Boundary Layer by Kem Luther
Thirteen years ago, Oregon State University Press published “Gathering Moss,” a quietly thought-provoking collection of essays by Robin Wall Kimmerer that linked science, indigenous knowledge, and personal experience around the miniature and marvelous world of mosses.
Now the press has published a new book titled “Boundary Layer,” which also examines mosses, along with lichens, mushrooms, and other life forms that inhabit the stegnon – the diminutive land cover at our feet.
Nebraska-born naturalist Kem Luther has spent most of his adult life in Canada, and has called Vancouver Island home for nearly a decade. As author of this book, he takes us on a tour of the forests, bogs and dunes of the Pacific Northwest. He introduces us to some of the key scientists who are studying them. And he also frequently detours into the long history of how humans have thought about, explained, and explored the natural world.
Luther describes how two large systems such as atmosphere and lithosphere operate under their own physical laws – but when they come into contact with one another, the interface between them develops its own set of operating principles. And it is in that transitional region that mosses, liverworts and other denizens of the bryosphere crop up, acting as minute mediators between the competing larger systems.
The life forms that develop in boundary layers have evolved to be tough in typically adversarial conditions, but they can also be vulnerable to disruption.
To illustrate, Luther begins with a large-scale example of a boundary layer – a beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island – the interface between land and ocean. He visits a team that is attempting to restore a dune system there. A highly specialized ecosystem had developed over millennia at the Wickaninnish dunes, but over the last 150 years, human efforts to stabilize the dunes by planting a non-native beach grass have backfired. Plants that traditionally had colonized the dunes because they were precisely adapted to thrive in shifting sand conditions have disappeared, and the entire dune ecosystem is in danger of dying out.
The book moves on to introduce experts in mosses, mushrooms and lichens. They’re doing fascinating work, sometimes without funding, and seldom with much fanfare.
Then Luther delves into other areas. These aren’t entirely unrelated, but they do feel like detours from what initially had seemed to be the book’s core. He discusses the efforts of governments, scientists and environmentalists to get a handle on things by categorizing regions in various ways, including a “biogeoclimatic” approach. He wrestles with constructs like language and philosophy and religion, and how these have defined humankind’s approach to the natural world at different times.
Readers who prefer a methodical approach will not find it here. But if you are open to roaming through an array of ideas – you’ll probably find some of Luther’s observations to be scintillating.
By the end, the author has identified and addressed a variety of boundary layers. This book is an unconventional foray into what usually gets overlooked.
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com