Plants thrive in the American South, Jahren explains, thanks to hot and humid summers and temperate winters. The life cycle for trees is well organized, ushering in spring in February with lush new growth, only to drop it again in the fall to prepare for winter. Jahren describes this as a courageous act of faith: these trees leave everything behind each year, secure in the belief that it will all be replaced only months later. She also notes that in the 1990s, businesses were also thriving in Atlanta, where the influx of corporations like Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola sparked a population boom that filled up the classrooms at places like Georgia Tech.
Once again, Jahren situates her life changes within the history of plant life, and this time, she is both literally and figuratively a transplant from a different climate, ready to thrive and expand in the warm and abundant American South. Just as the heat and humidity support the variety of plants in the area, the influx of new businesses to Atlanta support the boom in colleges and universities in the city, which in turn supports both Jahren and Bill.
Jahren returns to the story of her life as a new professor: she and Bill are fully engrossed in the work of building the new Jahren lab, filling it with the supplies she ordered, as well as surplus supplies that Bill found at the Salvation Army in preparation for the lean financial times that he fully expects to face. They are joined by Jahren’s Chesapeake Bay retriever Reba, whom she adopted on a whim, while lost on the road trip from California to Georgia. Jahren and Bill spend many of their evenings running gas samples for a larger, busier lab across campus, run by a more senior faculty member whom they had dubbed “Professor Santa.” Once they have gotten into this professor’s good graces, Jahren asks him for a new air compressor to replace the old one they have been using.
This section of the memoir follows Jahren through a period of early adulthood, when she is just beginning to set up her own lab for the first time. Bill’s obsession with hoarding materials and preparing for financial downturn are sometimes comical, but he and Jahren will do just about anything to ensure the success of their lab, including doing work for other labs in exchange for a share of the wealth. This also lends credence to Jahren’s claims that science funding is tight, and the competition fierce.
Plants have a host of enemies, as they are considered food for most living beings, from humans to fungi. Yet the relationship between trees and fungi is complex: while white-rot and black-rot fungi will rot right through a tree trunk, there are about 5,000 species of fungi that could be considered a tree’s best friends. They weave their underground webbing through the roots of trees, bringing it more water and precious minerals. They work together while remaining physically separate. No one knows why this happens, but Jahren wonders if the fungus feels less alone when engaged in this symbiotic relationship.
The relationship between fungi and trees is a unique one, that not many people know about because it happens underground, and only between a few thousand species. Likewise, the symbiotic relationship between Bill and Jahren is unique, especially considering there has been no romantic connection between the two. In addition, it is a quiet connection that does not involve a lot of conversation, just a sense of being less alone.
Jahren and Bill have decided to teach their soil class differently from the way it has been taught in the past, focusing less on the cataloging of data, and instead letting students explore the secrets that soil has to share. In the summer of 1997, they lead a small group of students on a field trip to study soil, camping out in the evenings. Each student has to cook for the group one evening—including one undergraduate who spends hours laboring over Hungarian potato dumplings, which are not ready until 3 A.M. According to Jahren, the meal was well worth the wait, and earned the student the nickname “Dumpling.”
Bill and Jahren find ways to enjoy their time together, and to make science fun for the students they teach. Like many good professors, Jahren is determined to make the study of science less about checking boxes on paper, and more about active, hands-on learning in the field, where students can imagine themselves as scientists. This leads to interestingly personal experiences with their students, such as the incident with the Hungarian dumplings.
They are in Atkinson County, which only soil scientists would find remarkable—while most travelers would not take much note of it, Jahren and Bill consider it soil nirvana for its rust-red oxidized strip of soil. They arrive at the site, and Jahren and Bill dig as a highly efficient team, because most of the students are uninterested in this kind of work. Once they have finished digging, they separate the layers of soil with old railroad spikes. This is one area where Jahren and Bill differ—she is a “lumper,” looking at the bigger picture of the soil, while Bill is a “splitter,” focusing on the more subtle details. They negotiate the soil boundaries, and then remove samples, test them, and note them all down.
