The Human Body as a Bioregion

We humans like to think of ourselves as individual entities, moving autonomously through a world populated with other individual entities. We think of our skins as the boundaries between ourselves and everything that isn’t us. Symbiotic living is left to the like of the Portuguese man-of-war and lichens, colonies of group minds are for bees and ants. We might recognize consciously that we rely on other living beings for our food, oxygen, and the like, but we view ourselves as rugged individualists.

Or so we think.

Truth be told, our bodies aren’t entirely our own. Take bacteria, for example. We have plenty of human cells and the like, but for every cell in our bodies there are at least ten bacteria. As Anne Maczulak said, “Microbiologists are fond of pointing out that if all of a person’s DNA were mixed with the body’s entire bacterial DNA, that person would be genetically more bacterial than human” (1). Thousands of species of bacteria live in and on our bodies, creating films that coat pretty much every surface inside and out. Most of these live more or less in harmony with us, as we have co-evolved over time. For the most part, scary-sounding bacteria like Eschericia coli and Staphyllococcus aureus occur naturally in our bodies, and they are not the evil enemies that they’re often made out to be in the media. Problems predominantly arise when one sort of bacteria ends up in a place where it shouldn’t be (such as gut bacteria entering the abdominal cavity at large through an intestinal perforation) or overpopulating and causing infections (such as tooth decay caused by an overabundance of certain mouth flora).

Along with bacteria, we have various tiny fungi and protozoa throughout our systems. Many women know the hell that is a yeast infection, when Candida albicans and other fungi that normally inhabit the vagina along with a host of other living beings suddenly overpopulate and create a rather unpleasant result. We usually only think of amoebas as the little single-celled beings that often represent asexual reproduction in basic biology textbooks, or as the cause of amoebic dysentary (which in truth is solely due to an invasion of Entamoeba histolytica). Yet several non-pathogenic species of amoeba make up part of our internal communities; E. histolytica‘s cousins Entamoeba coli and Entamoeba dispar are rather benign. While eyelash mites (Demodex folliculorum and Demodex brevis) usually don’t cause a problem, their overpopulation can cause itching, swelling, redness, and other symptoms of the eye.

And these are just the welcome (or at least neutral) neighbors. We also host outright parasites. Tapeworms (several species in multiple genera) and hookworms (Ancylostoma duodenale and Necator americanus) are some of the better-known ones, along with the inaccurately-named fungus, ringworm. Some unfortunate people have had to deal with the joys of scabies mites (Sarcoptes scabiei), head lice (Pediculus humanus capitis), and the bedbugs (Cimex lectularius and their kin) who only come calling for a late-night snack.

(How many of you are feeling itchy and squirmy right about now? Sorry about that.)

My point is that we are the setting for a variety of tiny ecosystems, each with its own daily drama of eat or be eaten. So are numerous other animals and plants. Like Russian nesting dolls, the world is made of ecosystems within ecosystems (it may be ecosystems all the way down!) In fact, we can potentially think of each part of our bodies as a small bioregion. Each one is defined by its unique physical features, and the common flora and fauna that inhabit it. There aren’t watersheds, per se, but there are flows of various necessary ingredient to life, particularly food. So you can think of your stomach as one unique bioregion with its own resident critters who feed on the food we eat in one stage of digestion, while the small intestine is another bioregion whose inhabitants wouldn’t survive in the stomach and couldn’t live on what’s in there so well. Even different areas of the skin have discrete populations of bacteria and the like; the armpits have a different set of tiny beings than, say, the sole of the foot, and in some ways the former place is a much easier living arrangement for the bacteria than the latter.

So what’s all this mean for bioregional totemism? For one thing, it’s a chance to expand your idea of what a bioregion is, as well as to remind yourself that you don’t just live in an ecosystem–you host them, too! It’s a different way to look at our place in the world and how we relate to other living beings. While we’ve caused some species to go extinct through our actions, our extinction would cause the extinction of other species of tiny being that can only survive in or on a human body. We may not mourn their loss in the same way we would regret the extinction of the giant panda or the Siberian tiger, but it’s a bit sobering to realize that there are entire species that would cease to exist without us.

