Tuesday, 5 July 2011

microbes in the community

"summer's here and the time is right, for..." ...dancing in the streets 

attending garden parties and hearing all about microbes?

Ok, so that may never take off as a remake of the famous Motown hit, but nonetheless, this weekend saw a raft of garden parties, fêtes, school fayres and the like, full of festive folks enjoying the wonderful English summer, whilst supporting local good causes.

On Saturday and Sunday, the sun was shining brightly, the summer breeze was wafting gently and the stall at our local Old Town Festival event was well attended, with visitors eager to see what BUGS was all about, smell the difference between the untreated bran and the microbe-rich BUGS bran (which most people agreed smells like really strong salt and vinegar crisps, crossed with wheatabix!). The pictures of worm nests drew particular interest, yet although most people claimed to be squeamish, not one turned the page to avoid the close-up pictures but instead bent forward, looked more closely and asked all sorts of intelligent and interesting questions about what it was they were looking at. (more to follow on that subject, over the next few blog posts, given it proved so popular)

We gave away samples of microbe brews, for those interested to try for themselves, we spoke about peak oil and what this would mean for food growing in the future (if we can't afford the rising cost of synthetic Nitrogen, how exactly are we going to feed ourselves?) as well as the even more troubling concept of peak phosphor, given that whilst Nitrogen at least can be synthesized, phosphor can't be.

All in all, visitors to the stall were interested, engaged and wanted to know more, even though not all those attending grew organically. Hopefully we gave those we saw something new to think about and encouraged some to think about what they might do to start growing food for themselves, organically (and with the help of beneficial microbes).

At various points during the afternoon, those attending the garden fête gathered around to hear a variety of speakers give presentations, which the organisers had arranged. Nobody had expected a talk all about "the fascinating world of micro-organisms" but there it was - like a living example of the nerd in the yakult advert (you know the one - that poor nerdy chap who talks endlessly about bacteria and who pretty girls avoid at all the hippest parties) waxing lyrical about the role of beneficial microbes and what they can do for plant and human well-being.

Contrary to expectations, the talk went down rather well (who'd have thunk!) with many listeners making a bee-line for the stall to learn more and see what it was all about in greater detail.  One illustrative graphic was employed, showing the scale of the microbial world under discussion.  In fact, the graphic (see below) set the scene in describing the otherwise hidden world, bringing it to the light of day and into the focus of attention.

So when otherwise trivial facts emerged from the talk, such as the fact that, in a typical teaspoon of garden soil, there are approximately 5,000,000 bacteria - it became a figure not entirely meaningless, but an illustration of just how diverse and biologically active this hidden world beneath our feet really is.

Other fascinating facts, such as the mind-boggling statement that over 90% of the cells in our bodies are actually bacteria, carried real weight. Here in this blog (and in the "about this blog" page), we've referred to the fact that as a society we've been conditioned to think of bacteria as products purely of disease, of illness and of harm.  Now, taking the above graphic into consideration and coupled with that 90% bacteria by volume factoid, do you still think it's all about disease?  Hopefully not... and hopefully the door is opening on seeing bacteria as a natural part of who we are and what we are, as creatures who are partners to an invisible army of allies.

The soil food web is a subject we've yet to cover in depth in this blog, but as is the case with the above 90% of our bodily system factoid, so is the case within the soil - bacteria (and other microbes) form the foundation for an entire mini-ecosystem of partnership, of beneficial biological action that unbeknown to us humans at our scale, nevertheless benefits us in ways we simply can't perceive - or at least not without the help of tools such as powerful microscopes.

So, in summary, the sun shone, the breeze wafted gently and in one small corner of traditional English culture, science, tea and home-made cakes mixed to create an eclectic diversion for those in attendance.

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