It has taken several billion years for plant life to make its way onto land, and after that first plant, it took a few million years for all of the continents to fill up with greenery. Human activity, however, is set to reverse that process, removing plant life from the planet at an amazing rate. Urban areas will double in the next 40 years, and humans will lose an area of protected forest as large as Pennsylvania; this process is even more dramatic in the developing world. Baltimore, where Jahren moved to work at Johns Hopkins, has the fewest number of trees of any city on the East Coast, with one tree for every five inhabitants. Yet the botanist moved into the city of Baltimore, and bought a row house close to the university, and Bill moved into her attic.
Jahren begins the final section of her memoir, “Flowers and Fruit,” with a note about how humans are destroying plant life all over the globe. This helps to place her work in perspective, especially as she begins to study the effects of climate change on plants later on in her career. It also demonstrates how important her research is to her—she is willing to move to the relatively tree-impoverished city of Baltimore to pursue her career and expand her lab. There is no discussion with Bill this time—he has simply become part of the package.
Jahren and Bill were on their way to creating a bigger, better Jahren lab at Johns Hopkins, and while they were presenting at a conference in Denver, they bumped into a fellow researcher named Ed, whom Jahren considers her “academic uncle.” He mentioned that he was retiring, and when Jahren asked what would happen to all of his lab supplies, he guessed that they would all be dumped, and then offered them to her, if she wanted to come and pick them up in Cincinnati. So Jahren and Bill rented two U-Hauls, packed up nearly everything from Ed’s lab, and drove it back to Baltimore.
Even as their institutional budget increases, Jahren and Bill are prepared to beg, borrow, scrimp, and steal to fully equip their lab as economically as possible. In this case, they feel no shame in rescuing old supplies and equipment from a lab that was about to close. Both Bill and Jahren were raised to be thrifty and careful with money, and this has proven useful for the times when they were financially strapped in their old lab.
As they packed up the supplies, Jahren kept a running tab of the hundreds of dollars that they would save by taking Ed’s old supplies. They then turned their attention to the mass spectrometer at the back of the room, which was about the size of a small car. A mass spectrometer is a little like a bathroom scale, but for atoms rather than humans, using electromagnetic fields as the method of measuring mass. The machine they were looking at in Ed’s lab was much larger and more unwieldy than more modern versions, and after they examined it, they knew that they could not take it back with them. They loaded the other items onto the trucks and handed Ed an itemized list for his records. As they said goodbye, Jahren teared up, thinking about his lifelong contributions to science.
Jahren is very appreciative of everything her friend Ed has given her, from the lab equipment to a sense of pride in her work. As a female scientist in a male-dominated field, Jahren has had to rely on the support of her older male colleagues and mentors who appreciate her work and are more inclusive. As Jahren moves on to a more mature phase of her career, Ed’s gift of his old lab equipment is also a passing of the torch, as he is nearing retirement and has little interest in continuing his scientific research.
Unlike humans and other animals, trees cannot take refuge inside or shield themselves from the cold in winter, and must endure up to six months of frigid temperatures per year. To do this, they go through a process called hardening, which involves letting the water out of their cells, leaving concentrated amounts of sugar, protein, and acid behind. This allows the tree to keep from freezing during the winter, and while it does not grow during this time, it is protected from the elements and can survive the frozen temperatures. This entire process is triggered by changes in sunlight, as the tree uses the sun like a calendar.
Jahren often notes the difficult predicament that trees find themselves in due to the fact that they cannot relocate. In this case, she explains how they make themselves less vulnerable to the conditions to survive cold winters. Jahren will reflect on this defense mechanism, known as hardening, when she deals with the variety of male scientists who underestimate her or question her place in academic circles.
Jahren and Bill are spending the summer on Axel Heiberg Island in Canada, and it feels like the middle of nowhere to them. Other than their fellow scientists, there are no other people for hundreds of miles, and while polar bear attacks are always a possibility in the region, they rarely see any animals at all, mainly because there is nothing for them to eat. The Canadian military checks up on them intermittently, but otherwise, they are completely alone with their research. Jahren is studying the remains of a deciduous forest that stretched above the Arctic Circle approximately 50 million years ago, when the climate was quite different in the region. Yet even if the Arctic Circle wasn’t covered with ice, it was still bathed in darkness for three months, which would be a serious impediment to plant growth.