It’s also an opportunity to connect with other beings, including their totems. I’ve had people over the years tell me “Oh, I can’t connect with the elements of Fire or Earth, I’m an Air and Water person!” Yet the easiest way to make a connection to all of these is through our bodies: the minerals of Earth, the water in our blood and elsewhere, the air in our breath and the gases in our blood, and the fire of metabolism. In the same way, if you can’t reach outward to totems, seek the ones inside of you. After all, every species of living thing, even protozoa and bacteria, has a totem watching over the connections between its species and everything else in the world.

How do you do that? As always, I’m a fan of meditation. Visualize your consciousness traveling deeper into your body, into a particular part of your form. Try going to your stomach and exploring the communities there. Or travel along your skin and see how the ecosystems change across distances, like a forest changing to a plain and then into a desert on a long road trip. Explore all the places, or make a detailed study of one. It’s entirely up to you. You may find that working with the tiny critters mixed among your cells and nestled in your organs have a rather different view on life than Gray Wolf, Box Turtle, or Dandelion. Bit I’ve found it’s worth it to at least check out the scenery.

It’s especially entertaining to do this when I’m sick with an infection. Even as miserable as I feel when I get a cold, I get a bit of a kick out of the idea that an invading virus is sacking my respiratory system, and that my resident immune system will come along like a line of defenders and rout the nasties, letting the local residents come back to their hamlets and farms in my nostrils. (I know, that’s a rather ridiculous thing to think about. But I have to do something to keep my spirits up when I’m sick!) I’ve tried asking them to quiet down and let me sleep, but it generally doesn’t work and I have to wait til my immune system does its job; mind over matter only goes so far.

And, as with any ecosystem, nothing goes to waste. The bacteria and other things living in and on my body mostly leave me well enough alone beyond whatever they need to survive. And yet when I die, who do you think is going to be the first to start turning my body into food? You guessed it–the resident microcritters. It’s not that they’re waiting around for me to kick the bucket; after all, once I’m dead their populations have a limited lifespan, too. But there’s a certain comfort in knowing that the tiny beings who have been with me my entire life–a sort of giant cadre of primary totems, if you will–will be the ones to start the process of returning my body back to the Earth. They greeted me when I was born, have been with me through thirty-four years of life so far, and they’ll be there to see me off, too. In this I tend to work with them more as a colonial totem than the many thousands of individuals, but they’re no less important.

(Apologies if you’re still feeling itchy.)

1. Maczulak, Anne (2011). Allies and Enemies: How the World Depends on Bacteria. Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press.

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8 thoughts on “The Human Body as a Bioregion

  1. Your descriptions of various bioregions on a human body brought to my mind images of arm grasslands with teeny tiny antelope-epidermis grazing there. 😉

  2. You beat me to it! LOL. Glen at PostPagan and I do devotions of thanks via phone together and I focus a lot on being an apartment building for microbes, that I am being reincarnated NOW, that those I ate are being reincarnated into me, etc. With MCS sticking me in a cage to avoid petrochemicals lest someone’s shampoo, clothing, or smoke causes a seizure, animism has been hard, where are my connections? So I went to the ones, the persons, in and on me, those eaten and drank, and those I breathe/breathe me. This is my community. Bacteria my old testament God learned to eat the toxic waste oxygen, ze provides 70% of the atmosphere and form gut communes which is where the instinct brain of serontonin etc is and source of all health comes from. Then again in some Job type way, strikes ya dead. The fact that it has no species, just strains that pass information by being near each other, thus learning what the other strain knows and changing, has least one scientist say that bacteria is not a ton of persons, but one giant person, in and on everything. Oh this was great to read! Thanks!

  3. Lovely.
    Its been said that our entire evolution is a side effect of the requirements of the microbes in our guts.
    Furthermore, those organisms needed to modify their hosts to be more efficient at finding certain kinds of food for them.
    Certainly, foods eaten (and the moods, thoughts and health symptoms that ensue) as bacteria do their thing, is a regular reminder to those critters who have a big say in organism health and wellbeing.
    If we put to the side the spiritual question, ‘who am I’ for the moment, in terms of popular notions of self, the answer is not so clear cut.
    kind wishes, j

  4. Wonderful observations! Following the microcosm/macrocosm idea to its end, you can’t help but see yourself as a walking world unto yourself (How do Jainists deal with swallowing?). Maybe if we learn to respect ourselves–as individual environments–better, that sentiment might rub off on our society’s perceptions of how to treat the planet? You know, a sort of “as above, so below” thing?

    Also, this reminded me of the plot in Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wind in the Door,” which if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend.

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