You all know I'm a serial junkie. Grain free, of course. So (couldn't resist), isn't it going against the grain that I've taken so long to come out with the next in my Symbiotic - Commensal - Parasite series? Where have I been?
|barnacles on a feather--were they there when the feather was on the bird?|
No excuses -- but hey, I could blog for the rest of the month just filling in the details on that paragraph!
Commensal, though. The real reason it's taken me some time to get to this is that I find "commensal" hard to explain and even understand. "Symbiotic" is straightforward--life working together to make life. "Parasitic" (which we'll get to next time) is also a pretty clear-cut concept.
Commensal comes from Latin whereas the other two come from Greek. Maybe just a coincidence that it's more slippery. If it were a Greek derivative, it would be:
Syssitic. In other words, it combines the first element of "symbiotic" -- the sym/cum/co "with"
with the second element of "parasitic" -- sitos "food" (actually literally "grain"; NB the "mensa" in Latin literally means "table" but specifically a meal table and with an etymological connotation of grain harvest also).
The colloquial translation of commensalis/syssitios is "messmate" -- someone who sits at the same table in a communal cafeteria. In that situation, you'd think one diner is much like another. But in our parlance, technically a commensal organism is one that feeds from a host without causing the host any harm or damage. The remora fish glomming onto a shark or manta ray is a commonly cited example, as are the barnacles on whales.
So it turns out part of my discomfort is linguistic/syntactic. The word "commensal" properly denotes a reciprocal (sym/cum/co = "with") relationship between two different diners/remoras. But our language is using it to denote a one-way benefit relationship between remora and manta ray.
Sometimes words just don't collide with reality in a logical way...
Reaching deeper, with all the messages I've been receiving lately on the interconnectedness of all of us, animalvegetablemineraletherial (and that's why we have differentiation) I just can't wrap my brain around the idea that something feeds on something else without affecting it for either good or ill. Something can be affecting me even beneath the threshold of my awareness. And something else that isn't even present can affect me because I believe it is. The idea that the barnacle or the remora or the commensal bacteria have no benefit or detriment to the whale or manta ray or human gut seems to me tantamount to saying that they don't have real existence. It's a disrespect to them! Surely the barnacle helps clean the whale's skin, the remora and bacteria likewise--if they're nurturing themselves from what their host doesn't need, in my book that's actually providing a benefit.
When I've been in social situations being served gluten/dairy/meat, being able to pass the food I couldn't eat on to a friend or partner was a boon for me--there's one kind of commensal.
On the other hand, for whatever scarcity consciousness reasons, for much of my life I've appropriated the "cleanup crew" commensal position whereby something's permissible for me to eat if no one else wants it and it'll otherwise be thrown out (like stray fallen pieces of fruit on the floor at the store or farmers market, or godhelpme leftovers). Current meditations--and, no doubt, the sugar detox--are helping me let go of that old pattern.
Commensality is no one-way street! I am, therefore I impact.