TALKING ABOUT TREES
A story about trees, science and love
With stellar writing and vivid imagery, Hope Jahren gives us the girl, the lab and everything else that the title promises. She writes of her childhood in the vast landscapes of Minnesota, in a family that nurtured a curious mind but neglected the warm dialogue that should have come with it. It was a time and society in which women and scientists were mutually exclusive groups. Even so, there was Hope—a female scientist who learned to hear the sound of corn growing.
The picaresque chapters about her life and her discoveries are interspersed with shorter ones about seeds, roots, leaves and wood. Jahren has a gift for metaphor and for the use of telling statistics. She makes readers’ eyes well up with tears at the perfect cubes that are salt grains, the pointless joy of finding a third leaf on a radish seedling where there should have only been two and the beauty of soil, born from the marriage of the biological and geological universes. She reminds readers that every piece of wood in their homes is also a record of how the rain fell and the wind blew and the sun shone during the life of the tree it came from.
Jahren gets lyrical even about her lab equipment, and sometimes hilarious in recounting the struggles of funding research that might not result in a molecule that the Pentagon could find use for. The want of money looms endlessly over her work. Furnishing a lab is an exercise in jugaad, which she owes to the incomparable Bill, her lifelong lab partner, her familiar, her everything-but-mate. The two inherit, beg, steal and repurpose the equipment and supplies they need. There is a systematic anarchy to their lives and the naughty joys of their lab work, executed during the night hours while respectable people are tucked away in their beds. Valuable samples end up being tossed away at Customs. Things blow up. Glass shards must be hastily swept up before anyone finds out.
It is a rigorous and lonely life, until love comes along. Not just the marriage of fig and wasp and the rare success of plant sex, but human love, marriage and procreation. Still, Jahren’s book, like her work, is all about the trees. Humans are a small blip in the history of this ancient life form, one that we may yet wind up destroying. Plant a tree, she urges readers—keep observing it, and talk about it.
JAHREN GETS LYRICAL ABOUT THE BEAUTY OF SOIL, BORN FROM THE MARRIAGE OF THE BIOLOGICAL AND GEOLOGICAL UNIVERSES
Lab Girl: A Story of Trees, Science and Love by Hope Jahren Knopf Publishing 304 pages, Rs 499