As a paleobiologist, Jahren studies the history of plant life, and uses that to further understand the global climate throughout Earth’s history. This brings her to the Arctic Circle, where she can only imagine the forest that existed millions of years ago, despite the cold and the months of total darkness. Now, it is a barren place, with the exception of the researchers and, very rarely, a single creature. Yet this is the kind of isolation that Bill and Jahren appreciate, allowing them to focus on their research.
Jahren and Bill are on the island with 10 paleontologists from the University of Pennsylvania, who are carefully extracting fossilized trees to study. True to their rebellious nature, Jahren and Bill are using a different methodology to study the site: instead of focusing on individual fossils, they are taking out chunks and examining the layers to find changes in chemistry that will provide clues to how this forest survived on a larger scale. Jahren was resigned to the fact that the other researchers would never accept her or consider her a legitimate scientist, and she and Bill simply kept their distance, as they had back on that first field trip in California. While the other researchers slept, Bill and Jahren conducted their research, and vice versa.
As they often are, Bill and Jahren find themselves separated from the other researchers on the island, both because they are from a different institution, and because they are using different methods to arrive at their conclusions. This is the point where Jahren accepts that she will often be an anomaly in the scientific world, with ideas that are too wild and innovative for her fellow researchers to accept or see as legitimate. She has hardened herself, and does not take it as personally as she used to.
One day, Bill notices an Arctic hare in the distance, and the two decide to follow it. They find themselves at the top of a hill of sorts, and can still see the bright neon tents of their campsite, so they are in no danger of getting lost. Jahren mentions how the other researchers will never see her work as legitimate, and Bill is surprised to hear that he is not the only one who feels left out. He brings up the fact that he is missing part of his right hand, which kept him from making many friends as a boy. He didn’t join any teams or clubs, never went on dates or to the prom, which he relates to Jahren with a mixture of regret and humor.
Even on this nearly deserted island, far from the reaches of even the Canadian military, Jahren and Bill find a way to explore, separating themselves from their fellow researchers even more. As they find a high point that allows them to view the campsite and miles beyond, they take a moment to reflect on their lives, and especially on Bill’s feelings of rejection that stem from the injury to his right hand. This gives Jahren and her readers a rare insight into who he is as a person.
When Bill admits that he never went to prom, Jahren tells him that he should make up for it on the spot—they’re in the middle of nowhere, and no one will see him dancing, except for her. She realizes why they are out there, because this is where Bill is supposed to dance, for the very first time. Instead of responding sarcastically, as he often does, Bill begins to dance by himself, in front of Jahren. She watches, accepting him for exactly who he is, and hoping that it will help her accept herself as well.
Bill intentionally and preemptively separates himself from others, as he was often left out and rejected as a boy, ridiculed for his missing fingers, something he could do nothing about. Jahren gives him the opportunity to dance in front of her and he does, making himself immensely vulnerable but simultaneously reinforcing the strength of their friendship.
All sex has a single, biological purpose: to bring together two separate sets of genes in order to create another individual, distinct from its parents. For plants, reproduction is managed through the spread of pollen, traveling on an insect, a bird or mouse, or simply spread by the wind. While travel on an insect helps the pollen reach its destination more directly, wind will help the pollen travel farther. No matter how it travels, however, it only takes one grain of pollen to fertilize an ovum, which then develops into a seed. If that seed does grow into a tree, it will produce 100,000 flowers, each of which will produce 100,000 grains of pollen, to start the process over again.
Reproduction is an example of one of the ways in which plants and humans are not alike at all, yet Jahren finds a way to make a parallel between plant pollination—in which “one in a million” would be a good set of odds—and the process of finding a mate as a female scientist who is deeply dedicated to her work. She emphasizes the fact that plants do not spread their pollen very efficiently, but that only a single grain needs to be successful to begin the process of reproduction.
When she was 32, Jahren met Clint at a barbecue, and decided that he was the most beautiful man she had ever seen in her life. She was so interested in him, she asked the hostess for his email address and asked him out. They spent their first date talking about science and math, and realized that they had attended Berkeley at the same time, and had probably been in the same seminar room more than once. Jahren recalls the moment Clint hailed a taxi for her, which seemed sophisticated to the rural Minnesota girl within her. They fell in love with one another easily, and to Jahren it feels like something she doesn’t have to work for, and that she can’t mess up.
In the context of the pollination metaphor, Jahren finds her single grain of pollen: Clint. They revel in the fact that they could have met each other at any point during graduate school in California, and the coincidence of finding each other at this point in time, instead. And to Jahren, Clint is different from the other men she has tried to date, because he is not bored by her constant conversation about science, and he understands her love for her lab work.
