We occupy a complex interwoven web with all the species on the planet. But if I had to name the two species that have lived most closely with us and done the most for us, there would be no doubt in my mind: Canis familiaris and Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The common dog and the common yeast; we might not recognize ourselves without them.
Dogs first. They have been trotting beside us for somewhere up to 40,000 years. They helped us hunt in the Paleolithic era, and they are comforting us through the current pandemic. If the sad time comes when the last surviving human walks across a nuclear hellscape to the very end of our species, a dog will probably accompany him. They have not been treated as they deserve, as witness shelters full of dogs. But they have helped soften us into humanity. The dog shown above is my yellow lab Lucy, in a picture snapped a few weeks before she died last week at the astounding age of 19. She was a three-year-old shelter dog when she decided firmly that she would be my dog, and was my constant companion for the following sixteen years. She was the most cheerful and loving spirit that I’ve encountered. I didn’t necessarily deserve Lucy, but I tried, and she made me better. Every dog is unique and there will never be another like her, but somewhere there’s a good dog in prison who needs to be sprung out, and before too very long I’ll go find her. I encourage everyone to do what they can for the world’s abandoned dogs. If you can’t have or don’t want a dog, donate to shelters and rescue programs, and if you’re thinking of getting a puppy, please consider an older dog who might not otherwise find a home. We owe them.
Then there’s yeast. Yeast surrounds us and is continually seeking water and a sugar source. I’ve been told that if flour is wetted with water for 18 seconds, yeast from the air has started to reproduce in it at the end of that time. I don’t vouch for this, but I would not put it past the ingenious and resilient Saccharomyces. It’s built to survive. Every time I use my sourdough starter I consider how Saccharomyces has “come to an understanding” with a Lactobacillus species, the latter splitting the starch in the flour and providing it to the yeast, which in turn ferments it and leavens the dough. These symbiotic colonies are very stable and have been used by humans for millennia. But bread is only the beginning of the uses of S. cerevisiae. All our wildly varied beers, wines, hard ciders, and other alcoholic ferments come from varieties of this one species, and they are as old as recorded history and may precede bread as humankind’s happiest discovery. I was once told that an early Amazon explorer remarked that he had encountered Stone Age tribes that had not made a connection between sex and babies, but never a tribe that hadn’t learned to ferment something into alcohol. I’ve never checked the reference because some stories are too good to fact-check. Let’s just take it as a given that alcohol in moderate quantities is a gift and a boon and has been for a very long time.
My house is seldom without a fermenting bucket of something-or-other gurgling happily through its airlock. I lean toward low-alcohol light wines and hard ciders. This year a series of bizarre late-spring hard freezes destroyed most of my fruit in its infancy, so I’m making a series of “leaf wines” based on an old British recipe for nettle ale. They are a lot of fun to play with and don’t taste vegetal in the way that you might expect. That’s the joy of fermentation.
I’ll give more details in the future, but for now, hug your dog if you’re lucky enough to have one and raise a glass to humankind’s two oldest friends.