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The Hidden Half of Nature

Way Back Wednesday

David Montgomery spoke at the Farming Smarter conference in 2015. His message is still valid today and this is still a good book recommendation!

The Hidden Half of Nature – The Microbial Roots of Life and Health

By David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklè


David R. Montgomery opens this book with the statement that, “We are living through a scientific revolution as profound as the discovery that Earth orbits the Sun.” He may be right. This is not the first time I’ve heard about the importance of microbes in the soil or in our bodies.

This is, however, the first time I’ve read in great detail the science and history behind microbial science. I’m not going to lie to you, if you can’t wade through science and history, wait for the Coles Notes version of this one.

I met, although, did not become intimate with many science-y words in this book. I found myself both fascinated and frustrated by a lot of it. Of course both Montgomery and co-author Anne Biklè (who are intimately involved – as in married) are scientists – he a geomorphologist and she a biologist.

The book begins with the journey they embarked upon when they realized the soil of their Seattle residential lot was dead. Montgomery, a little chagrined with himself for not thinking about the soil under his own feet, gave Biklè permission to do whatever to remediate the soil. Several years later, with life teaming in the yard, the couple decided to investigate what obviously worked so well.

Here is where you must put on your thinking cap and stay with Montgomery through the history of soil fertility science in modern civilization. Prepare to learn about archaea, bacteria, fungi, viruses and protists. Get ready for extremeophiles, trade wind travelling microbes and agriculture from (almost) day one.

I learned a great deal by reading this book. I’m not sure how often I’ll get to use it in coffee shop conversation, but I’m not a farmer. We meet Carl Linnaeus who named and classified much of life more or less inventing taxonomy. But now we must go beyond traditional taxonomy because Linnaeus believed, “there was no point in classifying the little buggers. They were far too hard to see and all too much alike.” We needed the discovery of DNA and DNA sequencing to begin the work of really identifying and studying microbes.

Montgomery takes on humanity’s journey of discovery to learn about symbiotic relationships between microbes, plants and soil. Here we learn how soil microbes help plants take up nutrients.

There is a lot of information in this first third or so of the book. Humanity first focused on discovering and eradicating harmful microbes, but we may be entering a new era where we focus more on understanding beneficial microbial actions and learning to work with them.

Biklè then takes us into the interior human microbiome and discusses what humanity knows to date about the microbiome of our gut specifically. Here the book delves into the world of viruses, gut cells, inflammation, immune response and the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT).

She takes us through the human biological history of microbe discovery and introduces us to its major players – Yellow Fever, Cholera, tuberculosis, smallpox and typhoid. I found the history of immunization fascinating as it  went from primitive beliefs that happened to be right to medical trials on the terminally ill to modern scientific trials the prove its efficacy.

Also, the dual nature of our immune system that fights disease and regulates inflammation… or not; which is the basis of much chronic illness in modern societies.

She offers us much food for thought regarding the journey a meal takes from mouth to south and all the processes aided by microbes it goes through. Now we’re down to the cellular level of our own gut where amazing things happen to ensure our bodies take up necessary nutrients.

Montgomery then comes back and establishes the similarity of our guts to the rhizosphere. He theorizes about what we may learn going forward about how soil health and human health interact. Because, by now, he and Biklè have shown they did the homework, his hypothesis has strength.

The authors clearly have some thoughts regarding where we are today regarding soil and human health. I’m okay with that because anyone who does that much research on a topic is entitled to a learned opinion. Anyone interested in this new look at an ancient field will not regret reading this book. Just be prepared to take your time.