Bill and Jahren take their students on a field trip to the outskirts of Atlanta, where they will dig into the soil and analyze it. This is much of what Jahren does in her own research, and therefore helps students see themselves as real soil scientists. It also gives students an idea of the physical activity involved in this kind of science, though few are interested in the digging on this trip. Luckily, Jahren and Bill have established their own method for digging and observing.
The field excursion lasts about five days, which gives students a good idea of the variety of soils in the area, as well as a clear indication of whether or not they would enjoy majoring in soil science. Jahren considers these trips a more effective teaching tool than classroom time, and Bill is both an excellent driver and a patient and caring teacher, even after five days in the field with students. The final day is usually reserved for an “enrichment” trip, and while they usually went to a museum called Southern Forest World, this year they decide to go to Monkey Jungle—“where humans are caged and monkeys run wild!”—instead.
Once again, Jahren gives her students an idea of what it would be like to study soil science as a career, and she acknowledges that this is as effective for weeding out uninterested students as it is for attracting interested ones. Bill also plays an important role in the trip, as he does much of the driving and supports the students in much the same way he does for Jahren. In addition, their enrichment trip is a good way for the students to bond with each other.
After passing a black billboard bearing the words “BUTT NAKED” in pink letters and wondering what it could possibly be advertising, the group finally makes it to Monkey Jungle at 1 A.M., and decides to camp out in the parking lot. Jahren wakes in the middle of the night to find a police officer shining his light into her tent, and explains how they ended up camping out in front of the gates to Monkey Jungle. She charms the officer, who then offers all manner of police protection and assistance to the group. The next morning, they offer up their final $57 as admission, and are immediately overwhelmed by the sound of screaming monkeys.
The bonding that happens on a field trip is important, as many of the students who go on these trips are the ones who will be working in the labs, or possibly even going on to study soil science at the graduate level, and a positive group dynamic is essential to a successful lab. This means that their trip to Monkey Jungle is nearly as important as the soils they have been studying all week.
Jahren notes the similarities to their research lab, with many of the monkeys performing animal versions of their various activities: there are macaques puzzling over an unsolvable problem, a gibbon sleeping, a pair of monkeys fighting, another pair in the throes of romance, and a howler monkey screaming and gesticulating at no one in particular. Jahren then looks over at Bill, who has found his mirror image in primate form, and doubles over laughing. They finish their visit by passing a gorilla named King, who passes his time drawing on paper with a crayon and looking incredibly bored. The group decides not to buy any of his art, and after Jahren reminds everyone to use the restroom one more time—musing that she must get herself an “I AM NOT YOUR MOM” t-shirt—they make their way back to campus.
While Jahren usually uses plants as a metaphor for human development, here she compares the lab group to the primates they are observing, finding humor in the strange behaviors they share with her lab assistants and students. This contributes to a sense of family for Jahren, whose only deep connection at this point is Bill. Just as she did as a child, Jahren is able to view her lab as a place of comfort and refuge, and she is beginning to fill it with people she cares about. She even jokes about making a shirt to remind her students that she is not their mother, but this joke belies the deep familial connection she is feeling.
Jahren describes a deciduous tree’s efforts to grow new leaves during the spring and summer as its “annual budget.” It must succeed in this endeavor every year, or risk encroachment by a competing tree. This is because these leaves are capturing the tree’s sole source of energy, sunlight, which will help convert the water in those leaves to sugar. Similarly, a research scientist has an annual budget that determines whether or not she is able to survive in academia. In three-year cycles, she must solicit grant money to pay her employees, buy equipment for her lab, and do all of the necessary traveling. Like a tree, she must succeed every year, or risk losing future funding to produce the scholarship she needs for tenure. To make matters worse, there are fewer grants than scientists who apply for them.
Jahren returns to the topic of budgets, this time comparing her financial concerns with that of a tree, which is always competing with those around it for all of the necessary nutrients. Just as trees seem to be jostling for position, all hoping to catch rays of sunlight, scientists are working to find the financial support to fuel their labs. The only difference is that a tree is constantly working on this, while scientists are on a three-year cycle. This gives researchers a short window in which to conduct actual research before returning to ask for more money.
