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Jake Vail

The Hidden Half of Nature: A Great Read About Microbes

While waiting for signs that winter is in fact waning and that it’s time to dig my hands in the dirt, pruning fruit trees is one of my favorite activities. As I thin and train branches, I ponder recent discoveries of tree health: how soil bacteria and fungi spread and exchange nutrients, how to encourage them, and how they even spread all the way up and around the outside surfaces of trees. Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard  has much more on this.

But now that spring has arrived, it’s time for veggies. A few years ago we moved our garden to a new spot and since then have added loads of mulch and compost to try to get the soil life thriving— only to see the amendments disappear. Where does it all go? There’s been a noticeable increase in the populations of earthworms, beetles, and bugs, and yet…

Well, I just unearthed the newest book by David Montgomery, co-authored by Anne Bikle. Montgomery is a geologist who I heard speak a few years ago about his previous book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations In his new one, The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health he relates similar new-garden experiences and asks the same question. The answer, in a word, is microbes.Book cover of The Hidden Half of Nature

The Hidden Half of Nature is an enjoyable read, not at all too scientific, and Montgomery is a dexterous writer who’s not afraid of incorporating some real-life experiences and subtle word play to keep it lively. I really enjoyed this book, which continually surprised me by calling to mind old connections. His book Dirt could have been lifted from the sustainable agriculture curriculum I once studied. Some of the same ideas and actors reappear as he lays the groundwork at the start of his new book. The subsequent discussions of microbe-human interactions in The Hidden Half of Nature brought to mind Rob Dunn’s book, The Wild Life of Our Bodies, which I reviewed a few years ago.

But reading it took me much further back, to when I attended a big-deal conference on biodiversity that took place before most had even heard the term “biodiversity.” James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis of Gaia fame were there, and Margulis in particular plays a role in Montgomery’s new book. It was she who suggested that the cells we are made of started as the symbiotic union of different kinds of bacteria. I wasn’t the only one in the crowd who was fascinated by this notion – many scientists were, too, and not a few were skeptical. In the years since she has been proven right.

Montgomery does an admirable job of fleshing out the history of our knowledge of microbes that led to Margulis’s insights, from Anton van Leeuwenhoek and his rudimentary microscopes to Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin in the soil, and Jonas Salk.

Pasteur’s advances shined a new light on bacteria, but Montgomery points out that after Fleming and Salk’s successes, research tended to “isolate and destroy particular pathogenic microbes” with anti-bacterial drugs and vaccinations, rather than strive to understand the processes of the vast microbial world. Just as with the natural history of larger flora and fauna, description preceded ecological study. It took some time for us to realize, as Montgomery says, “I am not who I thought I was. And neither are you. We are all a collection of ecosystems for other creatures.”

Montgomery then moves to scientist Selman Waksman’s study of the collections of ecosystems in soil and considers industrial agriculture and the widespread use of pesticides. From there it’s a quick jump down the gullet and into the human microbiome, studies of which have exploded in just the last few years. The parallels are many– Montgomery talks of the “inner soil” of our guts affecting nutrient uptake, for example, how adding fiber to our diet is like adding organic matter to our gardens, and how antibiotics can, like herbicides in the soil, act against us in unpredictable ways.

Grab The Hidden Half of Nature and dig the latest dirt on the microbes that live within you and the earth. Dig your hands in the diverse ecosystems of your garden. Recalling Margulis’s point that your cells are symbiotic microbes, embrace some personal rewilding.

—Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.

Gold Fame Citrus: A Dry Read

“Punting the prairie dog into the library was a mistake.”

Not exactly “Call me Ishmael,” but enough of a first sentence to intrigue this Kansas librarian. I had heard good things about the new book by up-and-coming author Claire Vaye Watkins and was eager to read it. Read More..

