a curious look at plants, and life, with ‘lab girl’ author hope jahren
WHEN THE UMPTEENTH reader or listener to A Way to Garden emailed this spring to say that I would really identify with the current bestseller “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren, how could I resist? Thanks to those urgings, in June I escaped into the first official volume of my 2016 summer reading list, and you were correct: I felt right at home, even though Jahren and I come at our fascination with plants from very different directions.
Hope Jahren is a geobiologist, a three-time Fulbright award recipient, and a tenured professor at the University of Hawaii. Beyond her scientific distinctions, she is also a lover of leaves, and of trees; in possession of a great gift for writing and a wild and wonderfully alive sense of humor, something, it turns out in the 20ish-years of adventures she takes us on in “Lab Girl,” that it never hurts having with her to fall back on.
Listen to our conversation using the player below (or at this link) as you read along. It’s the July 4, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast. And enter to win the book in the comments box at the very bottom of the page, after the last reader comment.
my q&a with ‘lab girl’ hope jahren
Q. Thank you for this exhilarating book, Hope Jahren. I’m not even sure how to say what it’s about without sounding all woo-woo and saying, “It’s about life.” It’s about your life, and about life on earth, too. What’s it about?
A. I like the woo-woo. [Laughter.] Of all the different descriptions I’ve heard people offer, I think that hits about as close to the heart as you can get it. It’s everything I am, and like to think about. And like every woman—and that includes both my interests and what consumes me in my labor every day, and what consumes me at home, and the friendships that created me, and the goals that I have striven for, and the goals that I redefined as I was striving for goals that I didn’t know I was striving for.
It’s a book that I wrote to make sense of my life. I’ve been a professor for 20 years, and that’s about the time that a lot of professors write their big textbook that says, “Here’s what I’ve learned, and here’s how we should teach the next generation differently in order to prepare them for the new problems that are yet to be solved.”
And when I sat down to do that, it turned out to be a very different book.
Q. [Laughter.] Yes.
A. I couldn’t talk about what I had learned about how we did it, without talking about the people who were so very important, and without talking about the ways that life intervened along the way. It all got mixed together, and in the end it went to the reader, and there are quite a few people saying, “Hey, there’s something good in there.” It’s a real joy for me as the author.
Q. I know geology—not the way you know it, but I know what it is—and I know what biology is, but what is geobiology? I know earth science, but not geobiology.
A. One of the things we do at our universities is make up new words.
Q. [Laughter.] Oh, good.
A. Geobiology is a good one, because it breaks down to what you think it is: It’s a combination of geology and biology, just like you said. It’s the way those two spheres interact. I’m
There are things outside your window that you can point to that aren’t alive: the rocks, the stream, the clouds, the atmosphere. And there are things you can point to that are alive: the tree, a leaf, a worm, the roots in your garden, etc.
I’m interested in the processes that convert the one to the other. I’m interested in that magic moment when one becomes the other—when it succeeds, and when it fails, and why. And how that’s changed over 400 million years—how the ground rules for that have changed over long periods of time.
For me, that’s the biggest question on the planet.
Q. I had a big chuckle when you write that the type of science you do is sometimes referred to as “curiosity-driven research”—because that’s the kind of gardening I do; I’m always out there being curious. Seriously, though: Can you explain how this differs from other science being conducted in other labs?
A. Absolutely, it is all happening in your garden. [Laughter.] There is nobody more similar to me and what I do in my job than somebody who just loves to be in their garden for the sake of being there. Even if you garden fails and you don’t get one good piece of food out of it—if you can say I’m still glad I did it, and I’m going to do it again next year—then you are a heck of a lot more like me than you think you are. [Laughter.]
I wouldn’t say the other kind is “non-curiosity driven” research, but more applications-driven. Science that’s really got a blueprint on it, as to how we can make that work yield a drug that will cure somebody, or build a bridge that will take somebody somewhere, or a machine that will create something.
Whereas the kind I do answers questions that comes to us through our curiosity, so the answers are the building blocks we need to someday get to those applications. But that piece would be somebody else in a different kind of lab than what I do.
Q. In your lab you have, let’s say, “gardens,” and in the book you describe them as sort of “neonatal ICU for tiny plants.” I look out the window at my landscape, but you look at these plants in the lab through glass, or maybe Plexiglas. Tell us about the plants in the lab, and the garden in the lab.
A. That’s absolutely what it is—they are in Plexiglas boxes. All the stuff in there is basically built of stuff from the hardware store. We go to a lot of the same stores as gardeners do.
People who garden indoors are a special kind of person. We cross a lot of different paths. In my lab we have a collection of little Plexiglas boxes in which we grow tiny baby plants from seed. We can control everything about their world: how much moisture they get, when the moisture is delivered, how much light they get, the pattern of that light, the relative humidity, the temperature. We can expose them to wind. We can give them the best growing season in the world or the poorest growing season, and then watch how they react.
We can go in and harvest them and measure anything you’d want to know about them. In that way we test their limits, both with respect to resources they like, and a lack of resources they wish they had.
