Friday, September 23, 2016

BOOKS: The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health

The Hidden Half of Nature:  The Microbial Roots of Life and Health
Authors:  David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé.
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (November 16, 2015)
ISBN-10: 0393244407
ISBN-13: 978-0393244403

By Robert Kourik

As most gardeners know, healthy plants require healthy soil. The Hidden Half of Nature offers insight into the soil life forms— specifically the microbes—that play an essential role in supporting plant growth. It also explores an intriguing link between these microbes and the microbes in our digestive systems that affect our health.

For authors David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé, their path to this revelatory connection began with puttering in the garden. As they became more accomplished organic gardeners, their interest turned to the “hidden half,” the life in the soil. What, exactly, was it that made their garden soil so productive?

In this book, they discuss subjects such as nitrogen-fixing bacteria that colonize legume roots; beneficial fungi that absorb minerals directly into root cells (mycorrhizal association); the vibrant root ecology where nutrients are absorbed (the rhizosphere); the chemical exudates that help release minerals into a form roots can absorb; and useful bacteria that interfere with pathogens.

In the midst of their research, Biklé was diagnosed with cancer. She emerged with a clean bill of health after surgery, but this experience led her to investigate the beneficial microbes that colonize human digestive organs and their roles in keeping us healthy. Our bodies and the soil may seem like disparate entities, yet the authors draw many fascinating parallels.

Montgomery and Biklé also review some of the earlier proponents of organic or sustainable farming: Sir Albert Howard of the 1930s, Lady Eve Balfour in the 1940s, and William Albrecht of the 1950s. All proposed a link between the organic nurturing of the soil and a healthy body, but it’s only recently that these assumptions have been scientifically substantiated.

On that note, I love scientific detail so I appreciate this book’s copious footnotes and citations for further inquiry. I would have preferred more depth to the index, but this is a minor quibble.

Overall, the authors make a strong case for “working with rather than against the microbial communities that underpin the health of plants and people.” This book will illuminate the connections between what we feed the soil and ourselves.


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