Likely Stories: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

May 31, 2018

Newly minted PhD examines soil and all its properties.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

A few years ago, I heard of a book, which seemed interesting.  The Wild Trees by Richard Preston turned out to be much more than interesting.  It changed forever my opinion of the giant redwoods inhabiting the Pacific North West.  I have recently received a book from a friend, which repeats my experience with the trees.  Lab Girl by Hope Jahren does for soil what Preston did for forests of giant sequoias, although Hope sprinkles some personal and professional obstacles she was forced to overcome.

Jahren writes, “For several billion years, the whole of the Earth’s land surface was completely barren.  Even after life had richly populated the oceans, there is no clear evidence for any life on land.  While herds of trilobites wallowed on the ocean floor preyed upon by […] a segmented marine insect the size of a Labrador retriever—there was nothing on land.  Sponges, mollusks, snails, corals, and exotic crinoids maneuvered through nearshore and deep-water environments” (177).  “The first jawed and jawless fishes appeared and radiated into the bony forms we know today. // Sixty million more years passed before there was life on land that constituted, and more than a few single cells stuck together within the cracks of a rock. […]  Once the first plant did somehow make its way onto land, however, it took only a few million years for all of the continents to turn green, first with wetlands and then with forests” (177).  Crinoids are primitive creatures that live in shallow waters to as far as 9,000 meters below the surface.

Hope’s constant search for more interesting examples of soil took her to many remote places.  She writes, “The place where we work in the Artic is more than 1,000 miles away from the nearest tree, but it wasn’t always like that.  Canada and Siberia are loaded with the remains of what were lush deciduous conifer forests that sprawled north of the Arctic Circle for tens of millions of years, starting about 50 million years ago.  Tree-dwelling rodents climbed the branches of these forests and looked down upon huge tortoises and alligator-like reptiles.  All these animals are now extinct, but together they formed an ecosystem more reminiscent of Alice’s Wonderland than of anything that can be found today” (195).

As a dedicated and curious scientist, Hope naturally becomes aware of all the creatures around her.  She writes, “There is a wasp that cannot reproduce outside the flower of a fig; this same fig flower cannot be fertilized without the help of a wasp.  When the female wasp lays her eggs inside the fig flower, she also deposits the pollen that coated her when she hatched within a different fig flower.  These two organisms—the wasp and the fig—have enjoyed this arrangement for almost 90 million years, evolving together through the extinction of the dinosaurs and across multiple ice ages” (203).

The author has an interesting epigram from Helen Keller: “The more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.”  Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl is an interesting excursion into an area of science I know little about.  Her story of soil all around us, will make an interesting companion to The Wild Trees. 5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!