Bacteria Rule Everything Around Me

HInder3[Image: From Financial Growth by Heidi Hinder; photo by Jonathan Rowley].

I somewhat randomly found myself reading back through the irregularly updated blog of the British Museum earlier today when I learned about a project by Bristol-based artist Heidi Hinder called Financial Growth.

Financial Growth, Hinder explains in her guest post for the blog, is a still-ongoing “series of petri dish experiments.” It “reveals the bacteria present on coins and suggests that each time we make a cash transaction, we are exchanging more than just the monetary value and some tangible tokens. Hard currency could become a point of contagion.”

Hinder1[Image: From Financial Growth by Heidi Hinder; photo by Jonathan Rowley].

While Hinder develops this train of thought into a lengthy and provocative look at other means by which human beings could exchange microbes and bacteria for the purposes of financial interaction, I was actually unable to go much beyond than sheer awe at the basic premise of the project.

Hinder4[Image: From Financial Growth by Heidi Hinder; photo by Jonathan Rowley].

By culturing individual coins, Hinder has revealed a vibrant ecosystem of microscopic lifeforms thriving, garden-like, on every monetary token in our pockets; these are landscapes-in-waiting that we carry around with us every day.

Hinder6 [Image: From Financial Growth by Heidi Hinder; photo by Jonathan Rowley].

I was reminded of the famous shot of “the bacteria that grew when an 8-year-old boy who had been playing outside pressed his hand onto a large Petri dish,” posted to Microbe World last autumn.

IMG_6288[Image: Via Microbe World].

We’re surrounded by the unexpected side-effects of these portable microbial communities.

We leave our traces everywhere—but we bear the traces of innumerable others, in turn, trafficking amongst microbiomes that are content to remain invisible until we force them to reveal themselves.

HInder2[Image: Via Microbe World].

Think of artist Maria Thereza Alves’s project, Seeds of Change, for example, a “ballast seed garden” that explored the hidden landscapes unwittingly carried along by ships of European maritime trade, with seeds unceremoniously dumped as part of their ballast, often centuries old.

[Image: Maria Thereza Alves’s Seeds of Change garden, via Facebook].

These were seeds left behind specifically from the ballast of ships—yet isn’t that exactly what Hinder’s project also explores, the portable, everyday ballast of bacteria left behind on our cash, our coins, our hands, our bodies?

After all, 94% of the money we handle every day has human feces on it. Put it in a petri dish and be wary of what begins to grow.

While Hinder’s larger point is that perhaps we could design a microbe-exchange economy based on the already-existing trade in bacteria we are all currently engaged in, whether we know it or not, the brute-force power of revelation makes Financial Growth grotesquely compelling.

We bring with us nearly infinite potential landscapes, carrying them in our wallets, purses, and pockets—on our hands, in the random waste left behind by ships and even airplanes—forming new, erratic ecosystems, a pop-up micro-wilderness we’re unable to control.


A few examples of landscapes waking up after long periods of time lying dormant have been in the news recently.

[Image: Maria Thereza Alves’s Seeds of Change garden, via Facebook].

First, there is artist Maria Thereza Alves’s “ballast seed garden” project, called Seeds of Change, which arose from a moment of revelation:

Between 1680 and the early 1900s, ships’ ballast—earth, stones and gravel from trade boats from all over the world used to weigh down the vessel as it docked—was offloaded into the river at Bristol. This ballast contained the seeds of plants from wherever the ship had sailed. Maria Thereza Alves discovered that these ballast seeds can lie dormant for hundreds of years, but that, by excavating the river bed, it is possible to germinate and grow these seeds into flourishing plants.

While Alves seems not to have literally dug down into the old layers of the river in order to harvest her seeds—instead sourcing contemporary examples of species known to have sprouted from mounds of ballast over the last few hundred years—her project nonetheless has the character of a long-lost landscape waking up, popping up like a refugee amidst the rubble in a return to visibility.

[Images: The ballast garden, via Facebook].

This idea of accidental ballast gardens—heavily detoured landscapes-to-come lying patiently in wait before springing back to life several centuries after their initial transportation—is incredible; I might even suggest parallels here with such 21st-century problems as how we might sterilize spacecraft before sending them offworld, to places like Mars, lest we, in a sense, bring along our own bacterial “ballast” and thus unwittingly terraform those distant locations with escaped landscapes from Earth. Might we someday culture “ballast gardens” on other planets from the tiniest of remnant organic compounds found on our own ancient and dismantled ships?

[Image: Maria Thereza Alves’s Seeds of Change garden, via Facebook].

Meanwhile, in a headline that reads like something straight out of Stanislaw Lem or H.P. Lovecraft, we read that “Nunavut’s Mysterious Ancient Life Could Return by 2100 as Arctic Warms.” In other words, forests that thrived in the hostile conditions of “Canada’s extreme north” nearly three million years ago might return to re-colonize the landscape as the region dramatically warms over the next century due to climate change.

This is a relatively mundane resurrection—after all, it is just a forest—but even the suggestion that future climate conditions on Earth might re-awaken ancient ecosystems, dormant environments in which humans might find it less than easy to survive, is an incredible cautionary tale for the future of the planet. That, and this story offers the awesomely mythic image of human explorers wandering across the thawing earth of the far north as strange and ancient things bloom from cracks in the ground around them.

[Images: Various herbaria pages].

In both cases, I’m reminded of an essay published in Lapham’s Quarterly a few years ago, by novelist Daniel Mason. There, Mason writes about “nature’s return,” a scenario in which dormant and waylaid seeds thrive on the rubble of the present-day landscape. “In the dusty cracks between the concrete, seedlings would germinate, grow,” Mason writes, heralding unpredictable landscapes to come.

[Images: More herbaria pages].

However, referring to these remnant seeds left over from older landscapes, Mason writes that “most would not germinate straight away,” even if given free rein over an empty field or cracked streetscape. “Rather,” he adds, these seeds “would lodge in microscopic nooks and crannies, some to be eaten or crushed, others to be paved over, but most, simply, to wait. A square meter of urban soil can contain tens of thousands of seeds persisting in a state of suspended animation, waiting to be woken from their slumber. After the fire brigades rescued the London Natural History Museum from German incendiaries, Albizia silk-tree seeds bloomed on their herbarium sheets, liberated from two hundred years of dormancy by the precise combination of flame and water.”

A square meter of urban soil can contain tens of thousands of seeds persisting in a state of suspended animation, waiting to be woken from their slumber. In Mason’s words, this return of dormant life “suggests the parallel existence of a hidden world, fully formed, simply awaiting the opportunity for expression.”

Whether dredging up old riverbeds full of ballast from previous centuries, or watching new storms form over the Arctic, bringing back climates unseen for millions of years, what might yet wake up from the ground around us, return from dormancy, resurrect, as it were, and make itself at home again on a planet that thought it had since moved on?

(Ballast garden link spotted via Katie Holten).