A story about trees, science and love

India Today - - LEISURE - —Latha Anan­thara­man

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.


Lab Girl: A Story of Trees, Science and Love by Hope Jahren Knopf Pub­lish­ing 304 pages, Rs 499

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