I love it when I can’t put the book down

~a column by Colleen O’Brien

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Any story that opens with “There is nothing more perfect than a slide rule” is either going to have you closing the book on a yawn or, like me, forcing you to read on because of the idiocy of the statement.

Continuing to read is the better part of hesitation in this case. The paragraph continues, and so do I: “Its burnished aluminum feels cool against your lips.” […? Wow, a slide rule? Cool against my lips? Who would have known? Or tried it? Is this about love and the slide rule? As it turns out, it is.] “And if you hold it level to the light you can see God’s most perfect right angle in each of its corners.”

I must say, I am neither scientist nor mathematician, and perfect right angles do not interfere with my life, but this writing has me settling back to read on. And on. I’m glad I do. It’s been a long time since I became so engaged with a book. And this is no novel; it’s non-fiction, partly a treatise on dirt and tree roots and tree trunks and leaves. Beyond truly good writing, the subject of trees has always led me astray; was I a Druid once? If not that, a squirrel who liked a good story.

One chapter is about the science of soil or stems or trees or roots, the next about this botanist’s life — a strange one it is, following roots through soil, branches through forest canopies and her heart through a weird connection with her best friend and eventually her love for her husband and then her son; and always, her science. The woman is remarkable in many ways. She becomes an acclaimed scientist, award-winning in her off-the-wall research and resulting points of view, to the consternation of some of her staid cohorts. She is a graceful writer, eliciting laugh-out-loud chuckles interspersed with deep thoughts throughout her book. She is compassionate, geeky, manic and depressive. She is a natural writer — and because of that, a scientist — worth reading.

To wit, I’ll just quote a few lines here and there and let you pick up the book for the full panoply of her strange and beautifully rendered existence:

“It is easy to become besotted with a willow.” [Oh, when I read this I want to kick myself for never having written it.] She continues: “The Rapunzel of the plant world, this tree appears as a graceful princess bowed down by her lush tresses, waiting on the riverbank for someone just like you to come along and keep her company.” [Good grief, it is a perfect line.]

“Sometimes soil boundaries are distinct, as within a chocolate-vanilla layer cake, and sometimes they are as gradual as the end-to-middle change of red within one square inch of a Mondrian painting.” [Even if you’ve never heard of a Mondrian painting (like me), the slice of soil as layer cake or modern art is clearly drawn in your mind.]

“…a fossilized dog…that ran up a hollow tree probably chasing an animal and got stuck and died. The tree petrified with the dog mummified within, thus preserving for eternity the real-life tableau of a Tom and Jerry cartoon.” [It is of course her adding the “Tom and Jerry” qualifier that makes her such a hoot to read.]

‘…the maple tree on your parking — witty and musical and full of easy-to-digest facts: the leaves all together will weigh 35 pounds and hold enough sucrose to make three pecan pies, the sweetest thing I can think of.” [So many of us who have a maple in our yard know how we love it; and now, to think it’s as sweet as pecan pie, well, doesn’t it just make you smile at your tree?]

“A vine makes it up as it goes along…. searches frantically for something to cling to.”[The vines I’ve known grow about a foot a day, pull down the boards of my pergola and sneak in my front door. This woman knows vines.]

“Any plant that you find growing in the desert will grow a lot better if you take it out of the desert. The desert is like a lot of lousy neighborhoods: nobody living there can afford to move.” [Really, Hope Jahren, you pegged it again.]

And finally:

“Plants do not travel through space as we do. Instead they travel through time, enduring one event after another…. Remaining stationary and naked outside in the below-freezing weather for three months is a death sentence for almost any living thing on Earth, except for many species of trees that have been doing it for a hundred million years or more.”

Ask your librarian to order it. Or, really, get it on Amazon; this is a book you’ll want to be reading again and again. Writing in. Referring to. Wishing you had written it.

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