Subtitled A story of trees, science and love, Lab Girl was an expected and utterly joyful read. This book ranks as one of my favourites this year, if not for a couple of years. Whether you are remotely interested in science and trees or not, still read this book. I am not a scientist in any remote fashion (I got told to give it up in grade 7) and I know very little about trees, other than I like them, but I found Lab Girl fascinating, addictive – and it has a beautiful cover.
Hope Jahren is a highly successful scientist who equally could have been a highly successful poet or writer, such is the beauty of her sentences and her talent for writing about scientific material. Her bookintersperses her personal story, both private and professional, with short chapters about trees, making it at once an intimate memoir as well as a scientific account of the lives of trees. She just fascinated me – she is honest and funny about her bipolar disorder, her addiction to work, her relationships, her struggle to gain recognition as a female scientist. I would like to meet her.
She started out studying English literature at university but soon found out that ‘science was where I actually belonged’, saying: ‘In science classes we did things instead of just sitting around talking about things … Science lectures dealt with social problems that still could be solved …’
Jahren grew up in Minnesota in a Scandinavian family, and spent much of her childhood in her father’s laboratory with him. Her relationship with her family, in particular her mother, had a powerful influence on other relationships in her life.
“The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily…When I was a child I assumed the whole world acted like we did and so it confused me when I moved out of state and met people who gave each other the simple warmth and casual affection I had craved for so long.”
Her love of science grew from spending hours in the lab with her father, ‘…playing beneath the chemical benches until I was tall enough to play on them.’ Back at home, she says, ‘…while my mother and I gardened and read together, I vaguely sensed there was something we weren’t doing, something that normal mothers and daughters naturally do…We probably do love each other, but I’m not entirely sure…Being mother and daughter has always felt like an experiment that we just can’t get right.’
The reason I mention this relationship with her mother is that when, towards the end of the book, Jahren falls pregnant, she write with great honesty about her self-doubt of becoming a mother. After her son’s birth, she says:
‘I decide that I will not be this child’s mother. Instead I will be his father. It is something I know how to do and something that will come naturally to me. I won’t think about how weird my thinking is; I will just love him and he will love me and it will just work. Perhaps this has been a million-plus-year-old experiment that even I couldn’t screw up.’
Throughout her personal story, Jahren weaves the development of her career as a scientist who studies plants, becoming a geobiologist. To say she loves plants is an understatement; she writes about them in such an affectionate way, as though they are friends and draws analogies to humans. She made me feel passionate about plants and understand a great deal more about trees than I knew before. She talks about cacti surviving in the desert, and trees managing sub-zero temperatures, big trees and small trees, the structure of leaves, the properties of wood; she makes trees interesting. For example, in a chapter about seeds, she closes with: ‘Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.’
She writes a great deal about her colleague, Bill – an odd, reclusive, anti-social man who works with Jahren intimately and is at once a brother, a friend, a soul mate in a way. Bill comes with her whenever she moves and sets up a new lab, variously living in the labs, in his car, rundown flats and finally a house. They both end up in Hawaii.She says: ‘People still puzzle over the two of us, Bill and me…We eat almost every meal together, our finances are mixed, and we tell each other everything…but people I meet still want a label for what is between us…I don’t have an answer for that one. I do us because us is what I know how to do.’
Jahren unexpectedly falls in love with and marries another scientist, then has a child, both of which astound her as she feels she does not deserve such happiness. He must be the most understanding husband, as she carries on working with a single-minded fashion at all hours, always with Bill, always passionate about every aspect of her work, but equally in love with her husband and child.
Her epilogue in the book is a plea to humans to try and stem the destruction of earth as is happening at the moment. ‘Human civilization has reduced the plant, a four-hundred-million-year-old life form, into three things: food, medicine and wood…we have devastated plant ecology to an extent that millions of years of natural disaster could not.’ She asks us all to plant a tree to to counter the destruction, and to look after that tree: ‘You are your tree’s only friend in a hostile world.’
I am grateful that there are people like this in the world, ones who care enough to be working tirelessly towards trying to save the earth, but I am also immensely grateful that Hope Jahren wrote this book – a delight on all levels.