Vladimir Nabokov once observed that “a writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.” The geobiologist Hope Jahren possesses both in spades.
Her engrossing new memoir, “Lab Girl,” is at once a thrilling account of her discovery of her vocation and a gifted teacher’s road map to the secret lives of plants — a book that, at its best, does for botany what Oliver Sacks’ essays did for neurology, or what Stephen Jay Gould’s writings did for paleontology.
Jahren, a professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii, conveys the utter strangeness of plants: these machines, “invented more than 400 million years ago,” that create sugar out of inorganic matter — wondrous machines upon which human life itself depends.
She describes the sound of plants growing in the Midwest: “At its peak, sweet corn grows a whole inch every single day, and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion, you can hear it as a low continuous rustle if you stand inside the rows of a cornfield on a perfectly still August day.”
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She describes the miraculous ability of a cactus to sit, under a blazing desert sun, waiting years for rain: It sheds “its roots to prevent the parched soil from sucking all the water back out of it” and then begins to contract, until its spines “form a dense and dangerous fur protecting what is now a hard, rootless ball of plant.”
She explains why the leaves at the top of a tree are smaller than those below, allowing “sunlight to be caught near the base whenever the wind blows and parts the upper branches.” And she explains why most forests have natural boundaries: Centimeters outside their borders, “we find too little water, too little sun, too much wind or cold for just one more tree.”
By crosscutting between chapters about the life cycle of trees and flowers and other green things, and chapters about her own coming-of-age as a scientist, Jahren underscores the similarities between humans and plants — tenacity, inventiveness, an ability to adapt — but, more emphatically, the radical otherness of plants: their dependence on sunshine, their inability to move or travel as we do, the redundancy and flexibility of their tissues (“a root can become a stem if need be, and vice versa”).
A workaholic who also had manic-depression, Jahren chronicles her progress through college and graduate school and a succession of teaching jobs, conveying both the obsessive fervor she brought to her work and the often absurd hoops that research scientists must jump through to obtain even minimal financing for their work.
For more than two decades, her co-conspirator in these adventures has been the steady, loyal and eccentric Bill Hagopian, her lab manager and alter ego. Together, the pair scour Salvation Army stores to find old camping equipment to use in their first lab, take students on some hilariously awful field trips, burrow through rotting leaves in the Canadian Arctic, and trek through Ireland (a place “so saturated with green that it is the things that are not green that catch one’s eye”), carefully gathering more than 1,000 moss samples that will be cavalierly dumped in the garbage by an airport security officer.
Jahren writes about her single-minded dedication to her work — her determination to “make my life into something” — and then suddenly falling in love, at 32, with another scientist named Clint Conrad, whom she will marry.
She speaks of the “great cosmic fire” that overtakes her during manic episodes and her fears of navigating pregnancy without her usual medications. And she writes of her fears about balancing life and work, and the surprise of having “the truly valuable pieces” of her life “fall from the sky undeserved.”
Along the way, she comes to realize that her work as a scientist is also part of a larger enterprise. She is not like a plant, but like an ant, “driven to find and carry single dead needles, one after the other, all the way across the forest and then add them one by one by one to a pile so massive that I can only fully imagine one small corner of it.”
As a scientist, she goes on, she is indeed just an ant, “insufficient and anonymous, but stronger than I look and part of something that is much bigger than I am”: She is part of the continuum of scientists who have each built upon their predecessors’ work and who will hand down their own advances to the next generation.