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Bookmonger: Revolution at the cellular level

“The Hidden Half of Nature” by David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé

David Montgomery’s 2007 book, “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations,” was a disturbing assessment of humankind’s propensity for despoiling Earth’s soil. The book combined cultural and natural history to look at the long list of civilizations that had flourished and then failed once they had used up the fertility of the dirt upon which their societies had been built.

Now Montgomery, a University of Washington geology professor, has collaborated with his wife, biologist and environmental planner Anne Biklé, to dig deeper into the story of the microbes that teem not only in our soil, but also in plant and animal life, including humans. Their new book is “The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health.”

The book begins by considering the dirt in the backyard of the house the authors had just bought in north Seattle. When they moved in, it was rock-hard till, bereft of organic matter.

Biklé came up with a scheme for intensive mulching, using wood chips, fallen leaves, and bags of espresso grounds from the local coffee shop. The lot soon transformed from barren to bountiful, and within three years the couple was asked if their garden might be included on a local garden tour.

But the real story was the soil, which was newly populated with mushrooms, insects, earthworms, and other critters too small to see. The speed of this transformation was particularly striking to Montgomery, whose profession causes him to think in terms of geological time.

Just as he was beginning to consider microbes in this context, Biklé was diagnosed with cancer. As a scientist herself, this led her to do research into microbiomes, the microorganisms in a particular environment (in this case, her body), and how they equip the immune system to fend off disease.

Readers may already be aware of recent research showing that in our own bodies, microbial cells vastly outnumber those that contain our own DNA. Lest that make you feel insignificant, here’s some news that may help boost your ego — the authors contend that “we are each our own microbial galaxy” — each of us carries a unique combination of microbes, which outnumber the stars in the Milky Way.

The upshot of this couple’s research was the creation of this book, which identifies the literally vital connections between soil, what we grow, how we eat, and how we live.

The authors note that people engaged in microbial research today “are having a heyday that rivals that of globe-trotting nineteenth-century naturalists like Charles Darwin” — as they begin to piece together how microorganisms, though invisible to the naked eye, are busy extracting, catalyzing, battling, nurturing, and generally running the world in essential partnerships that extend back through the evolution of life on this planet.

The authors sometimes dive into scientific terminology (filamentous bacteria, Firmicutes, endotoxins, macrophages) that is necessary but may be challenging for the lay reader.

Hang in there: The information is worthwhile, and suggests a transformational reconsideration of the status quo in agriculture, medicine, and nutrition.

The Bookmonger review appears each week in Take Five. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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