Jahren’s work is of relatively low priority, as it will not result in anything marketable for war, business, or medicine. Therefore, most of her funding comes from the National Science Foundation, whose annual budget was $7.3 billion in 2013. While this number seems nearly astronomical to most people, it is only a third of the budget for the Department of Agriculture, one fifth of the Department of Homeland Security, and one sixtieth of the Department of Defense’s discretionary budget. And the NSF’s budget must fund all “curiosity-driven” research—generally defined as research that will not result in financial gains—across the country. In addition, while most Americans have heard that there are not enough scientists, academic researchers like Jahren strongly disagree: with respect to the available grant funding, there are too many scientists, and even more graduate every year, while the NSF budget stays essentially the same.
One of the biggest and most destructive myths about science is that there are not enough scientists, and that there is a lot of funding available that is not being used. Jahren combats that myth by breaking down the actual numbers, and also by noting that most of the funding for science research is focused on the development of products for business or medicine, which have a high return on investment, and for war, which has long been a priority in the United States. The kind of research that simply advances knowledge is not considered as important, despite the fact that it lays the most basic foundation for that more lucrative research later on down the line.
Jahren breaks down this number even further: because her work focuses on the past development of plants, it falls into the category of paleobiology, which had a budget of $6 million in 2013. And while there are hundreds of paleobiologists across the country, the NSF funds around 30 to 40 projects per year, which brings the average funding of a single contract to around $165,000. This would allow Jahren, for example, to pay her assistant, Bill, about $25,000 per year, with an extra $10,000 to cover his benefits, and an extra $15,000 that goes back to the university to cover their overhead (heating, electricity, building upkeep, and so on). Over three years, this leaves Jahren with a total of $10,000 in cash to spend on supplies and equipment, student lab workers, and travel to attend conferences or workshops.
To drive home her point, Jahren brings the huge numbers into perspective, and noting that after paying all of the people involved in the work, she only has a few thousand to spend on all of her expenses. And of course, this is all assuming that she receives an NSF grant every three-year cycle, and there is still plenty of competition for those funds. Thus, as a science researcher, Jahren must also worry about her budget, and dedicate a large chunk of her time searching for funding to keep the lab running.
Vines are some of the most ambitious species in the plant world. Not stiff enough to grow tall like a tree, the vine must find a way to reach the light by any means necessary, wrapping around other plants and trees to climb upwards, or growing sideways to steal patches of light not being used by others. They are also efficient, sometimes growing a foot per day, and absorbing water at a higher rate than any other plant. And while they cannot take over a forest on their own, with a little help from humans, they have been able to take hold. As humans disturb the land through agriculture, industry, and exploration, they have opened up spaces where only weeds can thrive. Jahren notes that in every space modified by humans, invasive species are taking the place of native plants.
In the context of her first year as a professor and researcher, Jahren discusses the ambitions and tenacity of vines. Though they are not always considered the most impressive plants, Jahren revels in their ability to overcome their own weaknesses and grow any way they can. She also notes that humans have really aided in the growth of vines, pointing to the unintended consequences of what most would consider progress, like urbanization and agricultural growth. Her discussion of invasive species is a plea for basic conservation efforts.
Most of the vines in North America were brought from Europe along with imports like tea, coffee, and textiles. One of these vines, the kudzu plant, arrived as a gift from Japan in 1876, and has since covered an area the size of Connecticut. One strand of the plant can grow 100 feet long, stretching along the sides of highways and blocking the view of more attractive, and less aggressive, plants and trees.
Jahren discusses the kudzu vine, which is one of the more plentiful plants in the United States, despite not being native to this land. This plant grows aggressively, and often blocks the growth of other native plants, colonizing any strip of land it can find.
