I have germs, therefore I am. I am simply infested, crawling, oozing, overflowing with bacteria. In fact, I don’t even have bacteria, bacteria have me. Now, before you back away with your bacteriophobia, or break out your hand sanitizer and start dispersing it in my direction, let me inform you that you are also a walking petridish, custom designed by the bacteria you coevolved with to be ideal to their proliferation.
Want to shake hands? My bacteria are pleased to meet your bacteria.
Some people collect comic books, or coins. A friend of mine collects Lego Star Wars figurines. I collect river stones, but I don’t want to keep them forever. I plan to return them someday to the river from whence they came. From birth onward, we all proceed to collect bacteria, from everything we touch: every floor we crawl upon, every person, animal, plant, nipple, mouth, and hand we come into contact with. This colony of bacteria that lives on and in us is known as a microbiome. It is awake even while we are asleep, shifting and altering with the relentless onslaught of experience.
The average human has about 100 trillion bacteria living on and inside them, and about 10 bacterial cells for every single human cell. Two thousand different bacterial species alone live in the crook of a person’s elbow. Babies get their very first bacteria when they’re in the womb, from their mother’s placenta. Then, when babies travel through the birth canal, their tiny family of microbes expands into a village. A healthy mother’s vagina adds more members to the microbial community, culturing baby with a most beneficial starter kit of bacteria. These early settlers on
baby continent are symbiotically in love with baby, colonizing its skin, mouth, and gut, helping it to digest its first meal and protecting it from harmful, shady bacteria types.
Babies born by C section are not only deprived the journey down the birth canal, but also of the beneficial microbes that live in their mother’s vagina. This makes baby prime real estate for any combination of less than ideal bacteria that might be lurking around in the hospital, or even on its mother’s skin: mommy skin, while certainly wonderful, does not harbor as ideal a combination of bacteria to give baby a good, healthy start to life as her vagina does.
I myself was not born in a hospital, I was born on a mountain side. The Southern slope of Haleakala, the dormant volcanic crater on the Hawaiian island of Maui, to be more exact. My mother laid on a sleeping bag on a bed of thick grass in a field, under the stars. Propelled by uterine contractions, I was measure by immeasurable measure met by microscopic friends: guardian angel germs that would divide and multiply, live and thrive all over and in me, for years to come.
My parents were hippies, my birth was natural, nothing was sanitized. Bacteria were free to roam the frontier of my newborn body: I carry the mountainside on which I was born not only in my heart, but likely in my gut, and on my skin. And what microbes might have been roaming the sewing scissors that my dad cut my umbilical cord with, or the embroidery thread by which it was tied?
“Boiling water? Oh no, honey,” laughs my mom when I ask, “we didn’t have any boiling water. No, we didn’t disinfect the scissors before the cord was cut, and look at your cute little belly button, it turned out just fine, didn’t it?”
The day after I was born my parents took me to a grocery store and set me like an oversized pink melon in the steel bowl of a produce scale. I weighed in at six and a half pounds. It delights me to think that since I shared the scale with all the vegetables that were weighed previously to me that day, microbially I am potentially part apple, potato, orange, zucchini, bell pepper.
While some bacteria are, of course, more friendly than others, scientists have discovered that even perfectly healthy people harbor germs in their microbiome that are known to be triggers for disease. But, since healthy people have a wellbalanced population of bacteria, these potentially harmful germs don’t cause disease, they simply chill out, living in harmony with others in their microscopic community.
The discovery of how crucial the microbiome is to our health is a relatively new one, and the good news hasn’t yet made a sizable enough dent in the collective consciousness to change people’s negative bias against our microscopic allies for as long as people have been aware of bacteria, they’ve been shuddering at the thought of them. This was demonstrated perfectly by an experience I had during a recent dinner party: “I’m sorry, but I have to get going,” I said to the lovely, intelligent people who were still seated at the cozy kitchen table, enjoying their dessert, “I have a lot of writing to do for class.”
“Oh, what are you writing about?” my friend Amy’s bright eyes were full of curiosity.
“Well,” I smiled shyly at being the center of attention–all eyes at the table were on me. “I’m writing an essay about the bacteria that live all over and inside me!”
There was some nervous laughter, and a pause, as if the people seated at the table were waiting for a punchline.
“Ooooh…” Amy exhaled after a long silence, for once at a loss for words as her mother broke eye contact with me and looked down at the table.
“Wooooooo, bacteria,” I teased, wiggling my fingers in Amy’s direction.
“Yuck!” she exclaimed, shrinking away.
“Oh come on now, you have them, too, we all have them,” I said, sweeping my arm for effect, and knocking an open bottle of juice off the counter and onto the floor.
The spilled juice seemed to be a welcome distraction from the bacteria talk, and the host brought some towels to mop it up. I then made my grand exit by awkwardly hugging the people still sitting at the table, as they cringed. I could barely resist the urge to say, “Would you like a side of bacteria with that hug? Well, too late, you got one!”
The collective bacteria phobia of our culture has done a lot of harm to our health. I mean, sure, clean is nice, and sanitary can be necessary in certain situations. However, studies have shown that kids who grow up in the country and on farms tend to have far stronger immune systems and less allergies than kids that grow up with their parents spraying, washing, and wiping out all the germs the child might otherwise come in contact with. Have you ever noticed that babies are always trying to put things they’ve picked up off the floor or ground into their mouths, and sometimes even eat dirt, or sand? Turns out this is probably more an evolutionary instinct than a gross habit: “What a child is doing when he puts things in his mouth is allowing his immune response to explore his environment,” Mary Ruebush, a microbiology and immunology instructor, wrote in her new book, Why Dirt Is Good.
When I was about a year old, my father, mother, and I moved to the Eastern-most point on the island of Maui. Just a couple miles from the coastline, we lived in a house my dad and his friends built with salvaged and donated wood. Up a steep dirt road and in front of a stand of trees sat the crooked little house, looking so at home in the jungle it might as well have grown there on its own accord. There was no electricity, and no running water, except from the sky, where it sometimes poured down in sheets, and sometimes floated down in a misty drizzle. Then the sun would come out and, in collaboration with left-behind raindrops, adorn every leaf in the forest with diamonds. We collected the rainwater in big barrels on the back porch to use for bathing and cooking. Sometimes I would recruit new soldiers to my army of bacteria by standing outside while it was raining, opening my mouth and turning my head towards the sky to drink directly, guzzling whatever microbes the clouds carried my way from who knows what distance away.
I was allowed to run free, barefoot and naked upon the rich earth, weaving between the mossy tree trunks, eating wild berries and guavas, and to soak up the bacteria in my environment like a sponge. Perhaps this explains in part why I never feel more at home, or more alive, than when I am in the woods.
Because I feel most alive in the woods, that is the place I’d like to die. Or at least, for my dead body to be buried, so the bacteria that have accompanied me throughout my lifetime can do their job of digesting my body from the inside out; so they can decompose my human form, and then return to the rich soil, like stones to the river.
Samantha Kelly is a full-time B.A. student and part-time cat whisperer who lives in Fairfield, Iowa. She was born near a volcanic crater in Hawaii and when she was a child, she was convinced that grown ups were monsters in people suits.
Ira Joel Haber was born and lives in Brooklyn. He is a sculptor, painter, writer, book dealer, photographer and teacher. His work has been seen in numerous group shows both in the USA and Europe and he has had 9 one person shows including several retrospectives of his sculpture. His work is in the collections of The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Allen Memorial Art Museum, New York Univesity, The Guggenheim Museum, The Hirshhorn Museum & The Albright Knox Art Gallery. Since 2007 his paintings, drawings, photographs and collages have been published in over 230 on line and print magazines. He has received three National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, two Pollock Krasner grants, The Adolph Gottlieb Foundation grant and in 2010 he received a grant from Artists’ Fellowship Inc. He currently teaches art to retired public school teachers at the United Federation of Teachers program in Brooklyn.