an ecosystem that I have only a vague sense of its entangled vastness.

I started envisioning this experiment about a month ago. While I haven’t been eating bread that much in the last year, I have been fermenting in other ways: meats, wines, ciders, meads, and all sorts of foraged plants get pickled. When the Dandelions came out about a month ago I was on my hands and knees all around the neighborhood yards and margins gathering. Now its occasional bubbling through the airlocks on the large glass carboys that are their temporary homes accompanies the quiet of the day. When I see the a Deer killed on the side of the road while biking to work I feel happy knowing the sausage fermentation will begin again. The progress of the year is measured in what plants are emerging in quantity and how best to keep them for later — the larder is our calendar. Spring being a progression of ferments: Wild garlic, Dandelion, Knotweed, Garlic Mustard, Elderberry Flowers, Pokeweed, Burdock and on into summer.

For a while now I have been wondering how I might engage with the thriving ecosystem that is our apartment in a more dependent manner — basically in a way that would help me take a more active and knowing role in how dependent (in the very best sense of the word) I am on this immediate ecosystem. This comes out of the general sense that too much of our lives, and too much of the classical discourse of nature, is centered on freedom, independence, and self reliance, it is time we promoted dependency — how all life is in complex mutually beneficial intra-dependencies (a big goal of the Eat Your Sidewalk Cookbook is developing new recipes for intra-dependencies starting with urban foraging).

Back to the apartment: In terms of ecology our apartment is quite alive with a great biodiversity of bacteria, fungi, insects, spiders, plants, and animals. All of our apartments and houses are a veritable zoo — an invisible park. No need to go any further to experience biodiversity. As I type I am breathing out creatures into the room and with the windows open on this rainy morning the apartment is also breathing in and out a vast multitude of creatures. That smell of fresh rain is bacteria being kicked up into the air and drifting in on the breeze. A massive complex ecosystem is afoot and on the move — one that has been co-evolving with us from long before we were humans. Our cat, Blacktop, hops onto my lap with muddy paws as I type this paragraph, and then plops down beside me: an ecosystem unpacks itself out of his soil-laced paw prints and slowly becomes airborne as the mud turns to dust while he naps the day away.

Sadly these wonderful interior ecosystems are vastly under appreciated and have been historically rarely studied by ecologists. Puzzlingly, far too much of our scientific community has historically imagined that nature is elsewhere (as of 2012 the NSF had only funded one study of microbes in interior ecosystems). They are not alone in hewing to a dividing line between the human world (culture) and the rest of the world (nature) — many of our environmental and lay communities also imagine that “nature” begins “outside”. Not being facetious, but it is hard to know where that “outside” might actually begin (more on this later). The Biology and the Built Environment Center at the University of Oregon is one of a handful of places actively developing an ecology from within a more entangled paradigm. Being blunt for a moment, in the age of the anthropocene it is no longer useful to imagine that the environment only begins elsewhere, or is everything but us. That worldview (Nature+Culture) played a big role in getting us into the troubles we now face.

As part of the research team at SPURSE I have participated in swabbing, sampling and identify the flora and fauna of many an interior ecosystem. We have built various laboratories to speculate with our vast hugely biodiverse symbiotic and co-evolving interior wildernesses. In 2006 we did a complete survey of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. A small team of us went from the roof to the sub basements mapping out the complex ecology of this highly dynamic and richly biodiverse ecosystem. We found art patrons at all scales. The research discoveries of that project led us to make a mobile lab for the study of interior ecosystems that has crisscrossed North America.

But none of this work was affecting how I shaped the routines of my everyday life. That world of interior ecosystem research is scattered in labs, books and storage units. And my daily life when on as it had before, just with a more appreciative outlook. The question of how we actively negotiate, in the most mundane of everyday moments, with other species got my mind wandering to other fermentation processes in our interior ecosystems that might be more hands-on and in need daily engagement. This led sourdough bread tending and making as a way to evolve my active dependency on my immediate ecosystem. A quick aside: “Sourdough,” is really less of a particular style of bread than simply what bread was until yeast could be singled out and brought into the industrial workforce like so many of us other species. All leavened bread for all of human history was “sourdough.” The word “sour” comes from an ancient Proto-Indo-European word “soru” meaning cheese. A word that can now be found in words for cheese, fermentation, moist, raw, tart, and acidic across europe and parts of asia. This world of moist, fermenting acidic sourness growing and living in and of and from my immediate environment is what excited my interest. Here was a way of letting my immediate surroundings collaborate with me in my daily life.

The ecosystem of fungi and bacteria that give rise to breads are part of the same moist warm world of alcohols and much of life. The process of ecosystem shaping needed for the sour to form is simple: mix ground whole grain organic flour with water and let it sit out (you need organic flour with a sell-buy date as most flours today are filled with preservatives to break the symbiosis between fungi and grains). The consistency of the slurry should be somewhere between a smoothie and a thick pancake batter. There are fungi and bacteria everywhere: on the grain, in the air, on our hands, in the water. Leave these critters for a while with a good food source and they develop a beautiful intense slowly bubbling ecosystem. Once you have a nice ecosystem evolving with you, here is a simple recipe for bread:

 Amaranth Bread
 My basic recipe is quite approximate, as is ideal when working with a dynamic living system. There are many recipes online, take a look and improvise on the theme of sourdough. One of the glories of being a home cook is that the absurd restaurant law of consistency can be happily ignored in favor of experimentation and learning with the ecosystem. Each time I shift things around responding to the environment and what is at hand. The last batch I made was with Amaranth Flour. Amaranth is more commonly known as Pigweed. It is a lover of disturbed soils with the wonderful evolutionary power of being Roundup resistant, making it one big mischievous force in Monsanto shaped ecologies. It is a global citizen, much beloved the world over despite the attention given to it by the Monsanto PR team. Eat the roots, shoots, leaves and seeds. Here in North America it is famous for being a critical plant in the Nahua peoples ecosystems (Aztec). Back to the recipe: Mix half a cup of starter with a cup of warm non-chlorinated water (filtered or rain is good). Stir in a teaspoon of salt, add one & three quarter cups of amaranth flour and three quarters of a cup of wheat. When mixed, it should just hold together in a nice ball. Let rise for an hour or so. Knead for a couple of minutes. Let rise again for an hour or so. Pay attention to how well it rising and keep its world warm. Heat up a closed cast iron dutch oven at 500 for a half hour. Knead dough into ball, score, place on parchment paper. Let rise a bit. Put in dutch oven for 35 minutes with lid on. Bake for an additional five-ten minutes with lid off if you feel you must. Let cool. Cut and Eat. Remember to tend to the starter ecosystem. Try serving with some pickled amaranth shoots (just coming up in the North East).

Fermentations is an astonishing way of living that is integral to the lives of all living things. Much of the Eat Your Sidewalk cookbook concerns fermentation in one way or another. The first and last recipes in the book are fermentations of the most delicious and surprising nature: the first, Fermented Walrus (which is eaten frozen and pop like rock candy in your mouth), and the last, Fermented Deer (a simple cured and dried “ham” to rival in its own way any Jamón Ibérico de Bellota). Early in the cookbook we introduce fermentation with our recipe for Dandelion Wine which begins this way:

 In restaurant kitchens one of the classical test given to young would-be-chefs is to cook an omelet or scramble an egg perfectly. We would love to shift this test to: ferment something.
 Perhaps the only goal of a cookbook is to make us rethink the status of all the things we are and eat. Fermentation can teach us much in this respect. This test will make entirely different kinds of cooks from those who prove themselves in kitchens with eggs and pans. To ferment well is to embrace that we are not at the center of cooking or eating. To ferment is to embrace that every time things will be unique. The practice of fermenting is to hear infinite other creatures speak, to listen and to respond with grace. (The full recipe is here).

I’d love to see that kitchen test in action. Imagine the Culinary Institute of America teaching as a part of “cooking basics” the art of collaborating with living systems: before you even get taught to hold a knife or are allowed to enter a classroom you are working outside to forage and ferment…

To be fair fermentation is being rediscovered in wonderful ways by many well known chefs. When we visited Noma and Rene Redzepi was showing us around, he was very proud of all of their experiments in fermentation (which took up a construction trailer on the dock behind the restaurant). We discussed our shared love of using the fermented contents of wild animals stomachs and particularly how good the lightly fermented willow tips were in Ptarmigan crops (throat pouches).

