Any gardener would love “Lab Girl” by Susan Harris

labIt was Amy Stewart’s  review of Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl  in the Washington Post that got my attention. Here’s the blurb the publisher put on the back cover: “Sparkling, unexpected…Delightfully, wickedly funny.  I love this book for its honesty, its hilarity, and its brilliant sharp edges. Powerful and disarming.”

Her review, for a general audience, praises the book for its storytelling – of the author and her lab tech leading students on “junk-food fueled” field trips (Where were the adults?), and especially the book’s focus on her relationship with her lab tech (though there must be a better term because he runs the whole show). I found their relationship to be endearing, intriguing, and fun.

lab tech

Bill Hagopian and Hope Jahren. Credit: Jahren Lab.

But for this garden blog, I’ll focus on the plant stuff – because Jahren is a plant and soil research scientist and the book is interspersed with what I’d call plant musings with chapter openings like:

  • “No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root.”
  • “Plants have far more enemies than can be counted.”
  • “Every plant growing on land is striving toward two prizes: light, which comes from above, and water, which comes from below. Any contest between two plants can be decided in one move, when the winner simultaneously reaches higher and digs deeper than the loser.”
  • “Humans are actively creating a world where only weeds can live and then feigning shock and outrage upon finding so many.”
  • About Bill: “All reserve is shed when he talks about soil, and I have watched him deliver many dramatic monologues in Irish pubs (perfectly sober) describing how the discovery of new colors in new combinations underground is what he loves most about his work.”
  • About her “forays into romance:” “Nobody wanted to listen to me talk about plants for hours.” (Readers, do you relate?)

Jahren actually reveals very little about her private life, although when she does it’s riveting and inspiring. This accomplished scientist and brilliant writer was challenged by undiagnosed bipolar disorder for most of her life.

Lab Girl ends with Jahren’s earnest plea that readers just do one thing – plant trees. But not just any trees.

Don’t be tempted to grow a fruit tree, but they break under moderate wind.

Shyster tree planting services will pressure you to buy a Bradford pear or two because they establish and flourish in one year but they’re weak in the crotch and will crack during the first big storm.

You must choose with a clear head and open eyes. You are marrying this tree; choose a partner, not an ornament.

Like Amy, I loved this book, and I’ve been eagerly recommending it to anyone who’ll listen.

Any gardener would love “Lab Girl” originally appeared on Garden Rant on July 1, 2016.


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