‘Provocations on a Planet’, is a series of writings on a love for living things, thoughts on the climate and biodiversity crisis and reflections on our relationship with planet Earth. ‘Grow me Well’ is an imaginative musing about what gardens would look like if we planted them with the microorganisms in soil as our guide. Each post in ‘Provocations on a Planet’ will be sponsored by an ad from Animal and Insect Advertising which aims to make light of consumer culture and question who we’re designing for. The first highlights the fact that bees sleep in flowers. They deserve nothing but luxury.
Provocations on a Planet_01
Grow Me Well
Microorganisms in soil can make us feel better. What would gardens look like if we planted them with this as a guide? And what would happen to us – the planet and all who live on it, as a result?
Your patch has been designed in consultation with your doctor, your friends and family and your neighbourhood Head Gardener, trained not just in horticulture but mental health. Your planting plan has evolved to match the microbial mix and seasonal growing schedules necessary to support the microorganisms that have been identified to help you feel good.
Your latest haul is a mass of flowers and grasses. Instructions for picking are to pull from the root and to inhale while doing so. Bring them inside with the dirt. Place some of the soil in a vial and put it in your bathroom cupboard next to the face wash and sunscreen. You’ve been instructed to take a whiff every morning before brushing your teeth. Place your pluckings, with their roots still intact in a vessel designed to keep the microbes circulating.
Microorganisms and the brain
There’s growing evidence exposure to soil microbes plays a direct role in development and regulation of the human immune system. (1) Take Mycobacterium vaccae, a common saprophyte, found in soil. M. vaccae stimulates the brain to create more serotonin (the chemical that makes you happy) activated in the dorsal raphe nucleus (which is located in your mid-brain) where the cells are linked directly to the limbic system. It’s here where emotions are generated and the part of the brain where we cope with stress (2). Exposure to M. vaccae chilled stressed mice out enough that they could swim. (3) It has also been linked to the suppression of inflammation within cells which resulted in less anxiety and fear-like behaviours. (4)
To place this in context of complexity, it is estimated that only .01% of the soil microbiome has been identified. (5) Mycobacterium vaccae is one bacterium in the family of what scientists believe is a family of 190 species. Of our fungal friends, there are over 15,000 species in the UK alone. This complexity is compounded by the advances in genomic screening and the surge in research on human microbiomes and the relationships between our stomachs, our brains and our development (6). This is true megascience and our gaps in understanding offer a playground for imagination for what the future could be if we were more intertwined with the microbial world we trundle on.
Holding onto the uniqueness of things in their complexity
To grow a garden well we need to understand more deeply the partnerships and communities different plants depend on to grow. Does a rose’s differ from a dandelion’s? Which combinations elicit a positive immune response and for whom? What is the mix of plants/vegetables/etc that could be grown in that medium?
If we grew gardens that are planted based on these interactions, not just aesthetics, what would they look like and can we tailor them to who they’re grown for?
Will they be wild thorny, scrubby landscapes like Knepp, or colourfully sweet spaces with rougher edges? Something entirely more sublime?
If we scaled this up, what could this mean for our collective mood? If microbes could influence local planting plans, would the plots visibly show pockets of trauma and collective grief?
With too few tools at our disposal it might well be impossible to link soil microbial community structures and function to individual digestive, immunological and neurological responses. But we can use this scale of complexity to imagine our surroundings as a result of these interplays.
These questions help me to think about how we might make earth livable and serve as a reminder to constantly reimagine my relationship to it. Maybe the textures would be livelier, the combinations deeper and the experiences richer. Or maybe, things would look exactly the same. Maybe it wouldn’t matter if it brought us closer to feeling better in ourselves and therefore more capable of loving our planet.
This Provocation on the Planet is brought to you by Tudor Road & Co: Purveyors of Luxury Bee Beds since 2021.
1 Brevik, E. C et al Soil and Human Health: Current Status and Future Needs. (2020) Air, Soil and Water Research.
2 Smith DG, Martinelli R, Besra GS, et al. Identification and characterization of a novel anti-inflammatory lipid isolated from Mycobacterium vaccae, a soil derived bacterium with immunoregulatory and stress resilience properties (2019) Psychopharmacology. 236(5):1653-1670.
3 Lowry CA, Hollis JH, De Vries A, et al. Identification of an immune-responsive mesolimbocortical serotonergic system: potential role in regulation of emotional behavior. (2007) Neuroscience.;146:756-772.
4 Reber, S. O et al., ‘Immunization with a heat-killed preparation of the environmental bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae promotes stress resilience in mice’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, (2016) 113(22)
5 Jansson, J. K and Hofmokel, K.S The soil microbiome — from metagenomics to metaphenomics (2018) Current Opinion in Microbiology
6 Henrick, B. M et al. Bifidobacteria-mediated immune system imprinting early in life (2021) Cell.
Resources and reading
With a background that spans bio-science, technology and community activism, Lucy’s work as a design researcher aims to deliver services and systems that work for people and for the needs of the planet. Soon to go freelance, Lucy is keen to collaborate with researchers, scientists and community groups in shaping low carbon futures. To stay grounded, Lucy grows a garden in East London.