Underground: How Creatures of Mud and Dirt Shape Our World. Yvonne Baskin. Island Press, Washington, DC, 2005. 256 pp. $26.95 (ISBN 1597260037 cloth).
Popular science writers chronicling the lives of alluring penguins, elaborate orchids, or toxic mushrooms have a relatively easy time engaging the public with these charismatic macrobiota. These creatures are fuzzy, exotic, and mystifying, making them fine subjects for zoos and botanical gardens, natural history documentaries, coffee-table books, and calendars. Lacking from this lineup of organismal celebrities are the not-so-fuzzy collembola, rhizobia, nematodes, and other members of soil communities. These soil organisms are extremely difficult to popularize, given their small size, yet we indirectly encounter (beneath our feet) and rely on soil organisms more than the well-known charismatic macrobiota. In one of the first attempts to popularize the diversity and function of soil organisms, Yvonne Baskin takes a whirlwind tour of some of the emerging concepts in soil ecology in her engaging new book Underground: How Creatures of Mud and Dirt Shape Our World.
Baskin is a freelance science writer based in Bozeman, Montana. She has contributed in the past to Discover, Natural History, and other popular science publications. Her previous books include The Work of Nature: How the Diversity of Life Sustains Us and A Plague of Rats and Rubbervines: The Growing Threat of Species Invasions. Although she is not a practicing scientist, Baskin offers a fresh outsider's perspective on the fields she has written about. More important, in this latest work she demonstrates her ability to explain emerging concepts and issues in a relatively young and sometimes amorphous scientific field. Baskin's nonspecialist viewpoint helps to set her book apart from another recent popular science book on soil organisms, by Cornell University ecologist David Wolfe, entitled Tales from the Underground (Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing, 2001).
Underground is structured as a travelogue, describing the author's trip around the world with prominent soil ecologists as her tour guides. Stops along the way include the polar deserts of Antarctica, sugar maple forests in Minnesota, and grasslands in the Netherlands. Instead of trying to convey the importance of specific soil biota and processes, Baskin creatively infuses the personalities of specific soil ecologists with the diversity and function of the soil organisms under study to give life and character to the science of soil ecology. Technical passages are broken up with quirky quotations and descriptions of the eclectic researchers Baskin follows on her journey. In addition to bringing life to a topic that might otherwise be uninteresting to individuals outside the field, Baskin's approach highlights some of the creative twists and turns involved in the scientific process when studying the clichéd “black box” of soil ecology. She describes some of the intended and fortuitous collaborations that have formed within this inherently interdisciplinary field of ecology and refers to some of the methodological obstacles that have beleaguered soil ecologists.
To avoid having readers become entangled in the sometimes overwhelming complexity and elusiveness of soil communities, Baskin begins the book with some of the simplest soil communities on the planet—the polar deserts of Antarctica. In her first field expedition, Baskin follows Diana Wall of Colorado State University (who initially inspired Baskin to write the book) to the lunar landscapes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys. The research Wall and collaborator Ross Virginia conducted in these systems over the past 15 years has demonstrated that without the presence of plants to create a substantial aboveground input, it is easier to discern the controls on populations and communities of soil organisms. These soils are also fairly low in diversity compared with those in other ecosystems, making it easier to describe the overall diversity of soil organisms and the response of this diversity to various experimental manipulations. This is by far the liveliest chapter in the book, with my favorite quotation—“And ruffles! Imagine if you had ruffles!”—coming from the vibrant persona of Diana Wall, in reference to the morphology of the most abundant polar desert nematode, Scottnema lindsayae.
In the chapters that follow, Baskin introduces more complex soil communities as she examines the life in marine sediments and upland and wetland soils. She also layers into the discussion the interactions between soil communities and components of aboveground communities, an area of research that has gained substantial popularity within community and ecosystem ecology over the past decade.
As a way to emphasize the importance of soil organisms in human-dominated ecosystems, Baskin highlights many pressing environmental issues that have received significant media attention, including wetland conservation, air pollution, and the preservation of biodiversity. For each of these issues, she describes how soil organisms play important but unappreciated roles. In many of the examples in the book, the complete details of the ecological stories described are missing because most of the research discussed throughout the book is ongoing. This open-endedness may annoy some readers, as it will seem as though there are few answers to the questions posed throughout the book. However, this is an accurate portrayal of this field, which still has many more questions than answers.
While in general the author makes many attempts to reach out to audiences who lack a strong background in science, the book is mostly geared toward readers with an interest in biology and with some advanced high school or basic university coursework in the natural sciences. I recommend this book not only to these readers but also to anyone already familiar with the field of soil ecology. Although the book is not a comprehensive reference and only highlights specific research areas within a larger field, soil ecologists and other “seers of the underground” will come away with a unique outsider's perspective on their growing field. This perspective may help these specialists to understand how to convey the many fascinating aspects of soil ecology to broader audiences.
Given that many readers will never have observed most of the creatures or techniques discussed in the book, it is surprising that the only illustrations in the text are basic line drawings. Although Baskin's rich and descriptive writing style can help readers create their own mental pictures, it is here that I think the author and publisher missed an important opportunity to make this science come alive even further, using some of the striking photographs of soil organisms that scientists have accumulated. If publication costs limited the inclusion of such illustrations, it might have been useful to refer readers to a supplementary Web site with photos from the author's travels.
Despite the lack of vivid illustrations, as I read Underground, I couldn't stop thinking about how well suited the material in this book is for a science documentary. Perhaps the creators of Microcosmos can do for soil organisms what they did for insects, using this book as a framework. Regardless of how they are popularized, nematodes, mycorrhizal fungi, and other soil organisms will never be cute and cuddly to most people. However, Baskin's book successfully gives a face to the rapidly changing field of soil ecology, creating an enjoyable read both for scientists and for anyone else interested in learning more about the life beneath our feet.