Life Outside the Box

The Editorial Director of MOTHER EARTH NEWS attended an inspiring conference that encouraged him to keep an open mind when seeking explanations.

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Last March, I attended a conference devoted to understanding how soil health affects plant health and nutrient density, which collectively affect animal (including human) gut microbiomes and, ultimately, animal health. It was the highlight of my entire life — in the realm of conferences, anyway.

During that event, I learned that sheep eagerly eat some less-palatable but nutritious forages in the afternoon only after eating a more-palatable forage in the morning. The science behind it goes something like this: The plant secondary compounds in the breakfast graze counteract the ill effects of the secondary compounds in the afternoon graze. How do the sheep know? Well, a sheep’s microbiome is adept at letting it know when something good is happening by facilitating the release of “happy hormones” when eating the “right” things in the “right” order. Once an individual discovers this pattern, it imprints on it. And since this behavior is learned, it follows maternal lines. Lambs learn from their mothers and teach their offspring. Have you ever heard of sheep eating poisonous plants, such as Datura, in quantity? We’ve seen it in our flocks — sometimes we’d watch them go after that alkaloid-laden plant and worry we’d have a bunch of sick sheep in the morning. But it never happened. Although we had never put the pieces of this puzzle together, it was, for us, a beautiful puzzle. And, at least hypothetically, the sheep’s microbiome was directing the assembly of this puzzle.

At the conference, we also learned that the human gut microbiome is in steady communication with the brain and many other nerve centers, organs, and cells in the body. And if a nutrient is in short supply, if we’re practiced and sufficiently astute, we’ll feel a craving for foods that supply those nutrients. The communication pathways between our organ systems and our microbiome go in both directions. While the scientist in me is still digesting this information, my wife simply knows, because for her entire life she’s felt cravings for specific foods at specific times — and she feeds those cravings rather than denying them. At her most recent medical checkup, the physicians were stunned by her health. Yeah, correlation isn’t causation, and a data set of one isn’t a well-tested hypothesis … but why would sheep know what they needed to select from a diverse pasture, yet humans not know what they needed?

While I could babble on about many other data sets that we were exposed to at that conference, my point is to simply reinforce the value of an open mind. We grew to not care about our sheep eating Datura, but it’s fun to know why it might work for them. It’s easy to get locked into the box created by the experts’ rules, but sometimes explanations lie outside those boxes. And when we’re open to that concept, we’re free to explore all kinds of wacky things. Sure, we might have a wreck now and then, but we might also discover something amazing, and that keeps me comfortable with life outside the box.

If you’ve had any recent revelations related to something you tried that flew in the face of conventional teaching, I’d love to hear about it. Send me an email at, and maybe we can create a new department in the magazine called “Outside the Box.”

See you in August,


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