Dear reader,

With my friend’s Mother SCOBY, I have made several batches of kombucha and cultured layers of healthy bacterial colonies. Some batches were sour, some were sweet, some better than others. When you feed SCOBY sugar and tea, you cultivate the best conditions for its transformation process: sweet tea ferments into kombucha, gut fortifying bacteria called lactic acid bacteria populates, and yeast intoxicates us. It goes through a process of cell division, resulting in a Mother SCOBY birthing daughter SCOBYs. This same process allows us to develop new tissues from an open wound or bodily trauma. Without mitosis, our skin and all the cohabitants inside it would not survive.

In January 2020, I co-organized a program with art historian Lauren Fournier at Recess in Brooklyn, NY titled Fermenting Feminism. The attendants of the workshop were encouraged to freely touch, cut, and carry a piece of a Mother SCOBY back home. The idea was that they could create their own batch, nurture their own bacterial offsprings, and continue this infinite web of connection. I imagine this ludic bacterial family tree that extends beyond boundaries and networks - individual bodies, communities, national borders, and land - connecting invisible tendrils and refusing to be contained. In ingesting and hosting this bacteria, we carry the history of this SCOBY within us. We are inhabited by matters called gut feelings. The division between our bodies and the Other blurs and dissolves.

Our relationship with bacteria is a troubled one, which is to say we have a troubled relationship with our bodies, their mutability, nonsingularity, and porosity. This year, we had to seal ourselves shut, contain all of our liquids, solids, smells, and particles in a semblance of a singular unit, nuclear families, Nation, and State. Or maybe we forgot that we were a living, breathing body after all. Despite our best attempt at enclosure, we have seen our communities at the margins, at risk of debilitation and slow death: our essential workers, queer folks, immunocompromised people, immigrant families, and low-income communities of color. Feminist biologist Lynn Margulis asks us, “when ‘the committee’ gets sick, is simply a single animal getting sick, or is illness more a rearrangement of the members?” If we are an assembly, it is impossible to understand where one begins and one ends. Where I begin and where you end.

Margulis also reminds us that we embody the “long lasting intimacy of strangers.” In 1966, she wrote a seminal essay titled “On the Origin of Mitosing Cells” proposing that symbiosis - touch, process, and co-operation - is the key to our common survival and co-evolution. Margulis’ paper at the time was heavily criticized and rejected by scientific journals. Her contemporaries, rooted in ideas of individualism, Darwinian natural selection, and Mendelian-style genetics of the fittest, couldn’t imagine why we come together, how we stay together. I believe in symbiosis because I believe in our futures. To believe otherwise is to betray the deepest sentiments of our cells, shoulder all of our struggles alone, and abandon the thing that binds us all. We have never been individuals. We become-with each other. Our revolution will be slow, but our horizon is far.

What does it mean to touch and form intimacy with strangers during a time of the pandemic? What forms of life will endure? What strategies exist for our survival? In this digital care guide, I explore four ingredients that go into the making of kombucha: SCOBY, sugar, tea, and time. This letter being one for SCOBY, I paired each material with text: Sweetness and Power by Sidney W. Mintz for sugar; Intimacies of Four Continents by Lisa Lowe for tea; Symbiotic Planet: A New Look at Evolution by Lynn Margulis for time. In collaboration with NXTHVN, we produced this online care guide to open up a space where we can think critically about the process of our materializations and becomings: intimacies that colonialism has foreclosed, intimacies that have endured despite world-ending structures of capitalism and transatlantic slavery, and intimacies that we digest within our gut. How can we rupture these moments of bodily intolerance, refuse forced embodiment, and agitate unruly matter? In fermenting these colonial histories and entangled narratives, I hope to metabolize our capacities, potentials, and critical operations to foment new relations with our co-companions, communities, and the commons.

We are still fermenting, still processing the pandemic, but someone once mentioned to me that fermentation thrives in zones of abandonment. I hope you make your own batch of kombucha. And when another layer of SCOBY rises to the top, you continue this long lasting intimacy of strangers.

With care,
Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin