Jahren’s ‘Lab Girl’: The Dramatic Life of Plants

Much as people admire plants, it is difficult to relate to them. It takes a special focus to sympathize with a plant’s struggles, to identify with it, to understand its idiosyncrasies. We have an immense range of words and images for capturing our own inner experiences—fear, exhaustion, revulsion, joy, thirst and so forth—but a mere handful for even the most prominent stages of plant life—growing, blooming, wilting, and a few others. This distance isn’t surprising. Plants are different from us in basic ways. They are anchored to the ground, they don’t have faces, and they make their own food. We acknowledge them as members of the family of life, but they also seem alien.

blog.plos.org

The poverty of our understanding of plants contributes, I believe, to our uneasiness about the meaning of our lives. We’re prone to feeling that being alive is either an exclusively human pleasure or a lonely human struggle. It’s easy to lose touch with the reality that plants along with animals have been passing through the experiences of growing, struggling, fending off threats, and sometimes flourishing, for hundreds of millions of years and by the billions. We might feel more at home in our own skins if our imaginations could take in the  lives of plants a little more easily.

Hope Jahren helps us do so. Lab Girl, her memoir, traces her life through the rigors of becoming an established research scientist and her workaholic triumphs and disappointments in labs and in the field. The bristling autobiographical chapters alternate with brief essays about how plants function and survive. It’s these plant chapters that most caught my attention. Here are excerpts:

      No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A lucky root will eventually find water, but its first job is to anchor—to anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phases, however passive that mobility was. Once the first root is extended, the plant will never again enjoy any hope (however feeble) of relocating to a place less cold, less, dry, less dangerous. Indeed, it will face frost, drought, and greedy jaws without any possibility of flight. ….The root grows down before the shoot grows up, and so there is no possibility for green tissue to make new food for several days or even weeks. Rooting exhausts the very last reserves of the seed.  The gamble is everything, and losing means death. The odds are more than a million to one against success.
But when it wins, it wins big. If a root finds what it needs, it bulks into a taproot—an anchor that can swell and split bedrock, and move gallons of water daily for years.  (52)

     A cactus doesn’t live in the desert because it likes the desert; it lives there because the desert hasn’t killed it yet. Any plant 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…. A desert botanist is a rare scientist indeed and eventually becomes inured to the misery of her subjects. Personally, I don’t have the stomach to deal with such suffering day in and day out.   (142)

     Here’s my personal request to you: if you have any private land at all, plant one tree on it this year. If you’re renting a place with a yard, plant a tree in it and see if your landlord notices. If he does, insist to him that it was always there….
Once your baby tree is in the ground, check it daily, because the first three years are critical. Remember that you are your tree’s only friend in a hostile world. If you do own the land that it is planted on, create a savings account and put five dollars in it every month, so that when your tree gets sick between ages twenty and thirty (and it will), you can have a tree doctor over to cure it, instead of just cutting it down….
At the end of this exercise, you’ll have a tree and it will have you. You can measure it monthly and chart your own growth curve. Every day, you can look at your tree, watch what it does, and try to see the world from its perspective. Stretch your imagination until it hurts: what is your tree trying to do? What does it wish for? What does it care about? Make a guess. Say it out loud.    (282)

It would be easy to characterize this writing as merely heavily personified and emotional. But I take these and other passages as capturing realities about plants that rarely come within our understanding, empathy, or language. Most people would be more likely to imagine what it is like to be on the moon than what it like to be the tree in the backyard that is bracing for winter. And if we think of our human emotions—such as terrified and enjoy— as reactions to situations and not just shifting moods, then a first root really is a terrifying gamble, plants really can be said to enjoy, to benefit from, their mobility as seeds that might find friendly ground, and they really do get exhausted when their physical necessities run short.

And then there’s “you’ll have a tree and it will have you.” Considering the world’s deteriorating environment, Jahren argues, if one tree can rely on you, that tree is well off. I would add that the benefit is mutual; we ourselves are better off if we can share and feel, even faintly, the life of any plant.

No Pain, No Sympathy

Which living things merit our sympathy? Our pets? Certainly. What about human embryos? And plants? Is it consciousness or complexity or being human or the capacity for pain that makes an individual life worth our empathy?