After her trip to Monkey Jungle with her group of undergraduates, Jahren realizes that she has found her people within the lab, and begins to really feel at home. She is still an outsider at conferences, among the older, male scientists, but that only inspires her to work harder when she returns to Georgia Tech after her travels. She also realizes how difficult life can be for female faculty in academia, as she overhears gossip about her sexual orientation, clothing choices, and body shape through the thin walls of the science building. Jahren has little interest in the opinions of others, however, as she works overtime just to stay afloat. She subsists on cans of Ensure protein drink, showers only occasionally, bites her nails from stress and anxiety, and has little time to deal with her sudden breakouts of acne.
Jahren’s first years at Georgia Tech are a struggle, as she makes friends within the lab, but is unable to balance the demands of an early-career academic with the other aspects of her life—she focuses all of her energy on her research, and has nothing left for herself, which is why she doesn’t even have time to cook herself a meal or shower regularly. What makes this worse is the criticism she overhears from other women, who believe there is something wrong with a woman who is so singularly dedicated to professional success.
Jahren’s attempts at romance are also difficult at this point, as the men she dates are put off by her intense work schedule and constant conversation about plant life. She lives in a rented trailer outside of town with only her dog Reba for company, and has to deal with the increasingly strange behavior of her landlord and neighbor: her landlord insists on storing an unreasonable number of old VHS tapes in the trailer, and often comments to Jahren that she is brave to live out in the woods without a gun; meanwhile, her neighbor often stops by to explain to her that, given his EMT training, he could easily cut off all of her clothes in less than 45 seconds.
Jahren’s living situation is an absolute mess, and she does not have enough money or mental energy to find herself a safer and more appropriate place to live. When she imagined herself as a scientist with her own lab, Jahren likely did not see herself living in a trailer, and this is the kind of honesty that makes her memoir relatable. While later on, her personal life will improve, in Atlanta, Jahren lives a thoroughly un-glamorous life.
When Jahren begins to have car trouble, she trades it in for a used Jeep and moves closer in to town. Unfortunately, her city apartment is not much better: Bill names it the “Rat Hole,” and Jahren soon learns that she is close enough to a steel factory to hear—and feel—the rhythmic drop of metal sheets from twelve feet in the air, on a regular basis, every night. Bill, for his part, has chosen to live in a yellow mini-van that he occasionally parks in the Georgia Tech lot at night. Jahren notes that more often than not, Bill is hard to find, especially in the era before cell phones. When he isn’t in the lab and Jahren needs him, she simply goes to the many places he usually parks his van, or to the coffee shop where he spends his Sunday mornings.
For all of the difficulties of this part of Jahren’s life, she has Bill to share these experiences with, and he helps keep her spirits up. He, too, has a less-than-glamorous living situation, though he may be living in a van as part of his desire to stay away from other people. He is used to strange living situations: as a young boy, he dug an underground cave for himself in his parents’ backyard, and lived there for a while. Thus, for Bill this is partially a necessity, and partially a choice.
Early one morning, Bill calls Jahren to inform her that he has shaved off all of his long, glossy black hair. For many years, Bill had chosen to let his hair grow out instead of enduring the uncomfortable intimacy of the barbershop, giving himself the occasional trim. The fact that he had shaved his head completely, however, is too much for Jahren, who refuses to see him for days afterwards. He finally calls her back to tell her that he has kept the hair, and if it will make her feel better, they can go and visit it together. At 4 A.M., he picks her up in the van and brings her to the reservoir, where he has stashed his hair in a hole in a tree trunk.
Bill and Jahren have a unique friendship, as they are both introverts who fear change in many ways. Thus when Bill decides to cut off his hair, Jahren is uncomfortable with the idea and needs a few days to get accustomed to the idea of Bill without hair. They make a pilgrimage to the place where he keeps his hair, connecting to his past together. As neither of them sleeps very much, they make this trip in the middle of the night, when they are sure no one will see them. Comical and strange situations like this one emphasize the pair’s closeness even beyond the confines of the lab.
Jahren admits that it made her uncomfortable to think of Bill cutting off a part of himself and just throwing it away, and Bill agrees, which is why he has stored it in the tree trunk, adding that he is “not a barbarian, for Christsakes.” He shows her the hair, and she admires it, feeling much better; thus begins a ritual for the two of them, in which Bill stashes his hair in the tree and the two of them go and visit it occasionally. They even develop a plan for a children’s book called The Getting Tree, in which a boy begins by shaving off his hair and giving it to the tree, and ends with the boy—now a bald man with no more hair to offer—simply sticks his arm in to the tree as a sacrifice.
The humor and irony is apparent here, as Bill notes that he is not a barbarian, yet he has created a secret spot to store (and visit) his hair because he does not want to throw it away. The children’s book they write is a parody of The Giving Tree, a Shel Silverstein book about a child who takes from a tree until it has no more to offer and dies. It is appropriate that they envision a human who will sacrifice himself for a tree—not unlike their lifelong sacrifices for the sake of science.
Bill’s life in the van is much more difficult in the summer, when the temperatures quickly rise into the 90s by morning. He has combated this by parking in a shady area of the university parking lot, and covering all the windows with aluminum foil to block out the sunlight and heat. And because the van has no bathroom, Bill avoids having to urinate during the night by ceasing his liquid consumption early in the evening, the result of which is that Bill is desperately dehydrated upon waking in the morning. Some days, Jahren finds Bill in the lab as early as 7:30 A.M., consuming as much water as possible to start the day.
Bill’s need for privacy and isolation are becoming worrisome and comical at the same time, as his living situation presents more problems than he originally envisioned. The lack of a bathroom in the van is a major issue, though it does mean that Bill spends much of his time in the lab, coming in very early to escape the heat and dehydration of the inside of the van, and getting a lot done in Jahren’s lab.
One night, the Georgia Tech campus security finds Bill’s van in the lot, and the officers wake him up to find out what’s going on. Bill, who had managed to shave just half of his head the night before when the batteries ran out in his cordless razor, stumbles out of the van looking like he has recently escaped from a mental institution. He shows them all manner of identification to prove that he does indeed work at the university, and the security guards even call Jahren to confirm that he is her employee and to let her know that they found him in a van parked on campus. Jahren confirms his identity and acknowledges his strange living situation, which satisfies the officers.
The story of the campus police’s discovery of Bill, with half a shaved head, sleeping in a van in the campus parking lot is a perfect example of his eccentricity, but also of Bill and Jahren’s deep personal connection. Jahren is happy to vouch for her best friend, and does not find his behavior strange. This is also another moment when Jahren is able to debunk the image of scientists as anything other than fallible human beings.
Back in the lab, Bill and Jahren discuss the fact that he would probably be a prime suspect for nearly any kind of crime, as “a weirdo loner who periodically shoves body parts in a tree.” Bill agrees, though he notes that he has nothing to hide, as he doesn’t use drugs, drink, or cause any kind of trouble. Despite his strange appearance, the worst crime that Bill has committed is swearing too much. Jahren blames herself, noting that she cannot yet pay him a living wage, but she also promises him that they are close to securing a large grant. In the meantime, Bill decides to move into the lab, sleeping in a windowless office that is likely only a few degrees cooler than his van in the mornings.
Bill is not ashamed of his behavior or appearance, and while he and Jahren agree that he could easily be mistaken for a criminal, he is dedicated to a life of solitude and the study of science, and little else. Jahren blames herself for his less-than-ideal living situation, as she does not yet have enough funding, and Bill is working for very little money. Of course, they are still starting out in the world of science research, and are still optimistic about what the future will bring, as long as they continue to work hard.
To disguise his unofficial living quarters, Bill sleeps in “pajakis,” a t-shirt and khakis, so that he can claim to have fallen asleep in the middle of his work if anyone happens to find him there at night. This seems to work for Bill, except for the lack of ventilation and the fact that it is located near the entrance to the building, and the doors would squeal loudly as students entered and exited. Bill once even puts up a sign reading “Doors Broken, Please Use Back Entrance,” but that was taken down by Facilities when they found no problem with the door at all.
Bill’s move into the lab is not much better than living in the van, but as he has few other options for living arrangements, he makes the best of a difficult situation. He also seems to see it as another adventure, coming up with ways to find privacy, avoid being caught, and get a good night’s sleep.
