You are probably familiar with Animal Medicine guides. This term refers to the energy or spirit of a particular animal, which is consulted in healing practices and for ritual in many traditions. This includes the one that resonates most strongly with me, the indigenous traditions of the Americas.
These traditions are ancient, and they rely on our attunement to Mother Earth – our synchronicity with the natural cycles of the seasons, the procession of the moon and stars, and the motions of the planets around her. These traditions exist in the history of all our cultures, if we go back far enough. In these traditions, a plant’s medicinal or nutritive use was determined, not just by trial and error, but also by something that mystics called the “awakening of the spirit” of the plant, and by communicating with it as one wise biological being to another. In such ancient traditions, an animal was considered a teacher; even if that animal had to be sacrificed for food and clothing, the spirit of that animal was honored.
Approached from this gentle perspective, being receptive to the natural wisdom of plants and animals allows us to converse with them from our spirits and hearts. Conventional science, by contrast, seeks to capture, cage and control Nature for the purpose of scrutiny and study. There is a need to understand fellow organisms via both these Yin and the Yang techniques (where Yin represents the feminine energy, and Yang, the masculine energy), to attain a balance of both sides of the whole. This approach reveals a more holistic view of the natural world, and germinates portals through which we can better converse with its residents.
In working with the tradition of animal guides, is easy for us to appreciate the majesty of the lion, the playfulness of the otter, and the exuberance of the dolphin as it arcs over the sea, because these animals are large enough for us to observe with the unaided eye.
But microbes and the lessons that they offer are much more difficult to observe by a non-specialist and without a microscope. A microbiologist has the proper tools to observe microbes and the training to understand and appreciate their colors, shapes and sizes. While I worked with these microbes and I learned about their unique natures, I realized that these tiny creatures have much to teach us as microbial guides in the world of spirit.
Becoming a Microbe Whisperer
A woman pursuing a research science degree within a patriarchal society is faced with challenges unique to her gender, as well as some obstacles that come with the territory. One of these difficult times came two years into my research, when the microbial consortium I was working with to accomplish my doctoral research died out. A microbial consortium is what we microbiologists call an assemblage of microbes that act collectively to display a similar characteristic, such as the ability to eat the environmental toxins called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
When I say they ‘died out’, I mean that they basically stopped doing what they were supposed to do, which was to consume the PCBs as they and their progeny had been doing for two years, over the course of consecutive transfers to fresh growth flasks containing (a type of) PCBs as their food source.
There was no way to resuscitate this population by growing them individually, as all the microbes accomplishing this unique metabolism I had discovered had not yet been identified.
I had frozen microfuge test tubes containing the consortium, and had protected them from freeze damage with glycerol, but there was no guarantee that all the members of the consortium had survived and had retained their ability to metabolize the target compounds.
Losing this consortium would have demolished two years of research and would have seriously derailed my plans to earn the Ph.D..
So I turned to a Shamanic Approach
Since a shamanic ritual would not have mixed well with the Ivy-league science culture of the lab, I arranged a visit to my laboratory at midnight. At that witching hour, a like-minded friend and I collected soil from the four corners of the building and asked Mother Earth to bless my request. Then, while keeping a sachet of blessed soil close to our hearts, we went up to the lab where we held each of the growth flasks. These growth flasks contained the subdivided the contents of the last remaining tube of my special bacterial consortium.
Cupping these flasks lovingly, we sang to them.
We sang to them from the array of songs that we knew. We sang songs to awaken the spirit of the microbes in the flasks.
And it worked!
After six previous unsuccessful attempts to grow the frozen consortium, this seventh tube, the contents of which had been distributed into the growth flasks, gave me the result I needed!
By raising the energy of Mother Earth and singing to the faltering culture, I was able to successfully cultivate a PCB-degrading microbial consortium again.
Although I had felt a spiritual connection to the microbes before, this was the first time I had communicated with them, by directing spiritual medicine. It was the first time I realized that when asked in a reverent manner, they would start doing their thing again and degrade PCBs! It was to become one of many moments that the sacred dialogue began with these microbial animal teachers. And, I became a Microbe Whisperer!
The Good Microbes
Most people think of microbes as the cause of plagues and misery. But that reputation is not representative of most known microbes on our planet.
Out of the thousands of microbes that have been scientifically identified, microbiology students are taught that only about 10% of these are pathogenic, or cause disease. The other 90% are beneficial to our bodies and to the environment.
Those microbes in the non-pathogenic 90%, are a rich, diverse population that constantly renew the earth.
These are the microbes that recycle nutrients, consume debris and toxins in the soils, purify rivers, lakes and streams, and provide nutrients such as nitrogen to plants and animals.
Some of these microbes breath oxygen, eat organic compounds for their carbon source, and live and grow within the temperature ranges that we humans find comfortable. But many other microorganisms occupy what we call “extreme” environments.
Some microbes die when exposed to oxygen, preferring anaerobic (oxygen-free) environments, such as the inside of a cow’s rumen or the layered anoxic muddy sediments of a swamp.
Some microbes like living at temperatures over 100° C, for example, within the high pressure environment of the undersea black smoker vents.
And some microbes like it frozen, such as those that thrive in the icy substrates of Antarctica.
Some microbes eat rock or make gold, some use membrane-bound iron to navigate to true North, and some microbes dine on petroleum from oil spills in the ocean.
As these microbes are identified and studied, many of them are being harnessed to clean up contaminated soils and waters in our environment.
The microbes are the greatest guides to teaching us what one, microscopic individual cell can do. And when these powerful individual microscopic cells act as an assemblage, they have a transformative effect on a massive scale by altering the communities and landscapes of our world, and usually for the better.
And the deep understanding that I have acquired through my own work, on how microbes accomplish such a seemingly insurmountable job, is what I have to share. So that I can teach you how to become a Microbe Whisperer, too