Jahren’s love for Clint did not mean that she couldn’t live without him—she had her own work, a meaningful plan for her life, and made her own money. But she longed for him, and fantasized about her future with him, including a wedding in a foreign land, owning a horse named Sugar, discussing theater in coffeehouses, having twins and a dog, and of course, taking taxis everywhere. Jahren describes it almost as if it is a romantic movie, but she specifies that it is “better than a movie,” because it does not have to end, and it is their reality, and because she does not have to wear makeup.
Jahren describes her relationship with Clint as easy, and he is somehow able to fit right into her life without much upheaval. She does not have to rely on him for her livelihood, as her mother did with her father, and she does not have to change who she is—by wearing makeup, for example. This allowed Jahren to fantasize about a life with Clint, linking their futures together.
Their relationship progressed quickly: within weeks, Clint left his job in DC and moved in with Jahren in Baltimore, taking a job at Johns Hopkins as well. He was a mathematician, and from his office in the same building as Jahren’s lab, Clint wrote computer models to predict lava flow within the Earth’s crust. Jahren is amazed by Clint’s ability to think theoretically, while she is a much more hands-on thinker. They balance each other out, seeing the world from different perspectives: she needs to control her work, observing it carefully in a lab, while he can simply create a model and let it go.
Just like Bill, Clint balances Jahren out in many ways. He is a perfect combination of similarities—their love for math and science, for example—and differences. He is calm and reflective where she is anxious and active, and that will be useful to keep Jahren mentally balanced during this time in her life. Yet it is important to note that Clint does not take Bill’s place in Jahren’s life—he is a new addition, with his own role.
The summer after they met, the couple took a trip to Norway, one of Jahren’s favorite places. And just as she had envisioned it in her fantasies, she and Clint got married in Oslo City Hall. They returned to the United States and went straight to see Bill, who had recently moved out of Jahren’s attic and bought a place of his own down the street. Up to this point, Bill had paid very little attention to Jahren’s boyfriends, as he did not expect the relationships to last very long. This was different, however, and Bill had been acting strange and avoiding the two of them since they began dating. True to his easygoing nature, Clint had taken this in stride, knowing that Bill would just need to get used to the new situation.
True to her fantasy of getting married in a language she does not understand, Jahren married Clint in Norway, only a few months after they met at the party. Like so many important events in Jahren’s life, she does this on her own, without her family or even Bill as witnesses; this demonstrates her strong will, as she is determined to create her own family as an adult. And while Jahren is worried about how Bill will react to this new addition to their bond, Clint is sure that everything will be fine.
When they arrived at Bill’s house, Jahren announced that she and Clint had gotten married, and Bill’s main concern was whether or not he needed to buy them a gift. And then, as if to change the subject, Jahren invited Bill to join them at Fort McHenry for the day; Bill tried to decline the invitation, but when Clint handed him the keys and offered to let him drive, Bill agreed. The three of them enjoyed Family Day at Fort McHenry, complete with carnival games, hot dogs and cotton candy, and a petting zoo. Jahren also notes that they got in at a discounted rate because they are a real, if unconventional, family.
While Bill is worried about how Jahren’s relationship with Clint will affect their friendship and professional relationship, Clint has no intention of replacing Bill or excluding him from their lives. By handing Bill the keys to his car, he offers up some of the control, acknowledging that they will establish some kind of balance. The fact that they attend Family Day is also an important signal that they see themselves as family.
When scientists studied the growth of a corn plant in 1879, they learned that its growth took the shape of an S, with a large drop-off right before the period where the plant flowers and produces seed. This proved true for nearly all corn plants, and while not all plants have exactly the same S shape, many show a decline in growth just before flowering. When Jahren shows her students the S shape, they are confused, wondering why a plant would stop growing at the peak of its productivity. Jahren reminds them that this signals the onset of reproduction, when the creation of new life requires a sacrifice on the part of the parent.
As Jahren places her life experiences within the context of plant development, she now focuses on the growth pattern of plants, which usually declines with the onset of reproduction. Jahren is nearing her peak years of productivity as a science researcher, with a bigger and more powerful lab, with more grant money and prestige. Like a plant, however, this is a time when she must slow her growth a bit while she has a baby.
For Jahren, pregnancy is the most difficult part of her life, for more than one reason. She is plagued by the usual pregnancy issues: discomfort, sleep issues, and the strange feeling of the baby kicking inside of her. What’s more, she is not able to take any of the medications that have kept her mentally stable for years now, because they place the fetus at risk. Jahren describes this as “waiting for the locomotive to hit,” as she is seven times more likely to have a manic episode, now that she is off of her medications. Her morning sickness is followed by uncontrollable crying, and Jahren begins to hit her head against the walls to knock herself out. The doctors strap her down and give her electroconvulsive therapy instead.
