The Bookshelf: 'Live' from Toadstool Bookshop with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

May 12, 2018

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas signs a copy of her latest book at the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough.
Credit Patricia McLaughlin for NHPR

New York Times best-selling author and Peterborough resident Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is out with a new book. It's called, "The Hidden Life of Life," and it traces the history of life on this planet from its microscopic beginnings through mass extinctions and dinosaurs to the present day.

This is a special edition of The Bookshelf. It's an excerpt of the live-recorded event at the Toadstool Bookshop last month in Peterborough. NHPR's Peter Biello interviewed the author about her latest work. 

(Below is a lightly edited transcript.)

Let me ask you about a misconception that you clear up here about plants coming before animals in evolutionary history ... which came first and why?

Oh, animals. Millions of years before. I think when we say animals we think mammals, and animals of course, the insects or animals, the tiniest mite is an animal. I have a thing in the book about an extremely small animal who is a round - it's multicellular, and it's ungaria. But the sea, it was filled, the water, the lakes - everything was filled with animals before some things began to move out, under the land.

Elizabeth, I want to ask you about the dinosaurs because you write in here about the dinosaurs that they've been given sort of an unfair reputation for vicious aggression by popular culture?

Well, I think we, look at the names for them ... tyrannosaurs, tyrant lizard ... many, many, many names are, well, I mean tyrannosaurs probably might have been a little aggressive too ... But I mean many groups of dinosaurs were social.

Many, especially the walk-on-the-hind legs types like Kronosaurus. There were kinds of those who hunted in groups ... and lots of the herbivore types, the long neck huge body, and they were the biggest ones. The thing about them is how do they get enough nourishment? If you weigh as much as two or three 18-wheelers put together, how do you get enough nourishment eating leaves? But they found their studies were done and kinds of plants grew that had large amounts of nourishment and that's what they ate. They knew where they were.

"They're fabulous animals, and they're in everybody's swamp. I mean, they're within arm's reach of everybody."

Tell us about the water bears.

"Water bears are almost microscopic. They've been here for, I forget the number, 50 million years or five hundred. I don't remember but it's ... if you can look it up, thanks. They can live in almost any kind of situation if it's moist.

They can withstand radiation.

They can withstand radiation way better ... I'd better look it up.

They've been on Earth for five hundred million years and thus have dodged all the extinctions including those that cleared away just about everything else.

They are very hardy, let's say. I mean, that's pretty good. But if they find things they don't like they can - if they get hurt, they can collapse themselves in and wait it out, and then repair themselves while in that state. And if it's really bad they can turn into a time ...named for a wind. It looks it looks like a tiny mouse dropping, is what it looks like. What it does is, it pull its legs and head in and the water inside it squeezes out, and then it can live that way, they say maybe a hundred years, and it could be blown somewhere by the wind and hopefully a better place. I mean, they're fabulous animals, and they're in everybody's swamp. I mean, they're within arm's reach of everybody."

That is author Elizabeth Marshall Thomas speaking to me about her book The Hidden Life of Life at the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough.

We spoke for about an hour about a variety of subjects in the book, including early human civilization, the value of cooperation between living things, and modern day humans place in the natural world. We also took questions from the audience. You can hear the full conversation with Elizabeth Marshall Thomas on Saturday, May 19th at 11 a.m., on NHPR's Word of Mouth. 

We're always looking for reading recommendations from listeners like you Sherm from Milford, who wrote to recommend the memoir KooKooLand by Gloria Norris. Sherm says Norris writes raw, gritty tales about her bootstrap upbringing in the projects of Manchester, N.H., in the 1960s. She refers to her dad as simply Jimmy. He's a bookie and certainly a very unconventional parent for Gloria and her sister. So that's the recommendation from Sherm from Milford.  Send your recommendation our way by e-mail. The address is books@NHPR.org and you can also Tweet @NHPRBookshelf