A Symbiotic Life: Art in the World of Microbes

The idea that life evolves through competition is only part of the story. Life is just as much about working together.

These words form part of the introduction to every book in the Small Friends series. They reflect the meaning of symbiosis in the natural world: ‘the interactions between two or more different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of each.’ But they also represent much more - the complexities, connections, and spectrums of the natural world around us, in which various organisms rely on one another for survival, some creatures in particular living in complete ignorance of such life-sustaining (and life-changing) relationships. 

Briony Barr, Dr Gregory Crocetti and Aviva Reed form part of the team behind Small Friends (along with writer Ailsa Wild), with Briony and Gregory also involved in the group that publishes these wonderful books: the art-science collaborative Scale Free Network. I was recently able to interview the three of them, as I was curious to learn why such a diverse group of artists and scientists decided to come together and produce stories on arguably the most overlooked aspect of the natural world - microbes.

Gregory, a microbiologist by trade, explains that Briony and himself were interested in ‘visualising the invisible’ by using their scientific and artistic talents to communicate what some scientists find difficult to get across to the wider public. They asked themselves how ‘science and art could be brought together’ for a greater purpose; that is, to ‘better represent’ what scientists are doing, whilst also highlighting the advantages of different disciplines collaborating. After all, says Briony, artists and scientists often ‘see the world from different points of view, [and] using different lenses…’ can allow people to ask different questions. 

Aviva's illustration shows the meeting of microbes Zobi the rhizobia bacterium, Cy the cyanobacteria, and Dini the zook. All play vital roles in the wider health of the Great Barrier Reef.  Image: Small Friends

Aviva's illustration shows the meeting of microbes Zobi the rhizobia bacterium, Cy the cyanobacteria, and Dini the zook. All play vital roles in the wider health of the Great Barrier Reef. Image: Small Friends

Briony’s background in the visual arts means that she brings the artistic perspective to both Small Friends and Scale Free Network. For her, ‘…understanding that there’s an enormous spectrum inside of you … is a way to reframe the human position in the world.’ This spectrum is that of the microbes that live with and against us. What can microbes tell us about the way we live our lives? How can we pull away from our anthropocentric tunnel vision, instead turning our heads to encompass all life outside of just the human?

Comparatively, Gregory provides the scientific lens through which to tell the story of microbes. Inspired from an early age by the ‘tiny little world’ of microbes, Gregory is now devoting his time and expertise to encouraging a similar inspiration in others. It is exciting to hear him speak of his favourite organisms with the awe and respect that is often lacking amongst the general public – there are whole worlds right in front of us to explore and understand, and most of us don’t even realise it.

Then there is Aviva, described by Briony as ‘not strictly in… science or art.’ She is a visual ecologist who has helped bring to life the stories of Zobi and the Zoox and The Squid, the Vibrio & the Moon through her vivid illustrations. She describes these picture books as a means to ‘work on the imagination and the process of developing an embodiment using language.’ Both publications are stunning and fascinating in their own right, but Zobi and the Zoox strikes a particular nerve in its ever-relevant portrayal of the plight of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Taking an in-depth yet incredibly accessible look at the microbes that govern the health of the reef, this beautifully illustrated story reveals how drastically affected these organisms are by the human havoc wreaked upon their home. This informative and heart-wrenching tale explains the process of reef-bleaching, and alludes to why humankind and, specifically, Australians have an immense responsibility to protect one of the seven natural wonders of the world. 

Briony explains that it is through the personal narrative of the microbes involved that many people are better able to empathise with them, and understand just how human activity can impact some of the most vital organisms on our planet. Without such narratives, it can be difficult for people to visualise the microscopic world, Aviva describing that ‘it is so far beyond what is physically relatable to us.’

Their most recent publication, The Invisible War: A Tale on Two Scales (illustrated by Ben Hutchings), tells the captivating and at times distressing story of the treatment of dysentery during World War I. The unique thing about this graphic novel is that it not only focuses on the hardships of nurses and soldiers, but as with other Small Friends books, also the microbes themselves – the good and the bad. After all, the trenches and hospitals would have been very different places if not for the often omnipresent and deadly disease of dysentery during the war.

It is both a scientific and historical narrative, which prompted me to ask why there was such a focus on the history side of things as well as the science. Gregory explains how history is often ‘loaded with other meaning’ and that looking back on certain periods can reveal how there was once ‘less pigeon-holing of disciplines’, allowing for ‘more space for bringing art and science together [and] more space for emotions… alongside the science.’ In many ways, Briony explains, ‘history is also invisible’, and through stories such as theirs it becomes possible to ‘illuminate parts of it… that are overlooked.’ The human relationship with the natural world has defined countless moments in history – our own evolution being an obvious one – and it is difficult to perceive why so many of us turn our backs on it, whether willingly or not, when we are so inextricably connected to it.

So what do the readers think? Briony delightfully explains how they receive letters from young readers, many of whom sketch their own interpretations of some of the microscopic heroes of the stories. The team has heard of various children who enjoy reading the stories over and over again. Being what Gregory describes as a ‘science education tool’, it is no small wonder that kids are engaging with the stories not as school textbooks, but rather as narratives that highlight both the science and the emotion behind our relationship with nature.

Finally, it was important to ask the overarching question of why connecting people with the microscopic world might invite them to rethink their relationship with the natural world as a whole – both the micro and the macro. What Gregory said was striking: ‘The more you understand something the more you can appreciate and empathise with it… We wage war against microbes every day because we don’t appreciate them and what they do.’ In a world of helicopter parenting, the excessive use of hand sanitisers, and the panic that Doctor Google provokes, it is not difficult to see what he means.

Depicting this astounding complexity, added Briony, is what ‘helps to encourage people to wonder at the natural world.’ For both children and adults, wonder has always been at the heart of the human relationship with nature – whether in a scientific or artistic capacity – and by reigniting feelings of curiosity, excitement, and humility in the face of awe-inspiring nature, perhaps we can better protect it. As Briony aptly states, 'the microscope is a good way to open up that wonder again.’

For more information about these fantastic books, visit www.smallfriendsbooks.com. Discover more about the Scale Free Network at scalefreenetwork.com.au.

As of 2018, Zobi and the Zoox is now available through CSIRO Publishing. Purchase your copy here.

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel Fetherston is an Arts and Science graduate who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She recently completed her Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is an editor and the Publications Manager for Wild Melbourne.

You can find her on Twitter at @RJFether.

Banner image of Aviva Reed's illustration (featured in Zobi and the Zoox) is courtesy of Small Friends Books.