A few days ago, I was eating a roasted vegetable, pesto, and melted cheese sandwich in the school cafeteria when I overhead just enough of a conversation between my colleagues to become intrigued. “What is the meaning of life?” the historian said. The biologist replied, “What is life?” and then they both laughed.
I’ve been thinking about that second question. I learned this summer that a host of microorganisms calls my body home. I guess I’ve heard that before; I suspect in some long ago science class I looked at a drop of saliva under a microscope and saw tiny things scurrying around, but this summer when I read an article about the The National Institute of Health’s Human Microbiome Project, I was hooked. The NIH is working “to characterize the microbial communities found at several different sites on the human body, including nasal passages, oral cavities, skin, gastrointestinal tract, and urogenital tract, and to analyze the role of the microbes in human health and disease.” It’s the human genome project all over again, with a vastly expanded notion of “human.”
Some of the things I’ve read suggest we might have several pounds worth of these creatures eating lunch, going to work, sleeping, making love, and raising families, all snug inside the cozy planet previously known as “Me.”
Is it hubris to get excited about the idea that colonies of microorganisms call my body home?
I remember reading an article years ago about the giant sequoias in California. The author had climbed into the uppermost branches with a group of botanists and wrote about the entire ecosystem she encountered. If I’m remembering right, a distinct species of huckleberry flourishes in the canopy. I remember being amazed as I read that a mini-world hides above the world we know. I imagined how it would feel to be a bush whose roots sway in the California breeze. I like to think that to a root-bound creature it might feel like being part cloud.
I can’t really explain why I find these stories of mini-ecosystems so fascinating. Somehow the idea that bushes grow in trees or that microorganisms in my body are working beyond reach of my consciousness to keep me alive is oddly comforting.
Let’s be clear: I’ve never liked the idea of things crawling on me. When I was eight or nine, I used to tag along with a girl named Betsy as she delivered newspapers on Sunday mornings. I remember standing in her driveway, stuffing ads into the paper, and loading them into a big canvas Pittsburgh Press bag. At one point, while the rest of the neighborhood slept, my legs grew itchy. I looked down and was horrified to see hundreds of tiny aphids crawling out of my sneakers and swarming my legs. I jerked, I danced, and I howled, loud, neighbor-waking howls, until we finally dragged a hose out of Betsy’s garage and flushed the bugs away.
That was the end of letting things crawl on me. So it surprised me when I read about these studies to map the human microbiota and thought, “Cool!” In the pictures, they look like jars of multi-colored gummy bears, or necklaces of green, fuzzy jade, or twisty colored pipe-cleaners. These creatures, I’m reading, are linked to our health in ways that scientists are just beginning to explore.
As a young girl raised Catholic, I had lots of exposure outside of science class to the idea that my body was home to something other than “me”; in addition to being the container for that mysterious thing called soul, my body, I was taught, was also the temple of the equally mysterious Holy Spirit.
Honestly, that vision matches my experience fairly well. I have often felt deeply connected to the world. I’ve lived through solitary times when I have known, with the part of knowing that doesn’t happen in my head, that I was not alone. In her poem, “Some Questions You Might Ask,” Mary Oliver writes, “Is the soul solid, like iron?” and “Who has it, and who doesn’t?” The poem packs fourteen questions into twenty-one lines, including my favorite, “Why should I have it, and not the camel?”
Can you see where I’m going with this? I have just enough knowledge of science to put it to work to do bad theology. I’m not (quite!) saying I have discovered the soul and it is a collection of multicolored eukaryotes, but did you know they have been around for over a billion years? Do you know that they live in you and on you and that you are not, it turns out, ever really alone? It’s not our imaginations: something always pulses in the night.
One night in Pittsburgh I thought it was horses. I was staying with my parents in my childhood home and sleeping fitfully. The window by my bed was wide open, and late in the night I heard a horse whinnying deep in the woods. Longing spread through the trees as the animal called out, waited, called into the silence again. Finally, after what felt like hours, an answer came, and the two voices nickered back and forth. I fell asleep to their singing, bathed in wonder, gifted by this mysterious conversation.
Back home in Albuquerque, knowing there couldn’t be horses in those woods, I described the sound on an internet birding site. Within minutes, I received a link to a sound file identifying my midnight horses as screech owls. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “Mated pairs may sing to each other antiphonally, both day and night.”
I want to say, I have heard the screech owls singing, each to each. In Eliot’s poem, after the mermaids sing each to each, “human voices wake us and we drown.” We all know that’s how the story always ends. A while ago, though, when I was still trying to decide if I should keep my guard up or settle in and trust the world, a priest stumped me by asking, “What is death, anyway?”
So here’s the thing I keep Googling. I want to know what happens to all those microorganisms when I die. Am I like those conifers in forest fires who open their pods and fling their seeds madly to the forest floor, shouting “Life Life Life!” into the flames? Do the bacteria in my digestive tract have a chance to flee their dying planet and strike out for a brave new world? Or do these same microbes who have devoted their lives to mine help me, one last time, to shed skin and bone and ease into element?
I like that idea. I’m trying to say that I’d be ok if it turned out that the secret to eternal life, to God, is symbiosis. I like to think that that huckleberry bush doesn’t know her roots never touch the ground, doesn’t know that the whole thing she calls the world is cradled in a net of branches, doesn’t know that she, too, is part huckleberry, part prokaryote, part bacteria, part fuzzy jade and twirly pipe-cleaner, part every other thing that teems and swims and breathes in this abundant world.
Just now, my ten year-old granddaughter asked me what I was writing about. I tried to explain without going in to too much detail that we have these tiny things living in us, and that I think it’s really cool. She got quiet for a minute, then stuck her tongue out. “Ew,” she said.
That’s another way of looking at it.