Becoming Better Symbionts

November 30, 2018
Dan McKanan
Senior Lecturer Dan McKanan. Photo by Justin Knight

Dan McKanan, Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Association Senior Lecturer in Divinity at HDS, delivered the following remarks at Morning Prayers in Harvard's Memorial Church on November 30, 2018.

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Genesis 1: 11-13
Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good.

A few years ago I got to know an amazing farmer named Lincoln Geiger. Lincoln lives at the Temple-Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire. It is called a community farm because a few dozen families each pay whatever they can afford to support the farm, and each then takes however much food they need. Lincoln and the other farmers also foster community with the plants and animals that inhabit the farm.

Lincoln shared an idea that stuck with me. In caring for farm animals, Lincoln said, he strives to be less of a parasite and more of a symbiont. A parasite, he explained, takes from other organisms without giving anything in return. But a symbiont creates relationships of mutual benefit with other organisms.

For the past few centuries, Lincoln observed, agriculture has become more parasitic and less symbiotic. Cows and chickens on factory farms have few chances to be cows and chickens: they spend their short lives in tiny cages, being forcefed unnatural foods. Grain and vegetable farmers use pesticides to kill every plant except the one they are trying to grow, which is harvest before it completes its lifecycle. Lincoln tries to turn this trend around by allowing his cows to graze freely in pastures full of clover and alfalfa. His cows get to keep their horns and to nurse their babies, at least for a little while, before humans start taking their milk for our own uses. Lincoln knows these are small steps. The relationship between humans and cows still feels one-sided. He thinks that it will probably take his whole lifetime to get just a little better at symbiosis.

I’m not a farmer. But all of us can emulate Lincoln and try to become better symbionts. This is an important task for our Anthropocene Age, when human activity has become the major force shaping our planet’s future. Humans interact with all other living beings, and many of those interactions are horribly parasitic.

Becoming a better symbiont starts with our guts. The human digestive tract is home to hundreds of different kinds of bacteria. And the more biodiversity there is in our intestines, the healthier and happier we are likely to be. When we eat a mix of healthy foods, lots of different creatures thrive inside us. But if we eat white sugar and white flour, just a few types of bacteria will want to be in symbiotic relationship with us. When they get out of balance, they make us sick.

We can also become better symbionts in our backyards. If we use pesticides to kill everything but the right kind of grass, our yards won’t welcome bees, butterflies, or songbirds. In my own backyard, I try to take good care of the raspberries and tomatoes that I’ve planted, but I also leave a little space for wild and unexpected plants. I also leave some of the plants standing through the winter months, so that birds can find seeds to eat when food is scarce.

Many of us try be better symbionts through our ethical food choices. Refusing to eat certain foods is just the first step. Even if I decide to be an absolute vegan, I must consider the plants and animals that might live in the fields that produce my soybeans or broccoli. I may need to form a special symbiosis with farmers like Lincoln, who strive to care for all those creatures on my behalf.

Ultimately, being a good symbiont is about paying attention. When I pay attention to how my stomach feels from day to day, or how my raspberries change as summer turns to winter, I come to know my symbionts as friends. I come to care for them as I care for myself. And I discover that we are all in this together.

Let us pray,

May the lives we share with cows and raspberries and bacteria and bumblebees, and with one another, be a blessing to those other creatures, just as we have been blessed by the countless companions who shape and sustain our lives.