Lab Girl: My Favorite Christmas Gift to Give

Lab GirlWe were in the car.

“Plants are the only living beings in the world that can make their own food,” I said.

My daughter sat in silence. Stared out the window. “But people grow their own food,” she said.

Good answer. “Yeah, but literally, like with my body. I can’t hold out my hand, let rain hit it, and then turn the rain into hummus or something I can eat.”

She thought about that. Silence. “Huh.”

She was mildly interested at best. Such is life with kids, but also such is life with an inarticulate horticulturalist. I should be able to explain photosynthesis better, I mean, downright inspire my kids to be as in awe and wonder of plants as I am. And though I’ve had scattered success over the years, I’ve found that their elementary school teachers sometime inspire them more than I do. Months later, my daughter would come home and recite that very fact with bold excitement to me. I shrugged. Because the fact didn’t come from me, it was more precious. Go figure.

When I read Hope Jahren’s “Lab Girl” this summer, I realized I’d found that inspiring teacher in a book. She talks about plants with a scientist’s eye but a poet’s heart, making for a magnetic memoir. As she says, she wanted to know what “it’s like to be a plant,” a curiosity that led to over 20 years of work in environmental sciences, telling stories of her first job “shooting bags” of medicine and later more rewarding endeavors as a university researcher, investigating whether trees have memories, how roots communicate, and other cool, green behaviors.

Though Jahren has vast experience in science, it’s her personal stories that really shine in the book. She honestly speaks of her emotionally distant, Scandinavian family and her mother’s harshness. She describes manic-depressive episodes in details that will make your nerves tingle. Less wild but even richer are the tales of her excursions, both physical and psychological, into her experiments with longtime lab assistant, Bill Hagopian. They’ve worked together since the mid-1990s when the eccentric showed up to her class, essentially homeless, and through his insights on soil, convinced Jahren he was brilliant in a way other students weren’t. Bill’s bold-talking, day-old-pizza-eating, smart-as-a-whip personality offers a humble, funny foil to Jahren’s straightforward ambition and steadiness that I couldn’t get enough of.

What also amazes me about this book is Jahren’s ability to articulate complex scientific concepts in simple ways. Note her comparison of baby leaflets to the “small and insufficient” spare tire that only gets you to the nearest gas station. She makes science sound exciting and useful, which, of course, any scientist would tell you, it is, but it’s Jahren’s ease with profundity that makes this book stand out. She waxes on about the struggle of a seed or pollinating wasps, biological processes that often must be overlooked by mainstream gardening experts. Finally, her eloquence spills in a most touching way into her relationships with her husband and son. That she brought home a “potion” for her son to drink so he can transform into a tiger before explaining the slow evolution of a tiger makes me think she’s just showing off. What “a brain.” And I mean that as a compliment.

My daughter is still a bit young to read “Lab Girl,” but it surely would entertain any adult out there like me. Not necessarily ornamental horticulturalists but simply people who respect science and love plants. All we gardeners do in dormant winter is dream about plants anyway. Reading “Lab Girl” is an excellent way to dream.

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