Kim Luther, Boundary Layer

Somehow, I don't yet know Kem Luther, but after reading his 2016 book of natural history Boundary Layer: Exploring the Genius Between Worlds, I almost feel I do. That's a very good thing, and it's something I suspect most of his readers will experience while working their way through this book.

In brief, Boundary Layer pursues different versions of literal and metaphoric boundary layers. The term itself comes from mathematics, to describe the movement of fluids over a hard object. One set of formulas govern the object itself, while another set governs the fluid, but the contact zone (or "boundary layer") needed to be understood through a different set of formulas that were eventually developed by Ludwig Prandtl (Luther, p.3-4).

In this book, Luther explores the boundary layers above and below the surface of the earth--mosses and mycelia, for example--but also other kinds of environmental contact zones as well. He has put considerable energy here into excavating the assumptions around, and following the implications within, such keystone words as "ecosystem" and "wilderness," while continuing to wonder at the world in which we humans find ourselves, have evolved, and think about.

This mix of excitement and thoughtfulness is catnip for me, and most of my working life depends on the idea that I'm not the only one.

Underpinning this book, too, is Luther's long discomfort with various separations between the sciences and the humanities. That's long been crucial to my own teaching and research, and while I've made peace with the need for separate specialist discourse communities (a severely limited number of specialists able to communicate almost perfectly with each other about their specialty), I worry about the threshold that needs to be met before one can glimpse the valuable stuff happening inside such a community. Luther's approach here isn't perfect, of course, since it's old-school natural history, but lord knows I haven't found a way to do this nearly as well as he has here.

And above all that, it's just a really satisfying read, and this interview helps explain why. If you're wondering about gifts for green people you know, especially those living in BC or the larger Pacific Northwest, this is a great choice. Buy the book from the publisher here, or from a local independent bookstore!


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