Hope Jahren’s Love Letter to Life and Science

Hope Jahren’s Love Letter to Life and Science

Hope Jahren’s memoir, Lab Girl, is beautiful and poetic love letter to science, to the world of trees and plants. When a scientist also has the gift of language, something like a miracle gets produced. Jahren seems to weave words so naturally, putting together words that mere mortals don’t usually put together, unexpectedly, surprisingly, and wonderfully.

I have recommended this book many times, and will continue to do so in the future. I guarantee that you will never look at a tree the same way again.

If you are not yet convinced, here is a trailer for the book with excerpts read by the author herself.

To give you a taste of Jahren’s tapestry of words, here are some of my favorite quotes from Lab Girl.

In this quote, Jahren reminisces the garden she built with her mother in her childhood. But it’s not a typical description of a garden.

My strongest memory of our garden is not how it smelled, or even looked, but how it sounded. It might strike you as fantastic, but you really can hear plants growing in the Midwest. At its peak, sweet corn grows a whole inch every single day and as the layers of husk shift slightly to accommodate this expansion, you can hear it as a low continuous rustle if you stand inside the rows of a cornfield on a perfectly still August day.

Only someone in love with plants can notice this amazing fact and put it down in those words.

 

 

Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. – Hope Jahren

In the book, the narrative of Jahren’s life is interspersed with poetic reflection on the life of a tree, perhaps as a metaphor, a lesson, or just for fun (or all of the above). She has a way of pulling you into the mystery hidden in the silent lives of trees, and also perhaps the silent life of a researcher. Here is the first one on a tree’s initial stage of life: a seed. As if describing a baby, Jahren infuses life to this Earth’s tiny detail that we often overlook.

A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed. Some unique trigger-combination of temperature-moisture-light and many other things is required to convince a seed to jump off the deep end and take its chance—to take its one and only chance to grow.

When the seed decides to begin its incarnation as a tree,

Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.

She does this again and again. In describing leaves, “The first real leaf is a new idea.” Or the wood,

A tree’s wood is also its memoir: we can count the rings to learn the tree’s age, for every season of growth requires a new sheath from the cambium. There’s a lot of additional information written into tree rings, but it is coded within a language that scientists don’t speak fluently—yet. An unusually thick ring could signify a good year, with lots of growth, or it could just be the product of adolescence, a random spurt of growth hormones cued by an influx of unfamiliar pollen from a distant source.

 

Here’s a new way to look at the furniture in your house.

Every piece of wood in your house—from the windowsills to the furniture to the rafters—was once part of a living being, thriving in the open and pulsing with sap. If you look at these wooden objects across the grain, you might be able to trace out the boundaries of a couple of rings. The delicate shape of those lines tells you the story of a couple of years. If you know how to listen, each ring describes how the rain fell and the wind blew and the sun appeared every day at dawn.

On science and scientific discovery,

A true scientist doesn’t perform prescribed experiments; she develops her own and thus generates wholly new knowledge.

One of the most exquisite passages in the book is when she describes her first discovery as a graduate student (see also The Joy of Discovery). Science is usually covered in the media or movies as something sexy and high-tech. But the reality is most of science is done in humble labs with exposed pipes, hidden in the basement of a building, and during the hours most people are asleep. In this instance, the discovery comes during a certain all-nighter.

I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal. In a wide, wide world, full of unimaginable numbers of people, I was—in addition to being small and insufficient—special. I was not only a quirky bundle of genes, but I was also unique existentially, because of the tiny detail that I knew about Creation, because of what I had seen and then understood.

 

…But on that night, I wiped my face with my hands, embarrassed to be weeping over something that most people would see as either trivial or profoundly dull. I stared out the window and saw the first light of the day spilling its glow out upon the campus. I wondered who else in the world was having such an exquisite dawn… Nothing could alter the overwhelming sweetness of briefly holding a small secret that the universe had earmarked just for me. I knew instinctively that if I was worthy of a small secret, I might someday be worthy of a big one.

 

Finally, this one here is now among my top favorite quotes of all time.

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.

These quotes make me smile. Pick up Jahren’s beautiful book and join in the discovery.

 

Abraham Heschel: Two Ways of Seeing the World

Abraham Heschel: Two Ways of Seeing the World

Feature image: Sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park. Credit: Johnny Loi Photography.

 

The Watchman. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Temple of Sinawava. These are not religious allusions, but names of the rock formations in Zion National Park, Utah. Soaring to majestic heights, it is not surprising that they inspired spiritual experiences in those who named them.

 

From the ground to thousands feet above sea level, these rocks’ vertical dimension tells a mysterious story of time and nature. Carved to each groove is the invisible movement of waters over this Earth’s lifetime. History collapsed into formations. Rocks stand as though holding secrets, as natural monuments, as silent witnesses to the forces of nature that humans will never uncover.

 

Face to face with this hushed grandness, one cannot help but sense the drama hidden in the place. There are things bigger than me and I am overwhelmed.

 

I found myself in this tension at Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks recently. I found that I could see these mysteries in two ways.

 

One was the questioning way. What happened here? How did the rocks get shaped this way? What was it about this area that made this structure possible? Is there consensus whether it was something catastrophic or gradual? Could geologists distinguish the footprints of a catastrophe vs. gradual canyon creation by water year by year?

 

The monkey mind could go on and on.

 

But then I found that there was another way of looking at the scene. Asking what happened was futile, since no one knew what exactly happened, how precisely the waters flowed to create the hoodoos in Bryce Canyon. No one was there. With that, I silenced my monkey brain.

 

Then it happened. Silence, awe, wonder, reverence.

 

It was a way of looking at things for what they were, just as they were, acknowledging the mystery and admiring it in peace.

 

I was reminded of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words on the two ways of seeing the world in his beautiful book, Man Is Not Alone:

Standing eye to eye with being as being, we realize that we are able to look at the world with two faculties-with reason and with wonder. Through the first we try to explain or to adapt the world to our concepts, through the second we seek to adapt our minds to the world.

 

In one, the world is subject to us. In the other, we are subject to the world. One is scrutiny; the other is surrender, a succumbing to something other than us.

 

Wonder rather than doubt is the root of knowledge… to doubt is to question that which we have accepted as possibly true a moment ago… But if we must know in order to question, if we must entertain a belief in order to cast doubt upon it, then doubt cannot be the beginning of knowledge.

 

Wonder is not just about receiving information; it is the amazement at being able to see at all:

Wonder goes beyond knowledge… We are amazed at seeing anything at all; amazed not only at particular values and things but at the unexpectedness of being as such, at the fact that there is being at all.

 

Even before we conceptualize what we perceive, we are amazed beyond words, beyond doubts.

 

And here is the crux of the two modes of seeing:

When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question.

 

 

Couple this with Before Learning and After Learning, applying the two modes of seeing the world in the process of learning. Also read Wonder and Fear: Thinking Two Thoughts at Once on the experience of encountering nature.

 

Quotes on the Magical Power of Books

Quotes on the Magical Power of Books

This is a collection of quotes on the magical power of books, from the minds of book-lovers throughout the ages (emphasis mine). There truly is something special about the act of reading. See if you resonate with these thoughts.

 

 

“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.”  Rebecca Solnit

“Among the many worlds that man did not receive as a gift from nature but created out of his own mind, the world of books is the greatest… Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity. And if anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books.”   – Hermann Hesse

“But surpassing all stupendous inventions, what sublimity of mind was his who dreamed of finding means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any other person, though distant by mighty intervals of place and time! Of talking with those who are in India; of speaking to those who are not yet born and will not be born for a thousand or ten thousand years; and with what facility, by the different arrangements of twenty characters upon a page.”   – Galileo Galilei

“…an exchange between consciousnesses, a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff we can’t normally talk about.”   – David Foster Wallace

“What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.”   – Carl Sagan

“Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors… Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”  – C. S. Lewis

P.S. I will be updating this page as I collect wonderful quotes on books and reading. Bookmark the page and check back later!

 

See also The Art of Reading and Reading and the Life of the Mind.