My body’s plant and animal companion species

“Multispecies ethnographers are studying the host of organisms whose lives and deaths are linked to human social worlds. A project allied with Eduardo Kohn’s ‘anthropology of life‘—’an anthropology that is not just confined to the human but is concerned with the effects of our entanglements with other kinds of living selves’—multispecies ethnography centers on how a multitude of organisms’ livelihoods shape and are shaped by political, economic, and cultural forces.” (Eben Kirksey and Stefan Helmreich, 2010)

My research has always focussed on human-nonhuman relations, but as the Counting Sheep project progresses I find myself less interested in technology per se, and more interested in how technologies mediate our relationships with other living creatures.

Since my research tends to focus on large-scale, public issues in this area, I thought it might be interesting to look at what’s going on at more small-scale or personal levels, and maybe even explore what a multispecies autoethnography might involve.

Let’s take my body as an example. Six weeks ago I broke my left ankle in three places, and got titanium implants that will hold my tibia and fibula together for the rest of my life. Last week I got a bacterial infection in the surgical wounds, and yesterday my GP identified a fungal infection on my foot (both superficial and temporary conditions). Whether you find this fascinating, disgusting, both or neither, my point is that these events make it impossible for me to believe in human exceptionalism or ignore that my body is simultaneously animal, vegetable and mineral.

In Song of Myself, Walt Whitman famously wrote, “I am large, I contain multitudes”–something that is metaphorically and literally true. Microbiologist David Relman compares humans to coral, and finds it “humbling” that each of us is “an assemblage of life-forms living together.” The Human Microbiome Project informs us that “within the body of a healthy adult, microbial cells are estimated to outnumber human cells ten to one,” and we know that “100 trillion good bacteria…live in or on the human body.”

Bringing this back to the personal scale, in addition to my ‘normal’ microbiome I currently have at least two invasive species or pest organisms breaching the surface of my body.

Kingdom Bacteria (left: staphylococcus; right: streptococcus)

Staphylococcus   Streptococcus

Kingdom Fungi (left and right: tinea)

Tinea  Tinea pedis

And in order to kill the bacteria, I’m being treated with perhaps the most famous fungus of all: penicillin.

Kingdom Fungi (P. chrysogenum)

Penicillium notatum  P. chrysogenum

The use of antibiotics impacts other organisms as well. For example, each day that I take them my ‘healthy’ microbiome is reconfigured in unpredictable ways.

And we’re not done yet! My (injured) body is also directly and indirectly bound to two other animals: pigs and rats.

After surgery I developed a blood clot or deep vein thrombosis in my calf. The initial treatment for DVT is the anti-coagulant drug heparin, and for the past six weeks I’ve been giving myself daily injections of enoxaparin sodium, derived from the intestinal mucosa of pigs. In this case, one animal (the pig) dies, in part, to produce a drug that allows the human animal (me) to live.


Kingdom Animalia (left: pig intestines; right: intestinal mucosa)

Pig intestines  Intestinal mucosa

Yesterday, the heparin was replaced by warfarin, an anti-coagulant most famously used as rat poison, which I’ll take in tablet form for another three months:

Warfarin rat bait  Marevan

In this case, the same drug used to kill a pest animal (the rat) is being used to keep a human animal (me) alive.

Now all I’ve really done here is trace the species that have recently become my companions. In order to make this a ‘proper’ multispecies ethnographic account, I would need to take a much closer look at the political, economic, and cultural forces that create and maintain this human-nonhuman assemblage I call my body. And that, I’m afraid, will have to be a task for another day. It turns out that my new companions wear me out rather quickly and I’m tired now.