In “The Hidden Half of Nature,” David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé examine microbes and their amazing contribution to life processes, both in nature and in our bodies. The two authors discuss their book Wednesday, Nov. 18, at Town Hall Seattle.

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“The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health”

by David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé

W.W. Norton, 320 pp., $26.95

When David Montgomery and Anne Biklé decided to plant a garden in their North Seattle yard, they soon encountered glacial till, “marble- to golf-ball-size rocks tightly packed in hard clay.” But within a few seasons of mixing coffee grounds, wood chips, leaves and compost tea into the beds, their garden flourished.

This near-miraculous transformation spurred the two into an investigation of the natural processes below ground. “The Hidden Half of Nature” chronicles their discoveries and introduces readers to the burgeoning world of microbial research that is transforming the way we look at soil, human health and the future of the planet.

Montgomery and Biklé are excellent guides. Montgomery, a geology professor at the University of Washington, has written eloquently about the fate of wild salmon (“King of Fish”), the history of soil and civilization (“Dirt”), and the geologic origins of the Earth (“The Rocks Don’t Lie”). Biklé, a biologist and environmental planner, has worked extensively in the fields of environmental stewardship and urban sustainability. Their combined talents and complementary approaches bring a fascinating, hidden world to light.

Author appearance

David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé

The authors of “The Hidden Half of Nature” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 18, at Town Hall Seattle, 1119 Eighth Ave. Tickets are $5, available at townhallseattle.org and at the door. Information: 206-652-4255.

Microbes, including bacteria, fungi, archaea, protists and viruses, are the smallest creatures that ever lived. They are also the most abundant and successful organisms on Earth, “outnumber[ing] the stars in the known universe by more than 100 million times over.” They created the Earth’s oxygen-rich atmosphere, and they make up half the weight of life on Earth.

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Yet other than bacteria, they have been studied very little.

In soil, microbes break down organic matter, deliver nutrients critical for maintaining plant health, and defend plants against disease. In the years since World War II, however, chemical fertilizers and destructive biocides have dominated our approach to industrial agriculture.

In their Seattle garden, the authors rediscovered the critical importance of microbiotic relationships and the promise they hold for restoring depleted soils.

When Anne was diagnosed with cancer, her overall health became a focus of her research. She soon discovered that the same essential, beneficial functions microbes preform in soil are at work in our digestive systems — in amazingly parallel ways.

The human body, she writes, “is like an entire planet with a rich palette of ecosystems, as different as the Serengeti and the Amazon … Paper after paper left us stunned.” She changed her diet to one emphasizing mineral-laden vegetables, and her garden became a focus of her healing.

Woven throughout their personal story, the authors explore the history and science of microbiology. Their history of medicine and disease is revelatory.

The discovery of germ theory and the development of antibiotics were enormously beneficial. But the results were double-edged. The “kill-them-all” philosophy that dominated industrial agriculture with pesticides and herbicides took over the medical world in the form of antibiotics.

Montgomery and Biklé make a powerful case that, despite science’s amazing advancements in food production and medicine, our understanding of the basic microbial ecosystems that support them is in its infancy. We’re only now “figuring out who is there and what to call them.”

“The Hidden Half of Nature” offers a wonderfully fresh and exquisitely informed approach that could change how we relate to our selves, our diets, our gardens and our world.