Just as Jahren has learned to manage her mental health, her pregnancy puts that in danger once again, as she is unable to take the medication that she needs so badly. While pregnancy itself is not particularly easy, it is the return of her bipolar disorder that makes it extra difficult for Jahren, who is used to being in control. This is the sacrifice that she has chosen to make, however, in order to have a child. Like a plant’s S-shaped growth curve, Jahren has to lose something of herself to make another life.
When Jahren hits the magic 26-week mark, and is able to resume her mediations, she begins to feel more like herself and tries to go back to work. She is so exhausted, however, that she often sleeps on the floor of her office, and finally decides to put herself on medical leave. She still comes in to the lab, though she doesn’t handle chemicals or participate in the experiments—she simply needs to be there for comfort, listening to the humming of the machines. On the way to the lab, she sees Walter, her department chair, and stands at attention like a soldier. She feels faint, and has to sit down and put her head between her legs; Walter looks confused, and instead of helping her, he simply goes into his office and shuts the door.
Jahren has not experienced a great deal of overt discrimination on the basis of her gender up to this point in the memoir (or at least hasn’t recounted it), but her pregnancy changes that—up to this point, Jahren has not acted much differently from the male scientists around her, and has been able to focus entirely on her research. Her pregnancy, and the biological processes associated with it, reminds people like Walter, the department head, that she is a woman. And at her weakest point, Jahren still tries to look like she is in control in front of Walter; when she nearly faints, he does not even help her.
Later that day, Clint comes to Jahren’s office with some devastating news: Walter has requested that she not come into the building while on medical leave, citing liability issues. Jahren is angry and confused, and will always wonder why she was banned from the lab that she created and was the safest place in the world to her. Clint is also angry, but in a calmer way, noting that the men in the department simply do not feel comfortable with a pregnant woman around, and that Walter is afraid of Jahren, which is why he could not come and tell her himself, sending Clint as his messenger. Later, Clint would tell Jahren that his love for Johns Hopkins ended on the day she was banned from her own lab, and they would pack up and move to a different university. But in this moment, all Jahren can do is throw a coffee cup at the wall in anger.
Jahren emphasizes that Walter is a coward who is uncomfortable with the presence of a pregnant woman in the science building. This is reinforced by the fact that he cannot even tell Jahren directly to leave the lab, and has to ask Clint to help. Pregnancy is typically one of the most difficult times for professional women, especially those in male-dominated fields, as they become more marginalized for their choice to have children. Jahren is lucky to have such a supportive husband, who agrees to move with her to a university that is more progressive and inclusive when it comes to women in science, because not all women have the freedom to leave difficult work situations like this one.
Now that she cannot return to the lab, Jahren has plenty of time to think about the arrival of the baby. But she is not excited, as she believes she should be—she is instead grieving over what she will lose. She does not daydream about what this child will be like, because she is sure that it will be a boy, and he will be blonde with blue eyes, like his father. He will have Jahren’s father’s name, and will hate her for being an unfit mother. She eats and sleeps, focusing on giving her fetus what it needs for the moment, and trying not to wonder when she will have another manic episode. When Jahren talks to the doctor, she feels that she is being forgiven for her failures already, as she admits that she probably will not be able to breastfeed.
Jahren spent much of her childhood dreaming of becoming a scientist like her father, and of not becoming her mother. Jahren is now conflicted by those feelings, as she wants to create a family with Clint, but she does not want to have to give up her dedication to science research, or the freedom to take on projects in foreign countries, in exchange for motherhood.
One evening, Jahren sneaks back into her lab after everyone else has gone home, and sits with Reba in the dark. When Bill arrives, he is surprised to see her, makes jokes in an attempt to bring things back to normal, and updates her on everything going on in the lab. When Jahren admits that she is hungry, they go back to Bill’s house and watch The Sopranos all evening, until Clint picks her up to bring her home. Later that evening, Jahren’s water breaks, and they go to the hospital. It is a teaching hospital, so Jahren is often visited by a professor and his medical students, reminding her of the days when she wanted to become a doctor but could not afford medical school.
Being banned from her lab has exacerbated Jahren’s feelings of failure and loss, as she has defined herself by her role as a science researcher up to this point. She spends her last day of pregnancy sitting in the lab with her dog, enjoying a moment of quiet in her most beloved space. She then runs through a series of emotions as she prepares to have the baby, including anger at the medical students who she believes do not appreciate the golden opportunities they have before them.
