Hope Jahren grew up in a cold place – rural Minnesota – in a family of Norwegian extraction that didn’t much go in for talk. Snow lay on the ground for nine months of the year, and no one ever discussed it, or anything else; she and her permanently be-scarfed brothers could go for days at a time without so much as uttering a single frost-bound word to one another. No wonder that her father’s laboratory at the community college where he taught science was, for her, a sanctum. Its secrets, and how they might be cracked, made bad weather and failures of human communication alike irrelevant: “In my memory of those dark winter nights, my father and I own the whole science building, and we walk about like a duke and his sovereign prince, too preoccupied in our castle to bother about our frozen duchy.”
Lab Girl, Jahren’s singular memoir, takes her from this icy realm to tropical Hawaii by way of California, Georgia and Maryland, and in each state she and her long-serving assistant, Bill Hagopian, an eccentric and somewhat taciturn Armenian American, build a laboratory, almost from scratch. It’s a story of workaholism and thrift-store test tubes, tackling sexism in science (“the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are”) and her struggle with bipolar disorder (“he [the doctor] asks you how you feel about medicine and you tell him you aren’t afraid of anything made in a laboratory”).
However, this confessional honesty, sometimes jaunty and sometimes searing, is less than half the reason why the book works. Jahren, a palaeo-biologist, punctuates her tale with essays about plants, from seed to flower, from sapling to mature tree, and the result is remarkable, transformative. Science writers have it all too easy when it comes to the human body, narcissists that their readers are. So, too, do the legions of new nature writers, given that we are nearly all of us suckers for animals. Plants, though, are more difficult to animate. Our love for them, where it exists at all, is limited to the visual. As gardeners, we like to know where to situate this shrub, that perennial. But in what we might call a plant’s secret life we have rather less interest.
To say that Jahren’s memoir is a corrective to this doesn’t begin to do justice to her essays, which are not only clear and compelling but also fiercely tender, as if she were introducing us to an awkward friend, the point of whom is not immediately apparent to anyone but her. In Jahren’s hands, seeds, for instance, are not only fertilised embryos but repositories of hope, the very definition of stoicism and determination. (When scientists, having coddled into growth the contents of a particular lotus seed, Nelumbo nucifera, then carbon-dated the seed husk, they found it had been waiting for them in a Chinese peat bog for 2,000 years.)
Naturally, plants are not without their allies and their enemies, and in both camps are the fungi, organisms that can rot the very hardest parts of a tree, but which can also, if harnessed the right way, help it to draw water and rare metals into its trunk. “You may think a mushroom is a fungus,” Jahren writes, warming to her theme. “This is exactly like believing that a penis is a man.” (As the daughter of a mycologist who spent a lot of time explaining to the young me why lichen really is very interesting, I took a deep interest in this section.)
The recipient of three Fulbright Awards and now a professor at the University of Hawaii, Jahren is touchingly endearing on the page, not least for the way she refuses to pretend that scientists don’t quite often come with more than their share of peculiarities. She captures so precisely the way they dress, talk, and occasionally misunderstand stuff that others take for granted. During one fraught period when Bill, a soil scientist, is living in a van on a campus parking lot – Jahren, who pays his salary, frequently struggles to get funding for their research – he tells her that he has taken to shaving off his hair and hiding it in the trunk of a gum tree. Another woman might have run screaming from the scene but she takes this ritual in her stride. “It is magnificent,” she says, when he pulls out a luxuriant wad of the stuff for her inspection.
I love Jahren’s enthusiasm for her work, an all-encompassing passion for which she won’t apologise (“My lab is the place where I put my brain out on my fingers”) and which makes her indomitable. On a field trip to Mississippi, she keeps going in spite of a horrifying allergy to poison ivy. (The doctor who eventually examines her takes one look at her swollen face and asks for permission to photograph it: “We could probably publish this.”) When she gets pregnant – her husband is a mathematician who embraces her uncommon relationship with Bill – and is instructed to stay away from the lab for health and safety reasons, she sneaks in at night; in hospital after giving birth, she logs on to her mass spectrometer remotely. Our culture still expects women to rate feelings above facts, and depressingly often they respond by doing just that. But Lab Girl is a book of ideas, and in its Stakhanovite rigour lies all its excitement, the secret (or seed?) of its jungly success.
Lab Girl: a Story of Trees, Science and Love by Hope Jaren is published by Fleet (304pp, £16.99)
This article appears in the 11 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump