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Cultivating a community of microbes

by Tessa Chandler

Editor’s note: As part of monthly homework assignments, students are asked to share class reflections. This post is taken from Tessa’s November 2023 reflection of Culture is Everything, a class on fermentation led by director and co-founder, Claudia Keel.

A group of students chop and pound cabbage as they interact.
Together, first-year students begin the process of sauerkraut fermentation....

I was pretty flabbergasted at all the integrated knowledge Claudia presented in this class—and her fermentation demos and presentation went by quite fast—which led to my feeling a bit apprehensive as I began. The emphasis on the process of fermentation (at least of cabbage) being forgiving headed off my tendency towards preciousness; but as Claudia flew around the room—offering technical tips and explanations throughout our first go—I remembered there are indeed some pitfalls to be avoided. But again, the understanding of just getting started, the flexibility of the process, and the bounty of resources we’ve been provided to work with at home, eased my concerns.

Though I’m usually easily overwhelmed by working (or being, really) in such close proximity to so many others talking and doing at once, there was a sense to this part of the class—where we all chopped, pounded, and salted cabbage together—that we were all being held, that there was enough space within the process and day, that individual variations/misses were not likely to totally derail anything. Claudia’s love for what she was doing made me itch to get in there and do it myself, with equal measure of play and acceptance. What a huge, energetic relief to dive into new practices without preciousness; it’s altering some very deep patterns in me and feels so liberating.

A teacher stands over bowls of cabbage, picking a piece up with her fingers.
...with Claudia as their guide.

I’m inspired by how “mothers” (e.g., scobys, brines, koji) are passed from jar to jar, person to person, over time, developing and multiplying across families and communities. This tending of living beings, a practice of generating and preserving ancestry, feels deeply spiritual and human, almost a very important key to modern society’s salvation. Learning that it is matrilineal bacteria (mitochondria) that enable us to breathe feels honored in the fermentation practice and lifestyle. I’m inspired to keep my ferments alive through sharing not only them—but the practices I used to cultivate them—with my community. And what a sense of liberation from dependence on all the gas-guzzling supply chain: trucks, non-recyclable plastic lids, my own transport to the food co-op, all just for regular sauerkraut!

There was so much love swirling around the room together with all the happy bacteria, it was dizzying! All partner or group activities following this class will reap the rewards of how we bonded this day. My physical and emotional state vastly improved from the beginning of the hands-on portion of class to the end: my sinuses cleared, my mood lifted to silliness and care simultaneously, and I felt open to communication with my colleagues in any direction/topic. In what, again, is usually a source of overwhelm, I found myself dancing and singing! What a relief to spend the next whole day outdoors with beings much larger than us, the trees, to help process all that stirred up engagement and meeting. Huge success.


Tessa Chandler is a first-year student at ArborVitae.


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