The other issue that plagues Bill is the question of where to shower, as there are no facilities in the building. He considers using the sink in the janitor’s closet, but as he cannot shut the door behind him, he is worried about someone coming in and finding him naked, washing himself in the middle of the night. Bill certainly could not come up with a good excuse for that. The side effect of Bill’s new home is that he spends nearly all of his waking hours working in the lab, making him available to listen to students at nearly any hour of day or night. Though he often grumbles about it, Bill quickly becomes the students’ greatest resource for everything from fixing their bikes to filling out tax forms.
The lack of showering facilities is a difficult obstacle, and Bill and Jahren cannot come up with a way for him to use the janitor’s sink without exposing the precariousness of Bill’s financial situation. But Jahren finds a positive in this situation, noting that Bill is able to help many students outside of classes, as he is always available for them when they need him. This contributes to the overall impression of Bill as an altruistic person, despite his extreme introversion.
Bill listens patiently to the students, not judging, and not sharing any information about his own life. And he rarely shares those stories with Jahren, with the exception of a few of the best. For example, one student named Karen aspired to work as a veterinarian, and worked for a summer in the primate enclosure at the Miami Zoo. She was assigned to massage anti-inflammatory cream onto the monkeys’ genitals, which obviously brought the primates much joy. She described the plastic shell she had to wear as protection against the attention of the monkeys, and the way in which they would all stand erect, waiting for her to rub them down with cream each day. This process helped Karen to decide that veterinary medicine was probably not for her, and she returned to the botany lab the following year.
Jahren often talks about how her science students should get an idea of what it is like to be a scientist through hands-on practice, and this story illustrates the importance of that practice. While the work in the lab may often be tedious and unexciting, this young woman’s dreams of becoming a veterinarian are dashed when she is suddenly exposed to the unsavory aspects of the job. Just as Jahren strips science of much of its glamour throughout her memoir, this story presents the very un-glamorous aspects of veterinary science.
A cactus survives in the desert, despite the scarcity of water, and excess heat and light; its success depends on its ability to endure repeated droughts. It has adapted itself to the conditions, however, shedding its roots and contracting itself in order to preserve the tiny amount of water it has absorbed. About 100 species are known as resurrection plants, because they will dry up and play dead as they wait for the rain. This state can last for years, and when it does rain, it takes two days for photosynthesis to resume and for the plant to come back to life.
Jahren presents the plight of the cactus, a plant that only grows in the desert because it has to, and should be commended for its ability to survive in some of the harshest conditions, deprived of the necessary nutrients for years at a time. Again, this is a fitting metaphor for the early years of Jahren’s career, when she has little support—financial, emotional, or mental.
Manic episodes are overwhelming and visceral, Jahren explains, and filled with the sound of blood rushing through her head, so loud that she has to shout over it to hear herself. She sees the world differently, distorted like a fish-eye lens, and feels the impulse to strip naked and run outside. In this particular episode, there is someone holding her back and looking at her with concern, which Jahren does not understand because she is convinced that this is the happiest she will ever feel. She then describes the “final lifting,” in which she has delusions of grandeur, feeling as though she has been rescued from the pain of this world. Immediately following this peak, Jahren falls into the depths of depression.
Jahren is relatively casual in her description of one of her manic episodes, despite the fact that they can be physically and emotionally draining, and have kept her away from work for days at a time. All of the symptoms that have come before—the excessive energy, tendency to overthink things, the lost moments in her memory—are all coming to a head now, perhaps exacerbated by the stress of her job. Jahren recognizes the importance of publicizing this issue, however, so that others can get the help she did.
During these manic episodes, Jahren is overtaken by the most intense need to write, to document her every thought, but that is also when she loses control of her fine motor skills: she cannot hold a pen to write, and has to record herself on a cassette tape instead, pacing like an animal the entire time. She is sure that she is close to stumbling upon a groundbreaking scientific discovery, but then suddenly everything changes, and Jahren begins to scream until someone comes in and holds her down. They clean off the hair, blood, and snot that cover her and give her a sedative, letting her sleep for days afterwards.
