I’ve been living in San Francisco since February, participating in a bioaccelerator program to get my startup business off the ground. Overall, it’s been an enriching experience but I’m looking forward to leaving at the end of June and returning to my home in New Mexico. It’s pretty intense space out here in the Bay Area, the city, of course, but also where I work. We have a small, shared lab; a small, shared working space and a small, shared kitchen. As you might imagine, with eleven startup companies all working upwards of 14 hours a day in here it’s starting to get a little…..fudgy. This morning, before anyone else arrived, I took the opportunity to brew a pot of coffee the way I like it (the ghost of some coffee, I like it weak – I make coffee like I’m scared of it) and as I was doing so, a little cockroach scuttled across the counter top. I said hi to the little friend, asked if they were having a good time (I’m sure they were – so much kitchen fudge, a thin layer of dead human skin over every surface) and returned to my desk with my coffee-flavored water.
Now, don’t get me wrong – cockroaches squick me out. I nearly impaled myself on a lawn chair running away from a gigantic flying cockroach the first time I met one in a back yard in Albuquerque. In my old home in rural New Mexico, cockroaches were ever-present, consistently scurrying around. My cats thought they were a crunchy, satisfying treat and would eat them with joyful abandon (cleaning up twenty cockroaches-worth of cat vom is a sure way to ruin your lunch, incidentally). But, I am an obtuse fucker, and ultimately developed fondness for their gross-out factor.
At some point I was considering the idea of getting a tattoo of a cockroach, on my neck (that eventually became a cicada tattoo). See? Obtuse. Around this time, I had made the decision to step in with my practice a little deeper, and while my teacher was in Nigeria he assisted our Oluwo in administering the necessary rituals that allowed for this. The Yoruba practice of Ifá/Òrìṣà tradition is very clear about taboos, and students/practitioners are given temporary or permanent taboos at different stages of their life to guide them. Taboos are very specific to a person’s destiny and whenever I am given mine I think about them a lot. Daniel has written a nice piece here which includes some introductory information. Anywho, during these rituals I was given one of my life taboos: I cannot kill or eat cockroaches, or use any medicine that is made with them. I remember clearly my teacher sending me a message in the midst of all the heavy work in Nigeria to say “very busy but thought you would want to know this – Blattidae on the move!” (subsequent conversations then entertained the downsides of tattooing one’s taboos on their body – hence the cicada).
So, when I think about taboos with my animism-y brain, and when my community discusses the relevance and importance of them, it’s easy for me to get lost in the philosophy of it. I suppose the Western influence on the word ‘taboo’ suggests fairly strongly that engaging with or imbibing in a thing will ultimately cause you harm. For example, a fairly common (I think) taboo is that a person does not eat the head of anything else – there’s a strong emotive correlation there to eating someone else’s head and losing one’s own. Another take on the philosophy of taboo, that I think is particularly lovely, is this idea that you already innately contain the properties or characteristics of a thing, or a person, and so to imbibe more from the source is a bit much for you to keep a handle on. I can see that, in some of the taboos of my loved ones. And would be a source of pride for me, if, in fact, I do innately possess some of the qualities of my little cockroach chum from this morning: resilience, courage, adaptability. It’s a comforting thought to me.
Me eating a cockroach dictates, very obviously, that Blatti-dude is going to die. It’s quite a symbolic event - me consuming all those beneficial aspects of another person but destroying them at the same time: when I eat a chicken, I don’t grow wings. The chicken does not live on in me as anything other than energy (calories, heat, spirit; thank you, chicken-friend). But there are billions of examples of kin that live inside me, some quite distinct from my being, that maybe possibly DO affect my outward being. Many of them certainly embody features that could be considered desirable, superpowers, even: the ability to excrete acid for example, or live in a volcano. As a taboo, it’s fairly clear why avoiding intimate contact with the inside of a volcano is good for one’s wellbeing.
Microbes of course, also have an intimate relationship with cockroaches, on both a physiological and behavioral level. Self-organized cockroach aggregation, dictated by pheromones and based on local knowledge of their immediate community and without any notion of the global structure, is mediated by microbial populations in the roach gut. Certain microbes produce specific chemicals (volatile carboxylic acids, VCAs) there – guts which contain more VCAs are more attractive to other cockroaches than those which are contain fewer VCAs.
There is evidence that suggests a roach’s symbiotic microbiota also contributes to its innate hardiness. Bacteria present in the roach gut can contribute to the processing and detoxification of xenobiotics – insecticides. In any case, cockroaches that are resistant to insecticides contain a microbiome that looks very different compared with those roaches who are killed by those same chemicals.
Cockroaches also interact with the greater world of non-human people in a complex manner. These interactions contribute to general fitness and their roles in ecological niches. For example, roaches are often parasitized by a certain type of nematode. These nematodes also communicate with the microbes who colonize the same environment. Cockroaches, nematodes and microbes have been co-evolving for a very long time.
One bacterium in particular, Blattabacterium, has an ancient relationship with its roach host – and it’s a mutually beneficial one. The bacterium allows the insect to exist on a low-nitrogen diet by producing critical amino acids on behalf of the cockroach.
Many microbes demonstrate astonishing physiological hardiness. Their ability to adapt and evolve is….legendary. The contributions they make to every living being on the planet is undeniable. Furthermore, their collective consciousness can be overwhelming. It is impossible for me to fully comprehend the sheer scale of mass they represent on this planet, or even inside me. Similarly, I am unable to wrap my head around the dimensions of a single-celled microbe, much less an entity that does not possess cellular structures of its own. I am bereft of the capacity to see these people without stains, and microscopes, and unnatural domestication – yet they still allow me to interact with, recruit, and examine their communities in my clumsy, confused, but good-natured and humble way. Is it possible to begin to develop the characteristics we see in microorganisms in a way that can be beneficial to our own selves, and our roles of service while we’re wearing our meatsuits on this plane?
I am not sure, but I am trying.