Once the students leave, Jahren is given an epidural for the pain, and begins labor, but when the baby’s head is nearly out, the doctor realizes that the cord is wrapped around its neck. She has to deliver the baby using a vacuum extraction, which is very painful despite the epidural—but once it is done, Jahren is holding her new, nine-pound son. Surprisingly, Jahren is in love with this baby; she spends the next few days just holding him and periodically demonstrating her sanity to the doctors and nurses who come in to check on her. As she leaves the hospital, Jahren decides that she will not be this child’s mother—she will be his father.
All of Jahren’s struggles and pain leading up to childbirth suddenly disappear, as she falls in love with the human being she has created through love. Many of Jahren’s concerns fade away as she realizes that she does not have to feel like a failure, or take on a maternal role that feels unnatural to her. She says that she will be her son’s father, meaning that she will treat him as her father treated her, and not as her mother did.
Water is at the center of all life, and every living thing is on a constant quest for more water. Trees are at a disadvantage because they cannot move around in search of a better water source, like animals and even some plants can. Larger trees use their taproots—the ones that go straight into the ground—to bring water up towards the surface, which helps smaller plants with shallower roots as well. Mature maple trees do this for the saplings that grow nearby, helping them survive another year. Jahren notes that parents cannot do everything for their children, but they do everything they can.
Jahren begins to see the world differently, now that she is a parent and has a young person to take care of. She will give him something of herself, but she will not lose herself in the process. Like a maple tree that uses its taproot to bring water closer to the surface to support the shallow roots of its saplings, Jahren will work hard to provide for her son, giving him everything he needs to thrive in the world.
Jahren is living in Norway with Clint and her son, on a Fulbright grant to study tree memory. Scientists have found that saplings that have experienced cold climates, when transplanted to warmer climates, will remember and reenact the processes necessary to survive in the colder climate. In the lab, Jahren soaks seeds in sterile water, and works in a space where sterile air is blown at her, reminding her of her college days working in the university hospital. She places the embryo of the seed in a petri dish, closes it, and labels it; she then proceeds to do this 100 more times. She and her colleagues are growing these seeds in an incubator until they are ready to be planted in the greenhouse. Many years in the future, scientists will be able to examine those adult trees and possibly supply some answers to Jahren’s questions.
As a wife, parent, and successful research scientist, Jahren now takes a moment to reflect on her youth in Minnesota. Like a tree that has been transplanted to warmer climates, Jahren still falls back on to the patterns she learned as a girl. And just has she has done for years as a junior researcher, Jahren repeats the mundane but soothing lab processes that are the building blocks of great scientific breakthroughs. She feels deeply connected to the researchers who will one day inherit her work and take it even further than she was able to do.
After the birth of her son, Jahren’s professional life somehow got easier, and she began to receive grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, and the Mellon and Seaver Foundations. This meant that they could replace old supplies, no longer needed to steal from other labs, and that Bill could actually have a consistent salary from year to year. This also brought down Jahren’s stress level, and she was able to complete much more work than before, and began to receive awards for her research. Living in Norway was also a welcome change for Jahren, as she feels at home in the cold climate and closed culture. The only thing that Jahren found difficult about her time as a Fulbright Scholar was that she missed working with Bill.
To return to the metaphor of the S-shaped plant growth curve, Jahren is once again peaking in productivity and achieving success after her difficult reproductive experience. The security of more funding and some sense of legitimacy is good for Jahren, allowing her to focus less on chasing funding and more on the research itself. In addition, her time in Norway helps Jahren understand her upbringing in Minnesota, which gives her even more mental balance. This is the first time she is away from Bill, however, and she feels like she is separated from part of her family.
One morning, Jahren woke to an email from Bill, informing her that his father had died. Jahren responded by flooding him with text messages of support, but Bill did not respond to her for weeks. She knew that he was working twelve-hour days in the lab, ignoring everyone around him, as he is prone to do when he is upset about something. She imagined what it must have been like for him in California, mourning his father’s death, but she also knew that she could do nothing to help, and neither could anyone else. Finally, she decided to buy him a ticket to Ireland and email it to him, with a short message about what a wonderful man his father was.
While Bill has served as Jahren’s main emotional support for most of her adult life, the roles are reversed in this moment as Bill mourns his father’s death. He is not accustomed to receiving support from Jahren, however, and she has to accept his silence as part of the mourning process. But after weeks of worrying about him, Jahren decides that the best way to connect with Bill is through scientific research, and she plans a trip for the two of them.