As someone who already spends all of her time thinking, the manic episode pushes her beyond the realm of reasonable thoughts, and she records her ramblings only to find later that they are not the brilliant breakthroughs she thought they were at the time. It is almost as if Jahren is a different person during these episodes, out of control and incapable of getting any work done. But Jahren doesn’t hesitate to recount these episodes, knowing that others will learn from them.
In the hospital, Jahren meets a doctor who informs her that she does not have to live this way, and once she tells him all of her symptoms, he promises her that it is manageable. He puts her on medication that helps to curb her manic episodes. Jahren notes that years later, when she was packing for a move, she came upon the cassettes that she used to record her thoughts during her mania, and pulls the tape out of each one, and then buries the whole box in to backyard, under a magnolia tree.
Medical intervention is the best option for Jahren at this point in time, and it will help her balance her moods and focus on the research she must do to survive as a scientist. She jumps forward to the moment when she stumbled upon her tapes and buried them, marking the end of that period of mental instability and manic episodes.
Jahren recounts one of her manic episodes, which was sparked by the poison ivy medication she had taken, and ended with her crying on her bed for 36 hours. During the mania, however, Jahren runs to the lab to tell Bill about a scientific breakthrough she just discovered, and to inform him that they will be traveling to the American Geophysical Conference in San Francisco, so that Jahren can present her breakthrough. The fact that they will need to drive a total of 50 hours and have no travel funding are immaterial to her at that point, so convinced is she that her idea will result in a government contract.
As an isolated incident, this story is humorous and endearing; without the necessary medical interventions, however, Jahren would have lost her job and lab if she had continued to make irrational decisions like this, not taking any of the possible consequences into account. For his part, Bill is accustomed to Jahren’s outsized ideas and her ability to turn them into real science, so he trusts her implicitly.
When Jahren returned to the lab, days later, Bill informed her that he had secured the van for their trip to San Francisco, and because she had spent so many days suffering from her manic episode, they would need to cover the more than 3,000 miles between Georgia and California in three day’s time. They were bringing a few students from the lab, as well, and they would be able to help drive. The group arrived in Colorado with no problems, but when Jahren’s friend Cal advised that they take the longer route into California to avoid a major snowstorm, she refused. Boasting that she is from Minnesota, and therefore used to winter weather, Jahren insisted that they take the most direct route, and they ended up driving right into the storm.
Jahren notes in her memoir that it was her job to cook up crazy ideas, pitch them, and find funding, and for Bill to work on the small but necessary details that would ensure success in the lab. This anecdote provides another example of that symbiotic relationship, where Jahren’s wild ideas become reality with Bill’s help. Jahren is also very honest about the hubris she exhibited during this trip, putting the entire group at risk—her Minnesota upbringing somehow made her feel that she was an expert at navigating inclement weather.
As they leave Colorado, an undergraduate named Teri is driving the van, and Jahren decides not to buckle her seatbelt, despite the fact that she is quite sure Teri has never driven outside of Atlanta and may not be equipped to handle the road conditions. Just as Jahren warns Teri to slow down, the van began to spin on the ice, hitting a speed limit sign and facing oncoming traffic. It then began to tip over, sending Jahren onto the ceiling of the vehicle, while everyone else was suspended upside down by their seatbelts. The car behind them stopped, and the driver managed to get them into town so they could call for a tow truck and find a place to sleep for the night.
The way that Jahren narrates the van accident is similar to her description of her manic episode: it begins with too much speed, and a sudden loss of control, followed by a drawn-out period of inactivity, and a realization that something has gone horribly wrong. After the crash, the group is lucky to get a ride into town for the night, which gives them all a chance to rest and recover from the scare on the highway.
The next morning, Teri demands to be taken to the Salt Lake City airport so that she can fly home, and Bill refuses. He reminds her that she was the one who crashed the van, and she can’t just desert everyone at this point. Jahren is touched by this, and it dawns on her that Bill is her family, and will never leave her, no matter what disasters they encounter. After breakfast, they find that the van is still in working order despite the crash, and Bill drives the rest of the way to San Francisco. Back on campus, administrators are furious with Jahren, but she knows that there is little they can do about it.
