Plants and People – “Lab Girl”

I read “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren, a geochemist and geobiologist, because I was curious what she would say about plants. In her book’s three sections, titled in a way that applies to both plants and people, “Roots and Leaves, “Woods and Knots,” and “Flowers and Fruit,” Jahren alternates descriptions of plant biology with tales of her life.

She writes about her relationship with her parents, her education and career (using stable isotope measurements to analyze fossil forests), Bill (her singular lab partner), a professional life with male scientists, and eventually, a happy love story with her husband Clint.

As I read, absorbed mostly in Jahren’s personal chronicle, I remembered my mother who always declared people more interesting than plants. But the next day I awoke and looking at the trees out my window, thought about how long trees have been here (400 million years), and how we endanger them (50 billion cut down in the last 10 years), and about recent scientific inquiry exploring how trees communicate and recognize their relatives (!).

Jahren wrote this book before our government took a bad turn, but even so she says, “My job is about making sure there will be some evidence that someone cared about the great tragedy that unfolded during our age.” Now that we live in a mess, “guided” by the anti-science “leadership” of our country with non-defense-related research funding flatlined and “curiosity-driven research” (what a wonderful concept) threatened, it’s both grand and sad to read this so accessible book about science.

An engaging writer and a driven scientist, Jahren writes, “Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.”

In the epilogue, she encourages us to plant a tree this year if we own property or even if a renter with a yard. “Every day, you can look at your tree, watch what it does, and try to see the world from its perspective.”

“Lab Girl” makes one better at that worthy attempt.






7 thoughts on “Plants and People – “Lab Girl”

  1. Happily I can share news this morning that the abandoned, “dead” farm on 9 acres that is across my driveway has been sold, but its beautiful old trees will be preserved by a philanthropist couple who bought the land and will turn it into natural green space again. A happy chapter for Bainbridge Island’s giant trees!

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Thanks for this post, Katy. I have been wanting to read Lab Girl, and am glad to have your endorsement. Beautiful drawing of the trees and yard… I like the suggestion of planting one wherever you are, and watching it grow. The kindergarten pencil of a pine tree Helen brought home from Denali 22 years ago is now a tree over 20 feet tall. Or was when last we saw it. Driving around rural Ohio last week I saw so many fruit trees in bloom, some on abandoned farmsteads, and thought about the hope embodied in planting a tree. This week in North Dakota there is scarcely a tree to be found, and how different the land is without them. Prairies have their beauty, and tundra, but trees are a gift to us all. I recall a friend who grew up in the plains saying how spooked he was by the surrounding trees when he first lived in a forested area. I am glad my life has included lots of time among the trees.

    • You are welcome Bonny, and thank you for the great tree stories! The one about your friend being spooked resonated for me – I get so used to giant firs tossing and groaning in the wind, leaning close to the house – not spooky for me, but very indicative of this particular place.

  3. Sounds like another interesting read. My great-grandmother in her journal spoke of the loss of the big maple tree in the farmhouse yard as the loss of a “good old friend.” It had been there for so many years. We feel the same way about the huge spruce in our front yard here in Anchorage, which was my height when we bought the house in 1973, and now towers over the house.

    • Your great-grandmother was so right. I’ve loved hearing these tree stories – and thought of “your” tree in Connecticut. Here, in a forest, it’s the whole community of trees that surrounds me, they seem to depend on each other, and we on them.

  4. l have to read this one! Even though we have lots of trees on our 100+ acres. there are some that I see when I drive to town that I’m especially fond of — and I mourn the ones that fall.

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