Five Questions with Microbe Lovers and The Hidden Half of Nature Authors David Montgomery and Anne Biklé

Developmental editing has its upsides and downsides, that’s for sure. Downs include relentless deadlines, virtual anonymity (though this can be a kind of hidden benefit), and a near constant battle with my old friend procrastination. But a clear upside that obliterates the negatives is collaborating with amazingly smart and talented folks on a project that really means something, thatdare I say, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic—might even change the world. I had that very opportunity last year when I started working with David Montgomery and Anne Biklé on their book about microbes. Who could say no? Not only are these two highly regarded in their fields and incredibly skilled writers and researchers, but they are also absolutely lovely people to boot. And so I felt more than a little excitement and pride when I got my hot-off-the-press copy of The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health. I am not the only person who thinks this book is phenomenal or could even change the world. From Publishers Weekly to the Guardian to the Seattle Times, The Hidden Half of Nature is garnering rave reviews from every corner. So it’s high time that our loyal GFP blog readers get the 411 on what is really going on beneath their feet and in their guts.  

Can you describe the premise for The Hidden Half of Nature? How did the idea come about?

This book was born of garden lust (mostly Anne’s). We did the opposite of what’s happening in Seattle nowadays. We kept the house and cleared most everything else off our lot. That was when we saw what we really faced—a side yard filled with dead dirt. Frankly, we panicked, and then we got to work. We needed organic matter, a lot of it. If you look around town, there are a lot of free or cheap sources of organic matter. We gathered up things like a neighbor’s oak leaves, espresso grounds from nearby coffee shops, and wood chips from arborists. Within just a few seasons we began to see changes in the soil, and this spawned the idea for a book. What, really, is going on beneath our feet? Where was all this organic matter disappearing to? Answering these questions led us in multiple directions, but there was a common thread—microbes seemed to be at the root of things.

The book is so enriched by you both bringing your unique perspectives to it. What were some of the challenges of cowriting The Hidden Half of Nature?

How’s this for a challenge: 1) pick a topic—dirt—about which most people yawn; 2) charge a couple with turning their experience restoring dirt into a story; 3) weave history, science, and a health scare into the story (at just the right places); 4) seamlessly blend the distinct voices of two people into one voice (except for in two chapters); and 5) entertain and inform readers while subliminally changing their minds about what they thought they knew about the way that nature and their bodies work.

Anne, I know this is your first book, and Dave, your third. What surprised the two of you, or challenged you most, about the publishing process for this book?

There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that most people probably don’t realize. Once you turn the manuscript over to the publisher they adhere to a schedule. So if you have the idea that you are going to integrate additional material that you come across after submittal or that you are going to rearrange material after first pass, think again. We tried to sneak things in here and there, but you have to be careful about how it affects material that has already been copyedited. The other thing is that we had relatively little control over the cover of the book. We squawked a lot about that and didn’t get entirely what we wanted. But in the end, we are very happy with how it turned out.

The Hidden Half of Nature has such a strong scientific foundation, but it seems to be resonating with a lay audience. Why do you think this book is really piquing readers’ interests?

A number of books have come out in the last ten years or so that examine the various factors that go into growing food and how that determines what we buy and eat, and how that in turn influences the land, our bodies, and the health of both. Take this topic from the level of an individual (the two of us dealing with our fixer-upper soil) to aspects of the larger world and it has big implications—and potential solutions—for how to tackle some of humanity’s most daunting problems. Among them, feeding the world, reversing the epidemic of chronic diseases, and tackling climate change in a meaningful way. Also, most people have their own self-interest at heart, and so when a book comes along that can lay out and connect the dots from them to the planet, many are intrigued and start reading. Also people start to see where they fit into the picture, and for those who want to, how they can take action anywhere along the continuum of their body to the planet.

Dave, can you tell us about your new book? And Anne, do you have any plans to write another book?

Dave: I just got the contract for and am partway into writing a new book that looks at regenerative agriculture—the idea that we can build and improve soil through intensive agriculture. My second book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, looked at how societies throughout history have degraded soil to their lasting detriment. This new book is a more forward looking—and optimistic—examination of how farmers around the world are regenerating soil through adopting different practices guided by the principles of conservation agriculture. It builds off of the perspective of cultivating beneficial microbial life in the soil that we explore in The Hidden Half of Nature and looks at how farmers are putting those principles into action.

The book will center around a series of visits I made to farms in Africa, Latin America, and across the US where farmers have increased their crop yields while decreasing their agrochemical use and increasing the amount of carbon in their soil—and improved the profitability of their farms by doing so. That the same principles work to guide practices on small subsistence farms in Africa and on large commodity-crop operations in North America shows that while the specific practices may differ, the principles of conservation agriculture apply across the board. Through adopting them, farmers can help feed the world of tomorrow, sequester enough carbon to help offset climate change, and bolster biodiversity on our agricultural lands.

Anne: I think that I would like to write another book, but what kind is the question. As readers will find out, cooking and gardening took on a whole new light for me after discovering and healing from cancer. I’ve been mulling over the idea of a cookbook that wouldn’t be a traditional cookbook filled with recipes. It might be archetypes of dishes that I’ve devised. I’m quite bad at following recipes; I see them as the starting point for doing something else.

The other area that interests me is history. I think most of us have but a dim view of the past, which makes sense on some level since we didn’t live in past times. But when you begin poking around, history is very helpful in explaining and understanding the present. There are some really interesting characters we came across from the world of agriculture and plant science. I’d like to dig into their stories and see if there is more to them.

And of course we all wonder about our own families. My mother is no longer alive, but I learned from my father recently about my maternal great-great-grandfather. He was called the “Red-Headed Rooster of the Rockies.” Mt. Belford, one of Colorado’s handful of peaks over fourteen thousand feet, is named for him. He was apparently appointed to serve as the first congressman when Colorado became a state but later lost the election to a rival who opposed his initial appointment. There’s a story in there I’m sure.

There most certainly is a story there, and I have no doubt that Anne will find a great way to tell it. In the meantime, add The Hidden Half of Nature to your holiday gift list and impress people with your seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of microbial life in 2016.