Homage to trees

A review of Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Did you know that the upper leaves on trees are smaller than the lower ones so the sun will touch each leaf? Or that the taproot of that huge tree in your yard sucks up all the moisture from the ground during the day, but generously returns it to the soil at night? Or that trees can communicate danger (ravenous moths are coming!) to each other from miles away? These and other facts are described in Lab Girl, a memoir and a hymn to plants, by Hope Jahren. In it, she tells of her evolution into an award-winning scientist while also conveying the astonishing secrets of the plant world.

Jahren seems to have gotten the best of two worlds from her parents. Her father, a physics and earth sciences teacher at the local community college, and her mother, a lover of literature, introduce her to what makes her into the woman she is now: a passionate natural scientist who can write like a dream. Despite the professional initiation via her parents, she blames the Scandinavian in her family’s genes for a cold, affection-less upbringing in a town somewhere south of Minneapolis dominated by an enormous meat processing plant. Fortunately, her father took her most evenings to his science lab where nothing was off limits to her.

Weaving the personal and the professional, Jahren alternates tales of the scientific world she studies with details from her life; from her early studies through her formative years as a scientist struggling to acquire funding for her research (a battle most scientists must wage over increasingly slim budgets). She hires for her lab assistant her Berkeley colleague Bill, with whom she develops a lifelong professional and sibling-like alliance, bringing him along on her research trips to far flung places from the Canadian arctic, to Ireland and Hawaii. She unstintingly discusses her battle with manic depression as well as the sexism she encounters everywhere in the world of science. How she was treated during her pregnancy is jaw-dropping.

While she celebrates the wonders and mysteries of the natural world, she ends her book on a sad note. She mourns the devastation of the natural world under the pressure of human civilization’s demands and worries about Earth’s future. She asks all who read the book, who have any little piece of land, to plant a tree and nurture it to adulthood. Fortunately for me, I just acquired a pagoda dogwood from a friend to plant in my yard.

Drawing parallels between her life and the life of trees, and interspersing her story with quotes from the likes of Dickens and Thoreau, Jahren writes a wonderful mix of an at-times painfully honest and revealing personal account and fascinating, yet accessible science.