We can also create conditions that we think may have been at work millions of years ago. We can put together hypothetical earths that we think might exist, if we look at scenarios where a tremendous number of cars are adopted in countries like China and India, for example. So we can look at different versions of the future, and grow these little model plants, and then we can start to spin out theories about how the future might affect the food supply, or the wood supply, or even the medicine supply—because an awful lot of plants are used as medicinal agents.
Q. You just said two parts at least, or maybe all of the parts, of the triumvirate you write about in the book and that I’ve heard you speak about in other interviews, of “food medicine wood.” Why those three words.
A. I like to remind people—I like to remind my students—that so much of the basis of our lives goes back to the exploitation of plant tissues. Plants are food, medicine and wood.
We don’t see it any more, but if you really look around the room, it’s really amazing how much stuff is made of wood. It’s still our primary building material. And of course food, and of course a lot of what keeps you well and healthy originally comes from plants.
But of course that’s not all they are. Plants don’t exist in huge numbers for hundreds of millions of years to faithfully provide these three commodities to human beings, right?
A. So they function according to a whole constellation of their own agenda. They are trying to live on planet earth, and reproduce, and grow, and weather environmental change and times of need and illness and all these sorts of things.
I dedicated my career to really trying to look at the world from that perspective. Given both the limitations and the opportunities available to plants, how do they solve the problem of not dying every day?
Q. You start one section of the book by saying, “A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet.” Boy, is that the truth.
A. That’s an old idea in the natural sciences: when you find something in the world, you find it because that’s where it likes to live, and everything’s great. The truth is actually more to the effect of: if you find it there, it’s because the world hasn’t entirely filtered it out. That’s what can make a go of it there.
If you look at plants’ lives as really a struggle using a certain number of wild advantages, they can do an incredible number of things we can’t, and also with limitations that come with being a plant and not an animal. You can’t move away from whatever bothers you.
If you look at how to navigate the world successfully using that array of approaches, it’s a really interesting, imaginative problem that has led to 20 years of fun thinking about it, with no end in sight.
‘A lot of living things make parts of themselves out of rock—your teeth, and bones, are an example of that. And peach pits are made out of rock, and there is a whole host of things inside plants that are made out of minerals.’
Q. If we go back 20ish years, to one of your first discoveries: There was this moment when you had an “aha,” and you were the only person in that instant who knew this fact. It was with a hackberry, yes?
A. A hackberry [Celtis occidentalis] is kind of a modest little tree—of modest stature, neither big nor small. It makes little fruit; they looks like a cranberry. They’re structured like a peach: There’s a skin, with a fleshy outer part, and then a hard pit. Inside that pit is a seed. Like the peach, that pit is made out of minerals—it’s made out of rock.
A lot of living things make parts of themselves out of rock—your teeth, and bones, are an example of that. And peach pits are made out of rock, and there is a whole host of things inside plants that are made out of minerals.
My very first job was to figure out what kind of mineral is it—because if we’re going to do any kind of analysis on this, we’ve got to know what we’re dealing with. So I faithfully collected a bunch of these and put them in a machine called an X-ray diffraction machine, to figure out what the mineral was.
And I happened to get the results in the middle of the night, which happens when you’re doing science [laughter], and I found myself in an unusual place, because this was before cellphones and internet. I found myself having what to me felt like important information, but I didn’t have anybody to tell. I had to sit with that information until the sun came up, and I could call somebody because it was a reasonable hour.
For those hours while I was waiting for the dawn, I was the only person on earth who knew that. It was a complete unknown before I did that, and now it was a known.
That’s separate from whether it was important information and all that other business, but it was proof that by spending time with this plant, and doing something both with my hands and with my mind, I had gotten to this place where I could point to something tangible that illustrated how I was special.
In a world of endless variations on the human form, there was something about me that came from my work with this plant, that yielded something that you just couldn’t argue wasn’t truly unique.
I remember enjoying that moment and getting addicted to that moment and wanting another one. [Laughter.]
Q. It was opal—is that what the mineral turned out to be?
A. It was opal. It was the kind of experiment where the result is so obvious. There are some experiments where you move heaven and earth, and you can’t get it right—it’s so temperamental and tweaky. And there are some experiments that you just can’t mess up—and that was one of them.
When you get data like that, it somehow feels like you were meant to know this. So there I was with my clear, clear result, and I sat there with myself, and took those hours to enjoy it as mine. That became a big moment in the book, and in 20 years of doing science and talking to other scientists, and getting awards, I haven’t been able to tell anybody about that terribly, terribly important moment, and that’s why the book was such a joy to write and to offer to readers.
Q. And we got to meet Bill, your beloved and unforgettable colleague, who we readers all now love as you do, by extension, and appreciate all his efforts over these years. I know from near the end of the book that Bill has an actual garden—and I believe he has prize mango trees—but I should ask: Do you garden as well, outside the lab?
A. I don’t.
Q. That’s OK [laughter].
A. I’m more like my mother when it comes to plants—and we did garden together, and that was one of my earliest influences. She liked plants that could do for themselves. She wasn’t going to nurse along any little delicate thing. You put it in the ground, and you came back later and ate it.