The debate over animal rights has reinforced one ancient measure of an organism’s worth. An organism that shows signs of experiencing pain is said to be entitled to live without that pain. These sentient beings include cats and dogs and most of the animals that we eat or use for clothing or experiment on. Insects, with their minimal nervous systems, are on the margin of the sentience line.

Below the line are the simplest animals such as sponges and jellyfish, along with plants and single-celled bacteria and other microbes. These don’t experience suffering and have no awareness of a kind that we would recognize. They may have value collectively as part of the environment, but a single jellyfish or an individual plant has no standing for human commiseration.

diseased tree (skylinetreesvc.com)

slylinetreesvc.com

Although I understand its role in the cause of animal rights, I find this sentience distinction unsatisfying. If an organism appears to be “feeling” a disease or injury, we give its condition more weight and urgency than we would if the organism—a plant, for example—were one that did not consciously experience such a condition. A tree may be attacked by insects or suffer other life-threatening conditions, but if we are accustomed to imagining the terror of a pig going to slaughter, we probably won’t empathize much with the stress on the tree as chemical messages sweep through it.

When we feel compassion for another being that is in dire straits, what are we feeling sympathy for, exactly? Is it for the possible loss of an individual life? Is it for the dangerous condition that is attacking the organism? Or is it for the pain that the organism is enduring? I think it is the last, if only because the evident pain in an animal reminds us of our own capacity for suffereing. Perhaps we should remind ourselves that non-sentient beings, though without visible torment, may struggle, crave, and weaken as relentlessly as sentient ones.

The uniqueness and persistence of life over 3.8 billion years endows all living things, both with and without awareness, with value. I’m not recommending the ludicrous extreme of not killing plants; we, like all animals, can not survive without eating other living things, either plant or animal. But I am suggesting that we heighten our awareness of the sentience distinction that cleaves the living world in two and can diminish our connection with non-sentient life.

Plants as Aliens

Plants are so familiar to us that we don’t see them very well. We look at them and think about them according mostly to how we use them—for food and beauty. To shift our perspective, I’ll look at plants as if they were strangers from another planet, as plant-aliens. Making them weirder may make them more vivid.

  • Plant-aliens don’t eat anything. They make their own food. For that purpose they anchor themselves to a water source and grow their own solar panels.
  • Plant-aliens follow a clock that is geared only to the sun light and the seasons. Small plants push out leaves and flowers quickly in early spring so that they can catch maximum sunlight before the slower growing leaves on the trees above them plunge them into shade.
  • Unlike the many animals that cooperate so they can secure food, plant-alien food makers have little reason to be social. They don’t appear to react to each other at all as they seek out the sun. In fact, however, research is showing that their root systems commune with fungi about soil conditions and they share nutrients.
  • Many plant-aliens are giants. They tower over all animals.
  • Through their sophisticated plumbing and evaporation mechanisms, tree-aliens pull water up long distances without using any kind of pump. Animals, on the other hand, must all use small pumps just to keep fluids moving inside their fragile bodies.
  • Life below freezing (blendspace.com)

    Life below freezing
    (blendspace.com)

    Plant-aliens survive sub-freezing temperatures that last for weeks or months. They get as cold as the frozen earth around them. Animals can’t survive if they get that cold; hibernating animals cling to a slow metabolism that keeps them above freezing.

  • One process that plant-aliens do share with animals is sexual reproduction. Their equipment for doing so, however, is a little kinky. An individual plant-alien may contain flowers with structures that are male or female or both or that change from one to the other.
  • Plant-aliens breathe in carbon and exhale oxygen. Animals do the reverse.
  • Plants-aliens have successfully colonized the earth. They occupy the coldest and hottest zones, they outnumber animals and they are both larger and smaller than we are. And we animals are at their mercy for our food and oxygen.*

Plants are so different from us and so impressive that it’s actually not too difficult to portray them as aliens. And after that exercise, it’s pleasant to see them again as our comfortable companions and allies. I wonder if they feel the same way about us.

 

*With appreciation for David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants (1995)