There was so much more that Jahren wanted to say to Bill, about how he was the fulfillment of his father’s dreams of a new life in the United States, that he was his father’s favorite child and that he was just as strong as his father had been. She wanted to tell him that he would survive this—but instead, she just let him know that the rental car was in her name, so he needed to wait for her at the airport when he arrived. When she landed at the airport, Bill was there with three bags full of supplies for their fieldwork, looking tired but otherwise okay. Before leaving, Jahren bought a bag full of candy for their drive, and made sure to get full insurance on the car, just in case.
Bill and Jahren have a unique relationship that takes into account both of their personalities—this means that they often refrain from sharing their feelings with one another, and instead appreciate the shared silence. In this case, Jahren has a lot of things she wants to tell Bill, but she knows that he will only be able to hear those things when he is ready, and that will likely be when they are in the middle of nowhere, studying plant life.
They decided to drive through Limerick, rather than around it, and began to get lost in the narrow, winding roads of the city. Suddenly, Jahren heard a crash, and looked over to see Bill’s window smashed, though he seemed to be okay. They got out and determined that Jahren had been driving too close to the curb on Bill’s side, unaccustomed to driving from the right side of the car, and when she passed a streetlight, the side mirror had broken off and smashed into Bill’s window. As bystanders looked on and joked about how Jahren was trying to kill him, Bill began to tape up the window, calm as usual. They got back in the car, and Bill let Jahren keep driving.
Regardless of how focused and meticulous they are as scientists, Jahren and Bill do seem to be prone to accidents, especially on the road. Therefore, the minor accident in Limerick set the tone for their trip, reminding them of the adventures and mishaps they have had in the past. As they have full insurance on their rental car, they do not worry about the damage, and the experience lightens the mood and makes them feel like their old selves again.
They drove back out of the city and enjoyed the incredibly green view of the hills, distinguishing between a handful of hues and shades of green. They arrived at their bed and breakfast, parked, and began to hike to the highest point they could find together. Jahren noticed that Bill still seemed weighted down, not free and content as he usually was in open spaces, so she told him that she couldn’t believe that his dad was really gone. He agreed, saying that one never expects a 97-year-old man to die. But Bill’s dad worked in his home studio up to the day he died, editing film for yet another documentary. Jahren imagines him barging into Heaven, asking questions and interviewing people and planting tomatoes, just as he had done in life.
They continue their routine of wandering as far as they can together, and finding perspective in the expanse of nature. While Jahren is sure that it will only take an open space for Bill to feel better, he actually needs to have a conversation with Jahren, opening up to her in the way he did on their research trip to the Arctic Circle. Jahren has to do or say very little—she is simply giving him the space to be vulnerable, secure in the knowledge that he is with his closest “family” member at this point.
Bill admits that he feels bad for himself, and that having a parent die makes him feel all alone in the world. Jahren wanted to tell him that he would never be alone, that he had friends that were even closer than family. She wanted to remind him that she would love him even with missing fingers, or when he was homeless, or when he smoked, and no matter how antisocial he was. But she admits that she didn’t know how to say any of those things, so she kept them to herself. She just stood in the rain, knowing that she would be soaked throughout most of the trip, walking through plant life that absolutely adored the wet weather and was soaking it up.
Again, their relationship is based on many things that they choose not to say to each other, but that they believe are understood. When Bill admits that he feels all alone in the world without his father, Jahren does not respond, but she is there with him, and her presence alone is what he needs. And of course, as a plant scientist standing in the middle of a grassy field, Jahren turns her attention to the grass at her feet, and she and Bill get down to work.
Jahren asked Bill if he had any vials with him, because the moss on the top of the hill was soaked, despite the fact that the water should have been flowing downhill. They began to hypothesize that the moss at the top of the hill was holding on to the water that should have run off into the lowlands—essentially, the moss was actively changing the landscape to suit its needs. She then pulled out her reference book on moss in the UK and Ireland, and began to identify the moss and take samples. After they had collected, photographed, and labeled about 150 samples, and then doubled checked their work, Bill announced that he was beginning to feel better again.
Jahren notices something special about the grass on the hill they have climbed, and she and Bill transition into science mode, leaving behind their emotions and returning to what they do best. Once again, she and Bill are engaged in the tedious work of collecting samples, which they actually seem to enjoy. The repetitive work, combined with the belief that it will lead to a meaningful scientific discovery, is a joyful and cathartic process for the both of them, and helps to heal Bill in a way that conversation did not.
