Sometimes you find a book that really resonates with you, revealing parts of yourself that you hadn’t fully recognised.
I love finding these kinds of books, and in a stroke of luck Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl caught my eye while I was browsing the bookshop. I devoured this book in two days, hungrily pouring through the pages in every spare moment.
After glancing at the cover – beautifully illustrated by Charlotte Day – it was Lucie Green’s review from the Observer that compelled me to flip through the first few pages – ‘Leaves become elegant machines, soil is the interface between the living and the dead, and seeds, well, they are transformed into the most patient and hopeful of life forms’ – elegantly describing the way Jahren looks at the world, and her love of plants and science.
Jahren is a geochemist, geobiologist, and professor at the University of Oslo. What I found particularly nice about this book was how it finds common ground between the scientist and the artist. The way Jahren describes her lab powerfully echoes with the way I feel about the artist’s studio:
“My lab is the place where I put my brain out onto my fingers and I do things. My lab is the place where I move. I stand, walk, sit, fetch, carry, climb, crawl. My lab is the place where it’s just as well I can’t sleep, because there are so many things to do in the world besides that. […] My lab is a place where my guilt over what I haven’t done is supplanted by all the things that I am getting done. […] My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe. […] It is my retreat from my professional battlefield; it is the place where I cooly examine my wounds and repair my armour. And, just like a church, because I grew up in it, it is not something from which I can ever really walk away.”, – (pp.23-24).
A place to retreat, a place to work and make and do and reflect. That, to me, is what the artist’s studio is all about. I also loved the part where Jahren talks about how what she does forms deep part of her identity. “In our tiny town, my father wasn’t a scientist, he was the scientist, and being a scientist wasn’t his job, it was his identity. My desire to become a scientist was founded upon a deep instinct and nothing more; I never heard a single story about a living female scientist, never met one or even saw one on television,” (p.22). In the same way, being an artist has been part of my identity, and I imagine many artists feel the same way.
Other than finding a lot of personal identification in Jahren’s description of herself and her work, the book is beautifully written and is a great read for anyone interested in plants. There’s enough information to learn something new, but none of the language is too technical, so anyone who doesn’t have a scientific background can easily pick it up and dive right in. The way that Jahren describes the natural world – as a person or a friend – is incredibly moving. A particularly lovely paragraph is:
“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.”, (p.102).
I really enjoyed every page of this read and would recommend it to anyone who has some kind of passion, because I think that we can all find some form of identification in Jahren’s words.
H. Jahren, Lab Girl (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing, 2016).