Lab Girl: A tribute to the challenges of science

lab-girlLab Girl is a memoir of a scientist, Hope Jahren.  Jahren is a geobiologist, which is the scientific discipline that “explores the interactions between the physical Earth and the biosphere [global ecosystems].” (1) She describes the arduous journey from curious student to full-fledged scientist.  That transition involved physically demanding collection expeditions, digging deep into the soil for the samples that informed her research into the complex relationships between the soil and the plants that live in it.  Then long, tedious hours in the laboratory are required to analyze the soil and plant samples to develop the hypotheses needed to explain those relationships.  Finally, complicated laboratory tests are needed to test the hypotheses.

If you don’t already have a deep respect for the demands of science, Lab Girl will help you to appreciate the dedication of the scientists engaged in the process of refining our scientific knowledge.  At a time in our social history when science is being questioned by those with political agendas, Lab Girl is an antidote to skepticism about science and scientific expertise.

Familiar Themes

Jahren alternates chapters about her career with chapters about the plants she studies.  As we might expect, Jahren has a profound respect for trees and so her book is relevant to the mission of Million Trees.  She eloquently makes many of the same observations we make on Million Trees.  Here are a few:

On the value of observation and the complexity and changeability of nature:

“Time has changed me, my perception of my tree, and my perception of my tree’s perception of itself.  Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.  It has convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.” (2)

On the importance of fungi to forest health:

“Underneath every mushroom is a web of stringy hyphae that may extend for kilometers, wrapping around countless clumps of soil and holding the landscape together.  The ephemeral mushroom appears briefly above the surface while the webbing that anchors it lives for years within a darker and richer world.  A very small minority of these fungi—just five thousand species—have strategically entered into a deep and enduring truce with plants.  They cast their stringy webbing around and through the roots of trees, sharing the burden of drawing water into the trunk.  They also mine the soil for rare metals, such as manganese, copper, and phosphorous, and then present them to the tree as precious gifts of the magi.” (2)

Placing blame for “invasive” weeds where it belongs:  ON US!

“A plant that lives where it should not live is a weed.  We don’t resent the audacity of the weeds, as every seed is audacious; we resent its fantastic success. Humans are actively creating a world where only weeds can live and feigning shock and outrage upon finding so many.  This mixed message is irrelevant:  there is already a revolution taking place in the plant world as invasives effortlessly supplant natives within every human-modified space.  Our impotent condemnation of weeds will not stop this revolution.  We aren’t getting the revolution we want; we are getting the one that we triggered. (2)

On the future of our forests:

“Every year since 1990 we have created more than eight billion new stumps.  If we continue to fell healthy trees at this rate, less than six hundred years from now, every tree on the planet will have been reduced to a stump.  My job is about making sure there will be some evidence that someone cared about the great tragedy that unfolded during our age.” (2)

And that is the job of Million Trees as well…to make this record of fighting to preserve our urban forests.  We echo Hope Jahren’s final message in Lab Girl:  “Here is my personal request to you:  If you own any private land at all, plant one tree on it this year.  If you are renting a place with a yard, plant a tree in it and see if your landlord notices.  If he does, insist to him that it was always there.  Throw in a bit about how exceptional he is for caring enough about the environment to have put it there.” (2)

Hope for 2017

We have had some big disappointments in 2016, and it isn’t easy to find something useful to do to improve the political climate in our country.  Planting a tree is something positive that many people are in a position to do.  When you feel discouraged about the future of our country, go visit your tree and pat yourself on the back for making an investment in the future of our country.

Happy New Year

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  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geobiology
  2. Hope Jahren, Lab Girl, Alfred Knopf, 2016