One Nun, 3 Frenchmen, and 7 billion barrels of milk

A Nun, a government regulator, and a doctor all walk into a dive bar —“Bar 1984”— during a pandemic.

The Nun holds up a wheel of cheese and says, “I have a solution to this problem!”
The doctor begins to speak…
The regulator puts duct tape and masks over their mouths, handcuffs them both, takes her cheese, kicks everyone out of the bar and padlocks the door, arresting the troublemakers, and orders the place fogged with some sort of chemical to kill all the germs.

The punchline is…..interrupted when you wake up in a jail cell covered in hand sanitizer squashed between a doctor and a nun and 3 frenchmen—all bitterly arguing with one another.

Never before have I been asked for my thoughts on various methods of killing huge numbers of microbes that make up our complex communities of life. Yet recently, we literally see squirt bottles of these antimicrobial gels everywhere, and the remnants of these fogs and sprays linger on everyone’s hands and almost all public surfaces.

A major topic of conversation in most current circles of human thought seems to be, “How can we kill this little sucker!” Whether it is with a chemical, a medication or a new technology, the only question remaining is, “what is the best way to kill them?” or “how long can we keep on killing more of them for days with just one application!?”

Rarely do people consider the complexities. The risks— or the benefits—of doing something or of doing nothing; or at least of doing “something else besides killing them.”

Clearly we recognize the risk of an infectious microbe—we’ve been “edu-ma-cated” on this one for months, and the entire world has been shut down for fear of a “newly discovered” virus.

But, think with me for a moment…

What is the RISK of the killing agent or the treatment?

The risk to human life, to quality of life, the impact on chronic disease, to animal and plant life, to our food, water, and all of the things that are dependent on the communities of organisms that make up our immediate and remote environments.

What is the benefit of leaving some microbes alive?

Particularly the other microbes that exist in and around us, everywhere, and would be considered collateral damage. The benefit to our immune systems. The benefit to our food, our water, our soil, our skin, our gut, and our entire being—both physical and mental.

…and what might be “something else” that we could do to prevent illness or to regain health?

Back to the players in our story…

“Have you ever had feelings for a nun?”

— Luchador Ignacio, in the cult classic Nacho Libre

Sister Noella Marcellino and the story of her brilliant plan is best summarized by the words of Burkhard Bilger, written in the New Yorker in 2002:

I will summarize a small portion of his magnificent piece here, and most of the words here are his:

When the F.D.A. put the hammer down on small dairies across the country for producing raw-milk dairy products, one of the first victims was an old wooden cheese barrel belonging to Sister Noella and her group of cheese-making nuns. This barrel was used to make cheese in the traditional way—a well-worn wooden barrel, simply washed with soap and water between uses rather than sterilized with harsh chemicals or heat. A barrel with nooks and crannies in which tiny bacteria and other microbes love to grow, and which help transform plain old milk into wonderful varieties of cheese. The local inspector insisted that she exchange it with a stainless-steel vat….because in the opinion of the regulators, all the little dangerous critters in that barrel can be more easily killed in a stainless steel vat…and they want the milk to be free from all bacteria.

Instead of abandoning centuries of tradition, Noella and her team of brilliant nuns obeyed the order while setting a course to defend their age-old traditions using the scientific method. After getting multiple doctoral degrees, including one in Microbiology, the nuns proved the old wooden barrel actually made cheese that was SAFER than the sterile vat (and more delicious, I would add). When the nuns made two batches of cheese—one in a sterile stainless-steel vat and the other in a “dirty” wooden barrel— then inoculated both of them with E. coli bacteria (yes, the one that makes you sick), the results were astonishing to many, yet not surprising to the nuns. The disease-causing E. coli populations thrived in the cheese produced in the sterile, bacteria-free stainless steel even after the cheese had ripened; however, in the cheese from the wooden barrel, they gradually died off, because the terrain of the barrel encourages the growth of lots of healthy bacteria which effectively prohibit the growth of the dangerous E. Coli!

Why, dear reader, am I talking about nuns and barrels and cheese?

Good question!

Because you, my friend, are the barrel of milk….

We have very little control over what infectious agents get dropped into or around our “barrel,” but we have a lot of control over the “terrain” of our own barrel, and in optimizing all the things that help us respond appropriately to germs that pass nearby!!!

We could spend a lifetime discussing microbe-killing gels and fogs, masks, the distance between us, Hazmat suits, antibiotics, medications rushed to market, or traveling to our own desert island for a year, but an effective, functional approach to health and healing would be to optimize our own terrain!

Over the coming weeks, I invite you to join me in conversations of Hope and Healing….about things that can help prevent severe disease at the hands of a germ, as well as decrease the risk of chronic illness. Things like:

It would benefit all of us to spend significant time thinking about what we can do to improve the terrain of our individual “barrels” and the surrounding ones, both near and far, in our complex communities of life.

I wonder what the 3 Frenchman would be saying today…

“The primary cause of disease is in us [in our terrain],… Always in us.”

…Antoine Bechamp, french scientist and bitter rival of Louis Pasteur.

“The [germ] is nothing. The terrain is everything.”

…reportedly the words of germ theory pioneer, Louis Pasteur, near the time of his death.

“It is what we know already that often prevents us from learning.”

…Claude Bernard, French physiologist who coined the term, “milieu interieur,” which loosely translated as our “terrain.”

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