The wooden gate on the Community Garden’s deer fence squeaked slightly as I swung it back into place and hooked the latch. An acre of lush, vibrant, growing things stretched out before me. I love unspoiled, untrammeled nature as protected by the Wilderness Act--created 50 years ago this fall. But I also love nature that I can cultivate, care for, and eat.
I started at the far end of my garden, first harvesting the green zucchinis and yellow summer squash. I also checked for fruits and leaves nibbled on by the invading woodchuck and army of thirteen-lined ground squirrels. I also carried a spray bottle with baking soda and water, a home remedy for the powdery mildew that threatens to wilt plants before the winter squash can ripen.
Next I picked the ripe tomatoes, and shook my head at the blighted, withering leaves. Finally, I tugged a few of the tallest weeds out from among the onions. Biodiversity is generally desirable, but often my garden is more diverse than I would like it to be.
The pea trellis (built by my oldest nephew and his papa) provided a yummy snack of sweet, crispy pods. I offered a handful to my garden plot neighbors, and struck up a conversation about harvesting, preserving, and organic pest control. The Cable Community Farm only allows organic-approved gardening methods, and generally attracts a pretty like-minded group of people. I love talking gardening with them.
Finally, I settled into picking the ingredients for my next culinary cultivation: kimchi. Kimchi is a traditional Korean side dish made of fermented vegetables. I tried it for the second time last winter, and the spicy-sour flavors are growing on me. So, I picked the biggest head of Napa cabbage, pulled a few carrots, yanked out a gigantic daikon radish, and wiggled an onion from its shallow bed. From the row of hot peppers, I plucked three spicy-looking specimens.
After an evening of washing, chopping, salting, rinsing, spicing, and packing, I ended up with a two-quart Mason jar full of veggies, salt, water – and bacteria. Yes, bacteria. Wild strains of lactobacilli bacteria were present on the raw vegetables, just waiting for the right conditions to go forth and multiply. The salty brine and oxygen-poor habitat of my Mason jar were perfect. In just a few days, I could taste the acidic tang of fermentation start to develop.
This jar is an ecosystem in itself, and just like in other ecosystems, a succession of species transform the environment in ways that allow new species to prosper.
In a forest, hemlock might succeed birch. In the jar, Lactobacillus plantarum is the climax species, after it kills off competing bacteria. By adding so much lactic acid to the brine that nothing else can survive, L. plantarum can maintain its own little habitat for months or even years. Just like me pulling weeds and choosing my friends, it creates just the type of community that will help it thrive.
The nice thing is, we can eat live L. plantarum right along with the spicy cabbage and radishes, and it won’t hurt us. It seems ironic in the age of antibiotics and hand sanitizer, but this is food safety guaranteed by bacteria!
The fermentation process also predigests the food, in effect, by breaking down larger molecules into smaller ones that we can deal with more easily. It is actually a carefully managed partial decomposition. The right bacteria to do the job were always on the plants or in the soil, just waiting to turn plants back into dirt. We simply harness the microbes for a bit, and then wait for the sweet—or sour—spot to stop the rot.
One fermenter described the technique as “Nature imperfectly mastered.” I agree, since I really don’t know what’s going on in there. Food journalist Michael Pollan explores fermentation in his book “Cooked,” and writes, “Every ferment retains a certain element of unknowable wildness.”
My kimchi has become a magical mix between my garden and the wilderness. It’s acidic and alive – and it now lives in the fridge.
From the garden community to the jar community, I had done my best to select the members I want, and eliminate those that could be harmful. Each day, when I eat some of the spicy cabbage leaves, the lactobacilli on them join the community in my gut. Just like the garden, just like the jar, my body is its own ecosystem, filled with hundreds of different species. For every human cell in my body, there are about 10 resident microbes. More than 99% of the genetic information I carry is microbial. Scientists are finding that the health of our inner microbiome and our outer communities have incredible implications for the health of us as individuals.
You may think all of this is a little weird. I think it is wonderful to be part of so many exciting communities!
And here’s a question for my community of readers: I’m trying to figure out the best way to publish a book of my Natural Connections columns. If you have any advice, encouragement, or suggestions for publishers, please send me an e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
We find ourselves part of many layers of intersecting communities, nestled together like the leaves in this head of Napa cabbage being readied for the kimchi jar. Photo by Emily Stone.