Nature’s Fabric by David Lee

Nature's Fabric

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

The broader my knowledge of books the more excited I become at the quality of work that is out there to be read. Books cover virtually any topic including those as yet undreamed of. When the present volume arrived, I could not wait to get inside its cover, to find out why a book called Nature’s Fabric interested its author.

David Lee is very well known in the scientific community. He is the author of many articles and several books, including Nature’s Palette and now Nature’s Fabric. For more than fifty years his focus has been leaves, researching them in Asian tropics and Florida International University. Having entered his seventy-fifth year David Lee is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at FIU where he researches…leaves.

Professor Lee’s approach to his subject in Nature’s Fabric is a winning one. How less than excited will any reviewer, indeed any student, be when faced with the thought that the next few months will be devoted to studying leaves – green vigorous leaves, mouldy old-timers on their last legs. Not something to warm one’s heart but – open David Lee’s book and by Chapter Three leaves are the “hottest” thing around. The reason is found in the quite extraordinary way in which Lee teaches us his passion.

Chapter One begins with green men in English mythology, which expands to ceremonies associated in mythology with trees. From here it’s a quick slide into foliage and the Garden of Paradise. I’m talking Adam and Eve, whose garden is a nice metaphor and inspiration for royal and ecclesiastical gardens, at least one of whom has felt the magical hands of Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (Humboldt, for brevity’s sake). From here the text takes a determined turn into a new chapter called Leaf History.

The information is absorbing as the reader is led through the input into leaves by some of the best known scientists of recent centuries, little realizing that they are learning about and transiting through cellular structures to leaves, to trees, and to plants and animals.

Chapter Three is called “Green Machinery” a very apt title as it so happens. For here is told in casual but stringently academic fashion, the story of photosynthesis. Of course the story begins, in unlikely fashion, with William Harvey who reported on the circulation of human blood in 1628, and who went on to invent ingenious ways of measuring pressures and volume of fluids and gases. Van Helmont, Stephen Hales and Joseph Priestley and other big names in science suddenly find themselves harnessed to the development of plant knowledge. All information is treated logically and links beautifully from one scenario to the next. That’s the David Lee style. An excellent example of the overarching passion of those who have developed further our understanding of photosynthesis is delivered in an understated aside called Einstein’s “cosmic religious feeling” (65).

Chapter Four is called Nature’s Fabric and our reading, still at a persuasive academic level, reveals a statistic that is so “way out there” as to leave one gasping. It’s David Lee’s comment that the annual production of leaves on the land surface is around 39 billion tons per year, an equivalent figure to the mass of our extraction of petroleum. The science associated with the thickness of leaves on the ground becomes an acceptable link to climate control and change particularly at a global level.

The point I’m alluding to in this discussion is the seamless transition from one topic to the next. The book is a masterly piece of writing. Chapter Five is called leaf economics and relates to the economic models underpinning research, topics like the Linnaean classifications, leaf connections and leaf traits plotted, thus reminding us that we’re talking about serious research into what we will soon be calling a leaf economics spectrum.

I have drawn attention to the quality of the outcomes of the research without having a close examination of the data that form the chapter. Chapter Six is headed Metamorphosis. Its title page contains two quotes one of which is a poem called Fibonacci Takes a Walk to Clear His Head. The chapter explains the origin of the word itself, and then considers the context for much of the research beginning with Pythagoras of Samos, and marking its development through Aristotle, and the Natural History of Plants by Theophrastus, developing through the influence of Robert Hooke on Nehemiah Grew and Marcello Malpighi, the latter well known for contrasting the veins of animals with the vessels of plants and for speculating on the movement of air and sap through them. Grew developed an understanding of the ways that compact leaves in buds could enfold. The work of these two scholars was unmatched for something like 150 years.

This representative chapter considers leaf formation, a topic that appears straight forward but, as David Lee explains, is as complex as any other part of plant physiology and development. The sphere of interest merges into a segment called Mutants and Models. The point is that human beings are sensitive to differences among individuals that would improve their value in terms of crop yield, easier harvesting, better taste and more attractive appearance. Penultimately, nestled among a host of intricate explanatory drawings and photographs is a section on phyllotaxis, or patterns of leaf production appearing on the mature stem. The chapter concludes in a most unlikely manner, until one realizes that the imagination of a great literary figure, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is as open as anybody else in enjoying and responding to natural beauty.

David Lee makes one final point that stimulates thoughts. Diversity of forms of life suggests complexity not easily reducible to simple mathematical rules. Maybe David Bohm was on to something when he argued that chaos is really the reflection of higher orders of complexity (131)

The chapters discussed so far account for perhaps half the book. The material continues for another nine chapters each as compressed and loaded with information as the ones we’ve seen so far. The presentation remains relaxed and interesting to read as any other. The book finishes with appendices that explain sharply focused techniques and chapter notes. There is then a comprehensive index.

Professor David Lee has bridged successfully the world of the young scholar who prefers to learn through exposure to new experiences with the world of the seasoned scientist who requires the professionalism of an academic performance. I loved this book and give it my highest recommendation.

Nature’s Fabric


by David Lee

University of Chicago Press

ISBN: 978-0-226-18059-5

$US35.00; 512pp

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