Teri, the undergraduate that was driving the van when it crashed, blames Bill and Jahren for bringing her on the trip in the first place, and wants to get away from them and the trauma she’s just experienced. Bill demonstrates extreme loyalty to Jahren, however, when he reminds Teri that they are all in it together, and that she doesn’t get to desert the rest of the group in their time of need.
Jahren recounts the story of a major battle during the 1980s—between plants and insects. In 1977, a group of tent caterpillars nearly decimated many species of trees in a forest in Washington state, eating nearly every leaf off of some trees. Two years later, researchers fed the leaves of some of the surviving trees to the tent caterpillars, and found that these trees were producing a new chemical that was making the caterpillars sick. What really surprised the researchers, however, was that healthy trees over a mile away were also producing this same chemical—this distance was simply too far for the trees to communicate through their roots, as trees are known to do, so they wondered how these healthy trees knew to produce this toxic chemical.
Jahren presents this story about the communication between trees as a high drama, suitable for a war documentary. She brings science alive in this way, by placing it in the context of human intrigue. This particular story explains how plants can communicate even when they are located miles apart from each other, using methods that have long been unknown to humans. It also shows that trees care for each other in their own ways, once again making them seem humanlike.
The researchers thought this information could have been transmitted through VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, which could travel more than a mile to the areas of the forest not affected by the caterpillar attack. This allowed generations of trees to avoid destruction by the caterpillars, which eventually saved the forest by the late 1980s. Jahren describes this as an example of trees caring about each other, and working together against a common enemy.
While Jahren will later note that plants and humans are actually quite different from one another, throughout her memoir she intentionally personifies plants, making them more relatable to her readers, and giving them an idea of why she sees them as such an important part of her world.
Jahren describes her early years in academia as “a long, slow academic train wreck,” because she spent so much of her time focusing on research that was so unorthodox that she repeatedly alienated her more senior colleagues. This led to multiple rejections for grant applications, and even to reviewers insulting her intelligence in the course of the rejections. She was running out of time to establish credibility, and her startup funds from the university were all used up, so Jahren began taking advantage of any supplies that weren’t being used by other labs or offices in desperation. Bill’s salary had also run out, and he was homeless and dependent upon Jahren for meals.
Even after receiving her Ph.D., Jahren has a lot to learn about the world of science research, especially the political side of it. As an excellent researcher and writer, Jahren is producing good work, but she is not yet succeeding because she has not yet learned how to establish herself as a scientist in the eyes of others. This process will take a long time, and there will still be moments when Jahren feels out of place among her fellow researchers.
Jahren began to fear that she would lose her lab and no longer be a scientist, which was the only concrete dream she ever had. She began to think of Saint Stephen, who was chosen as one of the seven prophets to preach the gospel, but who was strung up not long after leaving Jerusalem. She wondered at what point self-preservation kicks in, but she also considered minute details like the number of rocks each person threw at him, and where they got all of the rocks, and whether some types of rocks were considered better weapons for stoning. Her anxiety would spiral out of control at this point, and she would call Bill to talk her down. They would talk until the sun came up, and Bill would advise her to see a doctor, to get a prescription for Prozac.
For the first time since finishing her Ph.D., Jahren worries about the future of her career, and places her concerns within a biblical context. She is not concerned about being stoned for her religious beliefs, but rather ignored or ridiculed for her new and creative ideas about paleobiology. On one hand, she is definitely at a precarious point in her career, but she is also suffering from the stress and fear, making her anxiety worse. Once again, it is Bill who helps her find her way, calmly listening without judgment
Things got better for Jahren: she lived in Georgia for another six months, when she got a job at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She did finally see a doctor and get medication, changed her eating and sleeping habits, and began to take control of her mental health. Even Bill changed—he stopped smoking. They continued to work together, and to apply for grants until they were finally successful.
This period in Jahren’s life was a mix of monumental struggles—when Bill was homeless, or she was hospitalized for manic episodes—but it was also one of her greatest learning experiences, as she found her feet and realized that she could indeed achieve her dream.