PIMA BULLETIN NO 49
Part three: A pluriverse of activities
The gut as an ecosystem
Astrid von Kotze
The political economy of food is a fruitful catalyst for unsettling the understanding of Nature as an abstract “thing”, to be used and exploited. Part of the economy are human consumers – in particular, that part of human bodies that processes food: the gut.
In ‘polite’ society we do not speak about our bowels – not the organ and its workings, and certainly not the product of busy bacteria breaking down food-stuffs into vitamins, toxins, spotting invaders, supplying energy, clearing away waste (euphemistically referred to as ‘stool’). Yet the gut is arguably one of the most important organs in bodies, and it connects us directly to and within nature.
Our gut-system is a micro-ecosystem, where each element relates to and depends on the working of another. The gut determines our wellbeing – and yet, we generally only acknowledge its existence when it seems to malfunction: we have reflux, we complain of a sore tummy, we have ‘the runs’, we feel bloated, etc. Worse, the notion that the gut ‘down there’ should have a strong connection with the brain ‘up there’ seems ludicrous. There is a strict separation between the ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ of bodies. We don’t consider the urgent message sent from the gut to the brain, that we ‘have to go’, dismissed by the brain as ‘inappropriate, not now’ when we are sitting in the lounge with auntie, eating cake, drinking tea and making polite conversation. When the brain sends a telegram to the second sphincter muscle (did you know you even have 2?) to close for the moment, we pretend nothing happened and continue to ignore the relationship.
In this activity, developed for working class women as part of a course on health, we offer human and more-than-human entanglements in the gut as a useful starting point for creating sensitivity about connectedness and relationality.
The activity begins with where people are: their own bodies, here and now. It explores how the minute microbes in different parts of the digestive system work systematically with each other in opposition. Finally, we raise a discussion about gut health in relation to race, class, gender and geography: how do socio-economic factors impact gut-health – and how does this relationship reflect broader human-earth relationships?
Distribute raisins or small bits of fruit, like grapes.
Ask participants to put the food into their mouth and, as they process it, trace the journey through the body.
Name the body parts that the food goes through. Identify the functions of each part.
Discuss: how do the various parts of the digestive process make up a system? Point out how each relates to the other: they are all interconnected and each part needs the other to function properly.
Relate this process to the food system outside the body! Where does food come from, and what is the process from earth to table / mouth?
Focus on the digestive system itself: The large and small intestines. The small intestine is 3-6 m long – how does it fit inside? It needs many folds to fit – but also to increase the surface area, which is covered by lots of protrusions – all with the job of digestion (breaking down the tiny particles of food into even tinier ones). The workers inside the intestines are microbiota – which means ‘little life’. Our gastrointestinal tract is home to more than a thousand different species of bacteria—plus minority populations of viruses and yeasts, as well as fungi and various other single-celled organisms.
Draw comparisons to the world outside the body: identify the many agents that care, protect, nurture, feed us.
Add information: More than half the bacteria that grow in our digestive tract are so well adapted to living there that they could not survive outside the gut. Our gut is their world. It keeps them warm, moist, protected from oxygen and it keeps them fed. In exchange /return for us providing the bacteria with a warm place to live, they nourish us, protect us from invaders like harmful bacteria, viruses etc, transport particular nutrients to different parts of your body, make hormones, activate the defense system, and so on.
Discuss: How do you feel about all that life inside you? What do you think about all the energy produced and consumed inside your body?
How does this remind you of the world you live in, where so much labour remains invisible and unpaid?
How does the separation into brain and gut functions reflect other separations?
which functions are valued more - and why?
We are nature and nature is inside us. Why do we continue to separate humans from nature – and how does that impact how we relate to nature?
About the Author
Astrid von Kotze lives in Muizenberg, Cape Town, by the sea. She enjoys walking her dogs on the mountain and working with her hands. In the last few years, she has published variously on ecofeminism and popular theatre.