Boundary Layer: Exploring the Genius Between Worlds
Kern Luther, Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2016, 186 pages.
The attractive book with the moss watercolour on the cover caught my eye in the new AJ office. The back cover promised an "exhilarating mix of natural history, botanical exploration and philosophical speculation" of interest to, among others, botanists like me. Intrigued, I picked it up thinking, perhaps Boundary Layer will give me a fresh perspective on the way I do botanical surveys and reclamation work in Alberta.
It does not, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy parts of this book. The "boundary layer" as a concept is first revealed as a physics phenomenon. As a metaphor, it is expanded to include the layer of diminutive mosses, lichens, and fungi (collectively referred to as non-vascular plants) that occupy the boundary between earthly and atmospheric strata. Then Luther looks at the in-between places of ecosystems at different scales, for example, the rare ecosystem on BC's West Coast that lives between active and stable dunes. Finally, he applies the metaphor to the undefined place between the humanities and science that Luther says, "is my own deepest rift." Boundary layer is a construct that ties these otherwise unconnected topics together.
To fill this rift, philosophical speculation makes about a quarter of the book. We understand why, when Luther reveals in the epilogue that he is a graduate of philosophy at the University of Chicago. So if you enjoy the larger sweep of thought about the origins of ecology, or of the definition of wilderness and the ramifications this has had on past and current policy--to name two examples --you may find these sections and chapters thought provoking. If, for a feet-on-the-ground practitioner like me, you are not, or if you fill the rift in other ways, such as with art or spirituality, there will be a chunk of this book that will be skimmed or passed over.
Luther does take a naturalist's look at the mosses, fungi and lichens that occupy the terrestrial boundary layer, and it is a good introduction to these often overlooked plants. In these chapters there are meta-facts that are engaging and read-aloud worthy. For example, 90 percent of forest plants are estimated to have secretive, below-ground fungal partnerships that are essential for some plants (such as orchids), and for others, gives them access to increased nutrients and contributes to their success.