Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Dialogues with other species

In an interview on NPR last week to promote his new book, “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation”, Michael Pollan discussed the process of fermentation and then described how his newfound understanding of fermentation enabled him to make his own starter for bread rather than using yeast.

But what Pollan said next about baking was what really caught my attention. “At a certain point, I was able to throw away my recipe books and trust my senses in what dough should smell and taste and feel like, and realizing when it was ready,” he said. “It's just alive, you know? It's sort of like gardening for me. You're in this dialogue with these other species.”

I love the way he phrased it: being in a dialogue with another species. It made me think about the various things I do that could be construed that way. Walking in the woods.Taking care of pets and farm animals. Helping to mow the fields and turn the cut grass into hay bales at my parents’ farm. Listening to an owl. Planting herbs. All of these are activities that I consciously find rewarding, but the thought that it’s not just a diversion but a dialogue of sorts with another living species cast an interesting new perspective on it.

Dialoguing with humans, after all, is such a big part of my everyday life. My job as a journalist relies on my asking people the right questions and understanding their answers. It’s my passion as well as my occupation, but it can also be exhausting. Years ago, when I had an office job in the city, I confessed to my sister that at lunchtime I often bought a ready-made sandwich from the refrigerator compartment at the corner convenience store rather than ordering from the gourmet deli across the street simply because I needed a break from conversation, and would rather buy a sandwich of lesser quality than have to discuss my preferences with a deli worker. It’s nothing against deli workers; it’s just that I spend the work day crafting conversations and sometimes need a break from it.

A while ago, on a cooking show, I heard a Spanish chef explaining how to make a vegetarian stew. “Once you have the garlic talking to the chick peas….” he said. The host of the show laughed and said she didn’t speak fluent chick pea. I think she interpreted the funny turn of phrase as evidence of his faulty English. But cooks understand what this chef meant: ingredients have dialogues with each other, and with the person preparing them.

I can’t get away from human dialogue, nor would I want to. Both my personal life and my professional life depend on openness to verbal communication. But Michael Pollan’s unexpected turn of phrase served as a reminder that dialogue exists in other places too. How I talk to the dog, the daffodils, the stink bug on the kitchen floor, the chives growing in the window box….How I dialogue with other species. I suspect that once I start listening more closely, it may turn out to be just as interesting as the human dialogue that fills my day.

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