Kevin Willmott’s Top Ten

From the New Yorker to the LA Times, critics are voting a brand new movie– Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq– the best of 2015. Richard Brody calls it “a latter-day masterwork,” and it also won his vote for the best screenplay of the year. A biting social commentary based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Chi-Raq is set in Chicago and was co-written by Lawrence’s own Kevin Willmott.

kevin willmott

Kevin graciously sent us a list of 10 books that influence him in all of his films. It should come as no surprise that the man’s a scholar– so much so, that LPL doesn’t own any of his selections. But you can always find them through our interlibrary loan service. Catch Kevin’s films CSA, The Only Good Indian, and Jayhawkers while you wait. Those we have. Read More..

Patterns of Discovery

October, specifically October 12th, usually finds me re-reading The Rediscovery of North America, a short work written by Barry Lopez twenty-five years ago. In it, Lopez eloquently describes the violent patterns of colonization that Cristoforo Colombo—Christopher Columbus–initiated when he landed in the Americas.

Importantly, Lopez stresses that though they continue, these incursions need not define us. Instead, he says, the true wealth that America offers comes “from one thing—the cultivation and achievement of local knowledge.” Read More..

On The Water Knife and the American West

“You know what happens to nosy fellows? Huh?” asks the original water knife in the movie Chinatown. Roman Polanski’s California thug is pretty sharply-dressed compared to the flak-jacketed New Mexico henchman and title character in Paolo Bacigalupi’s new book about water wars in the American West; thug life has changed with the times.

It’s still Big Business and government, but it’s more militarized. And in Bacigalupi’s thriller, it’s moved into gritty speculative fiction noir.

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Wild Brits? I say! Exploring the Global Wilderness

Feeling less cranky than usual, Ed Abbey, prickly prophet of the desert Southwest, once looked around and suggested this:

“Beyond the wall of the unreal city… there is another world waiting for you. It is the old true world of the deserts, the mountains, the forests, the islands, the shores, the open plains. Go there. Be there. Walk gently and quietly deep within it.”

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Six Degrees of Victor Frankenstein, or, How a Volcano Launched Science Fiction

You’ve probably heard that an Italian doctor is predicting the imminent re-attachment of severed heads to bodies. With the steady improvements in medical science and prosthetics technology, it’s not too surprising. Nor is it too surprising that there’s another Hollywood remake of Frankenstein in the works, this one told from the perspective of Igor — who didn’t even appear in Mary Shelley’s famous book. It is a little surprising that Igor will be played by the man forever to be known as a young wizard with a lightning bolt on his forehead.

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The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness

Rebecca Solnit, though not widely known, is one of the country’s finest writers of non-fiction, in all its many guises. Twenty-nine essays, articles, and letters are included in her wonderful new book, plus book prefaces and text written to accompany art exhibits. The resulting constellation of stellar pieces connects the dots, in typical Solnit fashion, from Wall Street to the arid West, tsunamis to Thoreau, gold mining to oil drilling, gardening to Google, climate change to country music, landscapes to limits, and Haiti to hope. Read More..

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Windfall

True story: last fall I looked out my window and saw a coyote lounging in the shade of an apple tree, contentedly eating apples off the ground—the proverbial free lunch, a literal windfall.

Two years previously, at The Land Institute’s Prairie Festival in Salina, writer Naomi Klein gave a talk called “The Message”—meaning, the message of climate change. Klein is the author of The Shock Doctrine, a powerful and important book with an ominous subtitle: “The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” My notes from her talk emphasize her point that, contrary to appearances, the right wing completely understands climate change, and, especially, its effects. Read More..

To make the gods laugh, tell them your plans

Well, I had planned on continuing my new series on environmental classics with Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, a favorite book by a favorite author in a favorite place. But only nine pages into a rereading of it and I got sidetracked by Kevin Fedarko, who just wrote a thoroughly enjoyable book called The Emerald Mile. As I was drawn into this compelling tale of running the Colorado River, I thought, “No problem. I’ll do a joint Abbey-Fedarko review. It’s a perfect fit.” Read More..

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