Kem Luther, a Canadian-American writer, has at one time or another claimed to be a historian, genealogist, philosopher, linguist and scientist. In this book he dons the hat of a field naturalist.
Published in May, 2016, by the Oregon State University Press, Boundary Layer is a tour through the ground-hugging organisms of the Pacific Northwest and an introduction to the fascinating people who study them.
The mosses, fungi, lichen, and plants that live along the ground are more than just low-paid extras in their ecosystems. What plankton are to the oceans, the stegnon organisms are to the land -- the precondition and foundation of biotic life.
Blurb from the back cover:
"In atmospheric science, a boundary layer is the band of air nearest the ground. In the Pacific Northwest, the boundary layer teems with lichens, mosses, ferns, fungi, and diminutive plants. It’s an alternate, overlooked universe whose denizens author Kem Luther calls the stegnon, the terrestrial equivalent of oceanic plankton.
"In Boundary Layer, Luther takes a voyage of discovery through the stegnon, exploring the life forms that thrive there and introducing readers to the scientists who study them. With a keen ear for conversation and an eye for salient detail, the author brings a host of characters to life, people as unique and intriguing as the species inhabiting the stegnon.
"An exhilarating mix of natural history, botanical exploration, and philosophical speculation, Boundary Layer guides readers, in the end, into the author’s own landscape of metaphor. It will be welcomed by naturalists, botanists, outdoor adventurers, and anyone who savors good storytelling. Luther translates into luminous prose what boundary regions have to say, not only about the in-between places of nature, but also about the conceptual borderlands that lie between species and ecosystems, culture and nature, science and the humanities."
Stegnon \'steg-n?n\ n. pl. stegna. Biological chinking; a general term for all sessile microorganisms and meso-organisms (bacteria, fungi, algae, lichens, mosses, hepatics, etc.) that grow on or within the non-aquatic surfaces of the world, including rock, soil, and vegetation. – Trevor Goward
A European-derived culture thrust itself into the Pacific Northwest in the first half of the nineteenth century. Tens of thousands of settlers crowded onto the Oregon Trail, and by the middle of the 1850s, lands that North American aboriginals had managed for millennia suddenly had new managers.
The shift was delayed a bit on the Canadian side—Europeans were largely confined to Fort Langley on the mainland and Fort Victoria on Vancouver Island until the 1850s—but when it came, the change was as decisive as the one in the United States. If we had to pick a date for the management turnover in British Columbia, we might choose 1862, the year when smallpox killed half of the province’s First Nations people.
The switch to new land managers in the Pacific Northwest is not an event, however, than can be pegged to a given year, either in the United States or in Canada. It happened over many decades. And it’s still not over. As you read this, two dozen British Columbia lawyers are billing all of their hours to negotiating treaties to replace those that were signed during the turnover.
The proximity of these changes must come as a shock to the Old World historians who parcel out their narratives in centuries. As recently as a hundred years ago, hikers could head out on foot from Victoria or Seattle and find themselves, within a few hours, in nooks of nature that no European foot had touched, no European eye had seen. These near-in-time events, connected to us not only by what we read in books but also by stories handed down from parents and grandparents, condition how we think. The land retains an imprint of its aboriginal management and, beyond that, its self-management.
The Pacific Northwest, it seems to me, is a kind of living laboratory. We run experiments here, sometimes without even knowing it, that probe how cultures coexist with nature. Our experiments are perhaps no different than those that are carried out in other regions of North America, but they seem more pressing here. The answers feel like they live nearer to the questions. The experiments that we run in this living laboratory often employ the vocabulary and concepts of biology. Like most people who have a formal education, I reach for this vocabulary when I try to understand what we are learning. I’ll make use of it on these pages, when I visit this living laboratory. I will also, however, test the limits of this language, and to do this I will have to stand in wider circles than the ones drawn by biologists.
My trips in this book, my hikes to the unexplored, will take us to strange places. We will not journey outward, into the lands on the horizon, but downward, into the stegnon, the land cover of mosses, lichens, fungi, and small plants. The significance of the Pacific Northwest’s stegnon is, like the plankton in the ocean to the west of us, undervalued. It is also misunderstood. The words and concepts cultivated by the scientific community can, when applied to the stegnon, conceal as much as they reveal.
To light our way through this mysterious region, I employ the metaphor of a boundary layer. The first chapter of this book probes the metaphor itself. In the middle chapters, I chase this metaphor through local ecosystems. Pursuit of the metaphor brings us, in the end, to three boundary layers of a different type: the conceptual ones that lie between species and ecosystems, nature and culture, and science and the humanities.
Writers write what they know. Until I began to write non-academic books, however, I did not know what I knew.
In articular, I did not really know how much my connection to the natural world was a part of my take on life. My writing has always ranged over a variety of topics. For some reason, though, I have found myself returning, time and time again, to an interior spring of fascination with the natural environment.
I’m not sure where this interest came from. I can point to several early experiences with outdoor life (boy scouting, gardening, working on a western ranch), but these could be effects rather than causes. I have wondered at times whether I might be in the grip of a deep programming, perhaps even a genetic one.
Howard Gardner’s book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, when it came out in the early 1980s, was an intellectual revelation. My generation learned from Gardner that we brought to our experiences profoundly programmed ways of interacting and understanding. Gardner, battling the tendency to identify thinking with the narrow set of skills assessed by IQ tests, called them intelligences, but they are much broader skill sets than his term suggests. They are, if you like, modalities of the mind, the toolkits we bring to the task of interpreting the world. They embrace intuition and feeling as well as overt thinking. In his first publication, Gardner outlined seven of these modalities, adding five new modes to the verbal and logical skills tested in schools. These became his musical–rhythmic, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, visual-spatial, and intrapersonal intelligences. In the 1990s, Gardner admitted that he had overlooked an important modality. “If I were to rewrite Frames of Mind today,” he said, “I would probably add an eighth intelligence—the intelligence of the naturalist. It seems to me that the individual who is able readily to recognize flora and fauna, to make other consequential distinctions in the natural world, and to use this ability productively (in hunting, in farming, in biological science) is exercising an important intelligence and one that is not adequately encompassed in the current list.”
When I heard about Gardner’s correction, I wondered whether his new modality might be part of my own makeup. It might explain, for example, my own drive to place myself in the frame of the natural world when I write. It is an explanation, of course, that does not explain—it just kicks the explanation into a place where I don’t feel the need to explain it. It’s a part of who I am, for reasons that I can’t fully grasp with the other modalities that I bring to my understanding of life.
Boundary Layer, which OSU Press is publishing in May, is my most recent venture into this naturalist pre-self. Though it is all about the lands and ecosystems of BC and the Pacific Northwest, the approach I use in the book took shape some fifteen years ago, while I was still living in Central Canada. Queen’s Quarterly, a literary journal based in Kingston, Ontario, published an article with the title “Boundary Layer.” In this essay I narrated my explorations of local biotic life just above and below the soil line. The article’s name was a play on words. A boundary layer is a technical term for a transition zone. To muck about in the terrestrial boundary layer, I had to physically lay myself down in this narrow region, to get face to face with the soil and what grows there.
When I moved to the Pacific Northwest nine years ago, I found myself drawn once again to the overlooked biological zones along the ground. The boundary layers in British Columbia, however, were quite different from the ones I had known in Central Canada. The mosses, fungi, lichens, and small plants of the West Coast boundary layers were more bold, more lush. They had a commanding presence in their ecological networks. Intrigued by this new environment, I wrote several articles about the denizens of this lower region for Pacific Northwest magazines. I also started giving talks to natural history organizations and taking groups on guided walks. In 2008, when I finished the social history volume that had occupied me for several years, I decided it was time to get book-serious about my interest in the denizens of the boundary layer. By 2012, I had the first draft of the book largely complete.
The narrations in Boundary Layer owe a great debt to the army of biologists who spend their lives investigating the humble inhabitants of the regions just above the soil line. Without their research, all would be speculation. But the solemnities of their science did not always satisfy my questions. Vocabularies honed on macroflora and macrofauna had a tendency, I discovered, to carve away several of the most interesting issues posed by borderland organisms. Some of these less-than-orthodox questions, I found, were already being asked by a few of those who were immersed in detailed research on boundary layer organisms, so brought the lives and words of these inquisitive people into the text as a way to explore such questions. Ten Pacific Northwest naturalists agreed to let me expose in print the experiences that brought them to their unique perspectives on a neglected segment of the region’s biotic life.
The end of the process of writing a book, the place where the writer stands back and the role of the reader begins, is a time of uncertainty. Who will be the readers who follow them into the journeys they have taken? In writing Boundary Layer, I have reached into an inbred perspective, one that refuses to reduce itself to other ways of understanding the world. While readers do not have to possess Gardner’s naturalist modality to follow the book’s journey, those who do have it may perhaps find a message in the book that others miss.
Boundary Layer highlights the lives and work of a number of Pacific Northwest naturalists. In the time between writing and reading that is an inevitable part of the book publishing industry, these people have moved on with their lives. Interested in what has happened to these book characters in recent years? I asked the people featured in the book if they could supply an update to what has happened to them since they provided the initial interviews. Here is what they had to say.
Reviews of Boundary Layer, as they happen.
Anonymous OSU reviewer
"The author takes the reader on field walks with fascinating field scientists from restored sand dune ecosystems, to salmon streams, to the lichen draped forests of British Columbia. Every encounter offers an insightful glimpse into the thoughts and lives of the naturalist/guide, their charismatic landscape, and ultimately how that person’s work fits into a large map of important ideas about humans and nature. Luther seems to effortlessly telescope, in and out, among vastly different scales—from the moving grains of sand in a dune to the broad scope of the history of science."
Boundary Layer can be ordered directly from Oregon State University Press. Until May 1 you can get 30% off the price by using the prepub offer code SP16 at checkout.
Kem Luther, a naturalist and writer, moved from a home on Ontario’s Grand River to the southern tip of Vancouver Island in 2004. He grew up in the Nebraska Sandhills; studied at Loyola (Chicago), Cornell, the University of Chicago, York University and the University of Toronto; and taught at Eastern Mennonite University, Sheridan College, York University, and the University of Toronto. He is the author of Cottonwood Roots and The Next Generation Gap.
He can be reached by email at kem.luther AT gmail.com.