I feel that way about houseplants—I’ve had enough temperamental little plants mess with my career, and sleepless nights, that I’m not going to welcome one into my home and put it on the windowsill.
Q. I think you wrote that your mother appreciated plants like rhubarb and chard.
A. That you had to practically beat back, as opposed to cultivate it. And even peonies and plants that came from bulbs, like irises and tiger lilies—she thought those were dependable. They wanted to be in the world. If you want to be here and grow strong and grow hard and poke your head up out of the soil, and get started sooner rather than later. That’s how she looked at it.
Q. Later in the book, there was another moment like that first “aha,” a secret that only you knew when you met him—your son was born. When he got old enough to know something about plants, or your work, what did you want him to know first? What was the most exciting thing to tell him or teach him?
A. Gosh, of all the questions I am asked, that is a tough one.
Q. I’m sorry; I know that there is an anecdote that he likes to make a sound by banging on a particular tree in the backyard. [Laughter.]
A. Yes, and that’s something I talk about: that everybody has a tree from their childhood. I think some people are still waiting to meet their tree. When I wrote about how I had this tree that I didn’t know I was so attached to, till my parents had to cut it down. It felt like a bigger loss than I’d ever even considered.
People will come to me and say, “Yeah, I had a tree like that in my backyard, too.” I don’t know, when we’re kids and we meet something that’s bigger than we are and that’s stable and we can take it for granted, etc.
My son has one that he practices his baseball swing on.
Q. Some type of a palm.
A. It’s a palm, and it flexes, and he isn’t hurting it—it’s just as green at the top as the other trees. I asked him one day, “I have this idea that everybody has a favorite tree; which one is yours?” And he automatically took that one, with all the baseball bat marks on the bottom that go up because he gets taller, so the whacking part has gotten higher.
‘[Fungi] wrap around the roots, and act like roots, and they draw the stuff in, and they kind of share what comes out. As a reward, the plant offers a little bit of sugar….both of them have an easier time than they would if they were solo. Both could do quite well on their own, but for better or for worse they choose to live in that association. And it’s an odd metaphor for friendship. We could function without key people in our lives, but sometimes we’d just rather not.’
Q. I lost a tree recently, in a manner that was unexplained, and startling to me. At least until I started reading a little bit and asked a few more expert friends, and started digging around in the root zone. I don’t know if it’s mycelium or what you call the white hairs of something fungal that was in there—and never mind, I’m not a pathologist, and I’ll know when I get the plant samples back from the lab.
But there is a wonderful section in the book about this partnership, sort of for better or for worse, between trees and fungi.
A. You know that the roots are important because they allow the tree to interface with the wet world and also all the things that come in dissolved into that water: Nitrogen, and Magnesium, and all the great things that fertilize growth.
So more roots is better; you can never have too much absorptive power. So what the fungi do is they basically entwine in there and act to increase that surface area. They wrap around the roots, and act like roots, and they draw the stuff in, and they kind of share what comes out. As a reward, the plant offers a little bit of sugar. The fungus brings stuff in, and pulls stuff out, and both of them have an easier time than they would if they were solo.
It’s not what we call an obligate symbiosis, in that both could do quite well on their own, but for better or for worse they choose to live in that association. And it’s an odd metaphor for friendship. We could function without key people in our lives, but sometimes we’d just rather not.
That is enough to explain somebody who has been in your life for decades.
Q. Dare I ask you how you feel about leaves? I believe you’re as passionate about them as I am, and I have a garden that’s made up of plants chosen for the foliage, not for their flowers. Whether indoors or outdoors, I collect plants because of their foliage.
A. Leaves work; they do the work of the plant. They offer themselves to the sky, and when the lights are on, they are working. Any tissue that has green in it also has chlorophyll in it, which means it is working.
Flowers are pretty and they lead to reproduction, and they provide kind of a stage for some important bits. But it’s the leaves that are the beating heart of the plant. It’s a bad metaphor taken literally, but it’s a decent metaphor if you think of it in a symbolic way. It’s the part that feeds the plant, that at the end of the day needs to work to start the whole show.
enter to win ‘lab girl’
I’LL BUY ONE LUCKY reader a copy of the bestselling “Lab Girl,” by Hope Jahren, a memoir about friendship, about being a woman in science, about how plants work and more. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page, after the last reader comment:
What was one of the dramatic “aha’s” you recall having in your garden–even if it wasn’t that you were the only person on the planet who knew it?
For me it was when, after many years of seeing them each spring without really thinking about it, I actually realized that some plants always come out of the ground in early spring not all fresh and green but with different pigments–purples and reddish, mostly–and I set about to inquire why. I learned about the pigments called anthocyanins, and what they do (besides look beautiful) to protect the tender plants in various ways. Aha!
No answer or feeling shy? Just say, “Count me in,” or something like that, and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a winner at random after entries close at midnight Monday, July 11. US and Canada only. Good luck to all.
more from hope jahren
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 4, 2016 show right here, and also use the buttons below to subscribe to future shows, free.
(Purchases from Amazon affiliate links yield a small commission. Photos courtesy of Hope Jahren.)