Back to my drooling and spitting. I know there is no real need to be spitting in my starter: The fungi and bacteria that are my body are pushed out into the environment as I move and breath. The air of our rooms is packed full of us. To be in a room is to recompose the air environment as an extension of the self. As we move and breath fungi enter us and land on our bodies. Our bodies are housing diverse patches of distinct flora and fauna depending on the prevailing conditions. The moist and damp areas being quite different from the arid or exposed. But the air filled with my microbes is not something I can really sense, see or feel. Spitting, on the other hand, is really visceral. Disgustingly so. If I tell you that I spat in your food, things are not going to go so well with the rest of the meal. Frankly, for most of us, not much could be worse. I don’t even tell anyone about my spitting experiment. It’s just wrong. But why is it wrong? Why do I, even knowing it is intellectually ok, still feel repulsed?

This is the thing about values and basic ways of knowing — they are as much lived, or more so, than they are abstract ideas. Dirty and clean, proper and improper, inside and outside, human and non-human, nature and culture — these are first and foremost embodied sensibilities. Our entire premise for writing a cookbook was that our most basic ideas came from our societies embodied habits (this is why we could not write a work of environmental philosophy, or philosophical anthropology or a history of alternative foodways — it needed to be a cookbook).

Thinking emerges from doing. Evan Thompson says it this way “Living is sense making under precarious conditions.” As distinct cultures we don’t all sense and make sense of things in the same manner. There are historical and cultural regimes of sense making.  So, I get that I am an extended multi-species biome, there is no need to argue or convince myself of the intellectual part. The argument is, I feel, for the most part beside the point. What matters is that I don’t live in a way where this concept has any sensible impact on a daily basis. And I would argue that this matters — I (we) need to feel and sense differently if there is to be a real shift towards a new regime of sensibility. Intellectual change (politics) is ultimately about postures, gestures, movements, actions, routines and habits — it is about aesthetic habits. Spitting is part of an embodied reconfiguring exercise in retraining the orientation of my visceral compass.

What am I reconfiguring? These days I think of it this way: I have decided I am no longer going outside.  Nor for that matter “inside”. This will sound comical, farcical even, but spitting into my bread starter is part of me trying to stop myself from going outside as an ecological practice.

With this modest practice of daily spitting I am developing a visceral sensibility to shift my worldview from seeing bacteria and fungi as being simply “in” and “on” me (as if they were something “extra” that is sometimes good and sometimes bad for me). I want to unconsciously live from this sensibility: The fungi and bacteria are me, as much as my lungs and toes are me. The I that is “I” is this entangled system. There is no inside or outside here — or at least not in the sense we normally think of these terms with clear boundaries. Everywhere we turn is a web of relations. No point is not this web of fields and forces. It is a web of ever evolving mutual interdependencies.

My practice is a personal one of learning to sense, respond and eventually think the world relationally through developing new daily habits. I want to co-evolve a way of sensing that gently configures otherwise than Nature+Culture, Inside+Outside, Thing+Nothing, Dirty+Clean.

The classical call is always to get out. Get out and smell the roses. Get out into nature. Get out into the real world. Thoreau and Muir set out on heroic spiritual journeys into wilderness. But could we re-orient to a seeing ourselves as “being-of-a-relation”, and seeing the self as a many — as a “multi-species commons” beginning right where we are? And just as importantly can we collectively develop the practices to embody this in our daily lives in a transformative manner?

Please share with us your recipes and suggestions to re-orient our visceral compasses.

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In the end it my spitting is not such a big deal. The bread gets baked. The microbial world dies and with it my “germs.” No one but me is really eating any bread in our household. It is only the smallest of change in things, certainly nothing radical in some Andrew Zimmer macho food world, or in a large political sense. Still in the kitchen silently bubbling away is a beautiful ecosystem that I am dependent upon and co-shaping as it also co-shapes me. It smells ripe and full as I pause, lift up the cloth and gob in what little spit I can muster. (Iain Kerr, Spring 2017)