Tales From The Underground: A Natural History Of Subterranean Life

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9780738201283: Tales From The Underground: A Natural History Of Subterranean Life
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There are over one billion organisms in a pinch of soil, yet we know much more about deep space than about the universe below. In Tales from the Underground, Cornell ecologist David Wolfe takes us on a tour through current scientific knowledge of the subterranean world. We follow the progress of discovery from Charles Darwin's experiments with earthworms, to Lewis and Clark's first encounter with prairie dogs, to the use of new genetic tools that are revealing an astonishingly rich ecosystem beneath our feet. Wolfe plunges us deep into the earth's rocky crust, where life may have begun-a world devoid of oxygen and light but safe from asteroid bombardment. Primitive microbes found there are turning our notion of the evolutionary tree of life on its head: amazingly, they represent perhaps a full third of earth's genetic diversity. As Wolfe explains, creatures of the soil can work for us, by providing important pharmaceuticals and recycling the essential elements of life, or against us, by spreading disease and contributing to global climate change. The future of our species may well depend on how we manage our living soil resources. Tales from the Underground will forever alter our appreciation of the natural world around-and beneath-us.

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Review:

Step into your backyard, David Wolfe suggests at the outset of this engaging book, and push your thumb and index finger into the root zone of a patch of grass. The pinch of soil you bring up will be a world of its own: "You will likely be holding," he writes, "close to one billion individual living organisms, perhaps ten thousand distinct species of microbes, most of them not yet named, catalogued, or understood."

Scientists are only beginning to comprehend the wealth of life that lies below the earth's surface, observes Wolfe, a soil scientist at Cornell University. Apart from familiar, easily observable subterranean creatures--earthworms, say, or prairie dogs--those scientists have found there progressively tinier forms of life, from "water bears" (tardigrades) and dust mites to microbes whose existence miles below the earth's surface provides keys to the origins of life itself. Noting that the total biomass below the surface may well exceed that above it, Wolfe takes his readers on a learned tour of the subsurface biosphere, layer by layer, mile by mile. What he reports is surprising, and oddly inspiring--for, Wolfe notes, although the human footprint on the soil is deep indeed, and getting deeper, plenty of life occurs beyond our reach.

"We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot," Leonardo da Vinci observed five hundred year ago. Wolfe's book helps diminish some of our ignorance, and it is a pleasure to be educated through the course of his pages. --Gregory McNamee

About the Author:

David W. Wolfe is Associate Professor of Plant Ecology in the Department of Horticulture at Cornell University, and a member of Cornell's Biogeochemistry Program.

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