They repeated this process at seven more sites in Ireland, taking with them over 1,000 vials full of moss samples. They returned their bandaged-up car and proceeded to the terminal, where they soon found that they did not have the appropriate permits to take their samples out of Ireland. Jahren did not think they needed permits to get the samples to Norway, but she was so busy worrying about Bill that she had forgotten to check. Bill explained that they didn’t need permits, as the plants weren’t endangered and they were collecting them for scientific study. The security agent opened one of the vials and dumped the moss onto the ground, telling them that yes, they did need permits to take biological samples out of the country. So they were forced to leave them at the airport.
They repeat the same process more than a thousand times over, and the trip has provided a much-needed escape for Bill and a way for Jahren to reconnect with her best friend. However, their hopes for a scientific discovery are dashed at the airport when they cannot take the samples out of Ireland. This experience would have destroyed Jahren as a younger researcher, and she would have interpreted it as a sign that she should quit, or that she was destined to end up like her mother. But at this point in Jahren’s career, she is used to setbacks, and while she is still upset, she largely accepts adversity in stride.
While Jahren stewed over the 60 hours of work that they had lost, Bill reminded her that they had photographed everything and taken meticulous notes, so all was not lost. As Bill’s flight was called, Jahren watched him go with regret, feeling that something she cared about was being taken away from her for the second time that day. Once he was gone, she pulled out her map of Ireland and began to plan for another trip, when they would apply for permits before taking the moss out of the country. They referred to this trip as “the Wake,” or “the Honeymoon,” depending on who was talking.
The fact that Jahren and Bill did not bring their samples out of Ireland only reinforces the idea that the trip was more about the process, and the bond between the two researchers, than it was about the data they collected. As he leaves, Jahren begins to plan the next trip, adding to the sense of continuity in their relationship. Their different names for the trip also give an idea of how meaningful it was for the both of them.
Whenever they had a new lab assistant to break in, Bill and Jahren would first give him hundreds of vials to label, using complex codes. They would then discuss in front of the lab assistant whether or not the vials could be used, which then ended with one of them (playing the “Bad Cop”) would dump all the labeled vials into the trash, while the other sat and watched the new assistant’s reaction. They were testing whether or not the new assistant valued his time, which was a bad thing in this line of work. Jahren notes that there are two appropriate responses to such a setback: to shake it off, go home and rest, and come back refreshed the next day; or to return to the work immediately, diving even deeper into what went wrong. While both are acceptable, Jahren claims, it is only the second path that will lead to real discoveries.
Jahren is determined to give her students a hands-on experience of science, to prepare them for the positives and the negatives of the career path she has chosen. In this case, she and Bill have students learn from their mistakes and prepare for the inevitable frustrations of science research. This is her way of building resilience in her students, which is something she has built within herself during her years in the field. Jahren jokes that it is not good to value one’s own time in her line of work, but she demonstrates that science can be a long process with few rewards along the way.
Jahren’s son also has his favorite tree, a foxtail palm that he regularly hits with a baseball bat in order to strengthen his swing. Since moving to Hawaii, Jahren has learned that palms aren’t trees at all, and do not produce rings of wood as trees do. They are filled with a spongy tissue, which makes them more flexible than trees. She also learned that palms are evolved from “monocots,” which are similar to grasses, but which have also evolved into rice, corn, and wheat plants. Like these diverging plant species, Jahren’s son is like her, but different. He is more cheerful and emotionally stable, and likes to be in the driver’s seat in life. Jahren considers herself hazel in every way, stuck in between blonde and brunette, green and brown—she even considers herself not quite a “proper woman” and yet “less than a man.”
Jahren’s observation about her son’s favorite tree portrays the boy as his own person, and not just a replication of his mother. He is more interested in becoming a baseball player than examining the inside of the tree or playing in Jahren’s lab. She is still learning about her child, the person she grew inside of her, but who has turned out to be so different from her. She also appreciates the ways in which he is different, because she feels that he is an improvement, as if he has selected the best qualities of both his mother and father. While Jahren feels stuck in between, she feels that her son knows who he is already.
Jahren was worried that she would not be able to love her son enough, but now that he exists, she believes that she loves him more than he will ever understand. He is her one chance to be a mother, and once she dropped the expectations of motherhood, she realized that it was something she could do. She breathes him in, and knows that she must begin the slow and painful process of preparing for the moment when she must let him go. But she also knows that all of these fears, concerns, and all of this love is something that all mothers share. It was so difficult to be a daughter to her own mother, and wonders if she had a son to let the cycle skip a generation, and if she is meant to have a granddaughter.
