“Eating the Sun”

Oliver Morton’s book is about “the most important process on the planet”: photosynthesis. Plants grow by “eating the sun”, trapping its energy and using hydrogen from water and carbon from air to produce flowers, fruit and seeds. The “scrap of sunlight” converted into organic matter by the world’s plants each day is equivalent to the energy in the global arsenal of nuclear weapons.

But, by releasing the energy locked away some 300 million years ago in fossil fuels, we have upset the delicate balance of the carbon cycle and made “the atmosphere itself as artificial as a Capability Brown landscape”. [Brown was an 18th century English landscape architect whose gardens were more “naturalistic” than the formal style of the time.]

From molecules to the planetary scale, Morton’s beautifully written book reveals how life is made from light. The living landscapes we inhabit are shaped by photosynthesis, and Morton’s sense of wonder at the pervasive influence of this process is nowhere stronger than while walking across the South Downs near his home in southern England: “It’s grassland like this, more than any other habitat, that gives us both homes and horizons.” A rich and wide-ranging study.

Eating the Sun: The Everyday Miracle of How Plants Power the Planet
Oliver Morton
Fourth Estate, 2009

— By PD Smith


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