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Tales From The Underground: A Natural History Of Subterranean Life Paperback – May 1, 2002


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books; First Printing edition (May 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0738206792
  • ISBN-13: 978-0738206790
  • Product Dimensions: 8.4 x 6.1 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #586,028 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

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.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

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A great introduction to subterranean life, worthwhile reading.
Tim F. Martin
Perhaps it is a time for moderation in our thinking, while knowing that we may have to make some drastic changes in our attitudes to get anywhere!
David B Richman
"They can't survive when isolated from their neighbors," Wolfe writes.
Dennis Littrell

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on July 16, 2001
Format: Hardcover
According to David W. Wolfe, you are probably guilty of a form of chauvinism you didn't even know existed, "surface chauvinism." You know there are roots down there, and you have seen earthworms, but other than those, you may not have any appreciation for just how complicated things are beneath your feet. Wolfe, who does research in soil conservation and biodiversity, has set out to increase appreciation for his world, in Tales from the Underground: A Natural History of Subterranean Life (Perseus Publishing). Not only can you stop being a surface chauvinist, but by reading this book you will have a foundation in some radically new biological ideas that are changing foundations of science.
In these pages, you will meet Dr. Carl Woese, who in 1976 suspected that the lowly methane-producing soil bacterium he was examining was something entirely different. He started doing analyses on the nucleic acid (specifically, RNA) in the creatures, and confirmed that they were more different from regular bacteria than humans are from redwood trees. He had not found a new species, but an entirely new superkingdom of organisms. You will become acquainted with microbial communities thousands of feet down, who thrive in hot temperatures, dark, high pressure, and lack of oxygen. They feed on oil or other carbon sources, or on hydrogen in the rocks. One of the results of these findings is that they seem to make the possibility of life on other planets more likely; it used to be that we looked for planets that had just about the same sunlight, water, and so on as our own, but this was another example of chauvinism. You will find out just how the lowly fungus has an intimate and essential relation to the roots of almost every plant, and about prairie dogs, and other animals digging around underneath.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Tim F. Martin on December 12, 2004
Format: Paperback
_Tales from the Underground_ by David W. Wolfe is an excellent though rather brief introduction to the organisms that live underground; it is only 188 pages long, 206 if one count's the end notes and bibliography (which are quite worthwhile to at least browse). One of the things I liked about the book was that Wolfe was clearly enthusiastic about his subject and expressed a real sense of wonder for the fascinating organisms that dwell under the earth's surface.

He began the book with a nice overall introduction to the subject, more than sufficient to grab my attention. In one just pinch of soil from your backyard, you will be holding close to one billion individual living organisms, including quite a few that are not named, classified, or in any way studied, animals ranging in size from the tiniest of microbes to microscopic threads of fungal hyphae, the total length of which might be best measured in miles, not inches. In a handful of soil there are more creatures than humans currently alive. A typical square yard of soil contains billions of microscopic roundworms called nematodes, a dozen to several hundred earthworms, 100,000 to 500,000 insects and other arthropods, and staggering numbers of single-celled organisms. After reviewing some basics about soil layers and types, he went into more detail about this subterranean world.

The first chapter discussed the origins of life on earth, much of which had to do with life in the soil.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 3, 2002
Format: Hardcover
A sea change in our attitude toward life has occurred in recent years owing to the discovery of extremophiles, microorganisms that can live in extreme environments such as the scalding waters of Yellowstone Park or deep under the ocean near vents of molten rock, or simply underground. These life forms, previously unknown, are now believed by some to constitute a majority of the shear weight of life on this planet. That life can exist without oxygen has long been known (indeed the first life forms lived without oxygen), but to exist without the products of photosynthesis, at least the indirect products, was thought impossible. Now we know that some life forms can use purely chemical means for obtaining energy, and do not need sunlight at all.
David W. Wolfe, Associate Professor of Plant Ecology at Cornell, fired by his own enthusiasm for things extreme and underground, explores these ideas and findings in a captivating way in this informative book. He begins with the soil, what it is made of, how it was formed. "In a handful of typical healthy soil there are more creatures than there are humans on the entire planet," he advises us on page one. He explores the relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and their above ground symbionts, noting that within that same handful of soil there are "hundreds of miles of fungal threads." There are also within one square yard of soil "billions of microscopic roundworms called nematodes, anywhere from a dozen to several hundred of the much larger earthworms, and 100,000 to 5000,000 insects and other arthropods." He points out that many of these creatures "defy classification; they simply have never been seen before." (p.
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