Hope Jahren, the book jacket tells us, has received four Fulbright Awards in geobiology, is one of four scientists (and the only woman) to be awarded the Young Investigator Medal given to scientists working in earth sciences, and was named by Popular Science as one of the "Brilliant 10" young scientists in 2005. She has also built three laboratories in which she studies trees, flowers, seeds, and soil. "Her first book is a revelatory treatise on plant life---but it is so much more" (book jacket).
Lest you determine right here and now that you aren't very interested in plants so think you will pass on the book, I should warn you "the so much more" really is so much more. Jahren grew up in Minnesota to parents whose stock hearkened from Scandinavia. No one in her family would ever talk about their feelings. In fact, it was rare if they would even talk to each other at all. But her father, a science professor at the local college, would often take Hope to his lab at night and let her mess around while he worked. Those hours in the lab with her father were the happiest of her childhood and set her on the path to a lifetime of investigation and discovery.
After graduating from Berkeley with a doctorate degree, Jahren was hired as an assistant professor at Georgia Tech where she set up her first lab with the help of a brilliant, but wounded man named Bill who would remain as her best friend and lab manager through three moves and thousands of experiments. The two have a crazy, irreverent relationship which works because each are very accepting of the other, both can to think outside the box and both of them are workaholics. Acceptance was a huge thing as we come to understand because Jahren would soon find herself with a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder and with Bill's help was able to maintain her teaching schedule and all her experiments while she stabilized on the drugs that would bring her life back into balance. When Hope meets and marries another man,Clint Conrad, her friendship with Bill stays intake. When she becomes pregnant and is forced to go off the meds which stabilize her moods, it is Bill who keeps all the pieces together.
Between chapters documenting Bill and Hope's almost madcap science adventures, we are treated to chapters about the lives of plants, especially trees. Readers like myself will learn unbelievable facts about trees written in layman's terms making these chapters very interesting and accessible. I learned, for example, why the leaves on a tree are small toward the top and larger toward the bottom and how trees communicate with one another even though they are rooted to the ground. I never thought I'd be fascinated by the lives of seeds, or the function of roots, but after reading this book, I am.
At one point in the book Jahren explains how she and Bill decide what to study next. They take a trip to Ireland and just start walking around. When they get to the top of a hill they discover that the moss is holding in a ton of water. Shouldn't that water be running downhill? Which came first, the water or the moss? With these questions they start their next experiment, which unfortunately all gets dumped into the trash because they didn't have the proper paperwork filed to remove biological samples from the country. Their curiosity was contagious. It made me wish I was a scientist who could just march around looking for experiments which would answer the questions I have about life.
With all the science in the book it is hard to believe that in a lot of ways this autobiography is really a coming-of-age tale. Jahren, who never felt the love she craved from her mother, worries that she won't have what it takes to be a good mother. She is insecure about herself as a female in a male dominated profession. She wishes she could stay in a perpetual state of mania where her creativity, energy, and imagination are at their best but knows she must stay on her meds to avoid the inevitable lows that follow the highs. Her insights and introspection on these topics were my very favorite, among many favorite things, in this book.
It is Bill who suggested that Hope Jahren write this book. They had so many science adventures together and at the end of one long experiment, as they sat amid the detritus left in the wake, he suggested it, though he says he will never read the book.
In the end Jahren sums up the book and her life this way,
Science is work, nothing more, nothing less. And we will keep working as another day dawns and this week turns into next week, and then this month becomes next month. I can feel the warmth of the same brilliant sun that shines above the forest and onto the green world, but in my heart I know that I am not a plant. I am more like an ant, driven to find and carry single dead needles, one after the other, all the way across the forest and then add them one by one to a pile so massive that I can only fully imagine one small corner of it. As a scientist I am indeed only an ant, insufficient and anonymous, but I am stronger than I look and part of something that is much bigger that I am (277).This will be the book I recommend this year if anyone is casting about trying to figure out what book to read next or just looking for a recommendation. Now I recommend it to you.