illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler


Where I Stop and You Start

What happens when the idea of “us” grows, allowing it to encompass a little more than it did before?

By Kate Black, '16 BA

illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler
December 16, 2021 •

The word us and its subjective form, we, have never been more abundant. Or weird. They poke up everywhere: We need to come together. This isn’t us. Is this who we are? The concept of us invokes a collective that has become more distant and abstract with each strange, passing week of pandemic life.

That first-person plural has always been a bit slippery. It defines who is a part of ourselves and, importantly, who is not. It also speaks an awkward assumption into being: that we have something, like an experience or a belief, in common. But how could we ever be sure? Maybe this is why it has always been easier to define them. And, when the outside world looks more unfamiliar and unsafe, it’s tempting, even comforting, to tighten into a tidy first-person singular.

But as Emily Hoven, ’16 BA(Hons), has realized, there’s a trippy and life-affirming world out there when you expand your bubble of “us.” In her case, it tastes like fresh bread.

The PhD dissertation she’s writing at the U of A philosophizes how fermenting and baking sourdough — from the rituals of feeding and discarding the starter to sharing loaves with friends — can teach us a lot about taking care of our communities and ourselves. It encourages us not only to imagine the invisible, but also to imagine the invisible as part of us.

Hoven took up sourdough on her therapist’s recommendation — tending for something else, the idea was, would help her take better care of herself. It quickly became more than following a recipe; it became a relationship. Before handwashing was paramount during the pandemic, Hoven was cognizant of the different cleaning products she used at home — she didn’t want to disrupt the delicate balance of microbes proliferating in her starter jar. She has felt real distress when the starter has looked sick, real gratitude when she eats her bread.

“Working with sourdough has made me think in totally different ways about the boundaries of my body,” Hoven says, mentioning a North Carolina State University study. It found the microbiome — the community of microscopic living things — on sourdough bakers’ hands more closely resembles the sourdough microbiome than that of non-bakers’ hands. “It has made me conscious of the fact that I’m surrounded by all this other life and that the things I do have implications for this other life around me.”

It’s true: the human body contains as many or more cells of other species, meaning microbes, than actual human cells. When reflecting on this fact, Justine Karst, ’99 BSc(EnvSci), asks the existentially mortifying question: “Where do we start and the microbes begin?”

Karst is an associate professor in the Faculty of ALES and an ecologist who studies mycorrhiza: the relationship between plant and fungus. (Mycorrhiza is to plant and fungus, as marriage is to spouses.) Trees owe their growth to massive underground networks of fungi. The fungi supply the trees with vital nitrogen from the soil and allow them to send underground signals to each other. In return, the trees supply the fungi with carbon. Much like people and our microbes — or people and anything else, for that matter — the actual cells of fungi and trees are so enmeshed that it’s hard to tell where the trees end and the fungi begin. And this connectedness is important. A PhD student in Karst’s lab recently found that when trees are more connected to other trees via fungal networks, they grow taller and stronger.

But Karst cautions against romanticizing mycorrhiza — fungi and trees aren’t perfect partners. If there’s little nitrogen in the soil, the fungi will hoard it. They’re still individuals, after all, and don’t exist just to serve the trees.

Karst says we can extend this idea to people. “We’re all individuals and we’re all active agents in our lives,” she says. “But you cannot explain our actions in isolation from the individuals that are around us.”

Realizing the true connectedness of our world is mind-blowing. But this way of thinking might only be mind-blowing to some cultures. As Patricia Makokis, ’79 BEd, reminds us in her essay, “Our Collective Mother and Why We Should All Care,” people have understood the true enmeshment of plants and animals for time immemorial. Once we accept everything living — and even non-living — as part of us, she writes, it’s hard not to feel a greater sense of responsibility to one another. A tree becomes more than something merely beautiful or fascinating, but something deserving of our care.

Our connectedness raises the stakes on what we owe each other. It’s more than a thought experiment, the quaint acid trip of imagining all of our microbes tangling with other microbes, the invisible vast networks beneath our feet — invisible only because of where we’re standing. Seeing the deeply connected “us” as it really is asks more of us, but it’s where the real work begins. 

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