TALES FROM THE UNDERGROUND: A Natural History of Subterranean Life

David W. Wolfe, Author . Perseus $26 (240p) ISBN 978-0-7382-0128-3

The world around us, according to Wolfe, a Cornell University plant physiologist, isn't quite as it appears. Our perspective is skewed because we are "surface chauvinists" when, in fact, a great deal of the earth's biological activity occurs underground. "The latest scientific data suggest that the total biomass of the life beneath our feet is much more vast than all that we observe aboveground." Wolfe does a superb job of describing in nontechnical, accessible terms the major groups of organisms living below ground and the ecological roles they play. Whether he is writing of bacteria, fungi, earthworms, prairie dogs, black-footed ferrets and burrowing owls—or the scientists who study them—Wolfe is consistently engaging. He argues convincingly that life on our planet most likely began not in some primordial ocean but rather deep beneath the surface under extreme temperature conditions, and that this information needs to inform our search for extraterrestrial life. These largely unseen ecological communities play surprisingly critical roles in human civilization, from aiding in soil formation to assisting plant growth and from controlling the world's nitrogen cycle to helping curtail soil erosion. Wolfe, by asserting that many of our current ecological practices run the risk of disrupting the lives of our subterranean neighbors, raises issues and questions that deserve a wide hearing. Illus. (June)

Reviewed on: 05/28/2001
Release date: 05/01/2001
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