Jahren has long felt trapped by others’ expectations of her, especially with regard to her gender. She does not feel like she embodies the social construction of a woman, in large part due to her intelligence; she also feels uncomfortable with the conventional image of motherhood, and has chosen to simply parent the best way she can. She reflects on her difficult relationship with her own mother, and is relieved not to have to reenact that dynamic with a daughter of her own.
Jahren realizes that she may die before this theoretical granddaughter is born, but she still holds out hope. She wants to leave a message in a bottle, so that someone will remember and tell her granddaughter about her grandmother, a woman with a pen in her hand, listening to a boy outside, whacking a tree with a bat.
Jahren likes the idea of having a granddaughter, possibly because she will no longer be under the same stifling expectations and will simply be able to enjoy the experience. She sees herself as beginning a process that will be taken up by someone far in the future.
One morning as Jahren entered the lab, Bill greeted her with news of one of their specimens, known as C6. The plant was part of a larger experiment focused on the consequences of an excess of carbon dioxide on radishes, but this particular plant was doing something that surprised both Bill and Jahren, and had nothing to do with their main experiment. Bill had been recording the plants so that they could watch their growth every day, and they noticed that C6 acted differently than the other plants, despite the fact that it came from the same batch of seeds and was growing under the same conditions. Nothing official came of this aberration, but it changed the way that Jahren thinks about plants and what one might call their sense of free will.
Back in the lab, Jahren and Bill make a discovery that impresses them both, despite the fact that it will not lead to a scientific study worth publishing. They have been observing a plant that unexpectedly behaves differently from its neighbors; they cannot establish exactly why the plant was behaving strangely, but Jahren is interested in the rogue plant for more poetic reasons. She now has the freedom to think differently about plants, and to ask questions that she does not know the answers to.
Plant C6 was demonstrating to Jahren that he had some level of volition beyond what was programmed for him in his biology. It was so slow, however, that it was nearly impossible to recognize it as such; on the other hand, from the plant’s point of view, Jahren probably moved too fast and frantically to be alive, either. Jahren was enthralled by this small discovery, which would likely never end up in a published work. But rather than becoming official scientific research, it was simply feeding her spirit, which was just as good, in Jahren’s opinion.
In all of her time observing plants, Jahren has developed a connection to them that makes her wonder about the extent to which they may be conscious beings, She even imagines the plants observing her without quite understanding her. This, of course, is outside of the realm of her scientific research, but it is part of her job as a scientist to stay curious and question everything.
Jahren and Bill went to Whole Foods for lunch, and ended up making a series of impulse buys that brought their total up to around $200. They were shopping “like people with mutual funds,” for once in their lives. Back in the lab, they wrapped expensive ham around caviar and microwaved it, enjoying the luxury of it, when Jahren realized that she had to pick up her son from school and take him to the beach.
Now that they are more established scientists with homes and salaries of their own, they can enjoy certain extravagances, like high-end food at lunchtime. These are small signs that all of their work and sacrifice has paid off in the end.
As they play in the sand, Jahren’s son asks if there are animals so small they are invisible to humans, and Jahren tells him that there are, in fact, many microscopic animals in the world. He then comments that he told his teacher about the tiny animals that find each other with magnets in their bodies, and that the teacher did not believe him. Jahren reacts defensively, telling him that she even knows the person who discovered them, but he changes the subject—he wants to be a major-league baseball player when he grows up. Jahren promises to come to all of his games, if he will get her free tickets.
Jahren brings her love of science into her relationship with her son, talking to him about science at a higher level than perhaps most people would do. She has knowledge that is far beyond what his science teacher can offer, and is proud of this, but her son is his own person, with his own interests, and changes the subject. It is now Jahren’s turn to take an interest in her son’s first love, baseball.
Jahren brings her son home and makes dinner just as Clint arrives home from work as well, and they manage to get their son in bed by 9 P.M. As he is about to brush his teeth, Jahren hands him a vial of wheatgrass juice (from the $200 haul at the Whole Foods earlier that day), which he believes is a potion that he has requested, which will turn him into a tiger. As Jahren is tucking him into bed, her son asks when he will turn in to a tiger, and she tells him that it will take a long time. She promises him, however, that it has worked on a mammal called Hadrocodium, about 200 million years ago.
Despite her intense dedication to her career and the research in her lab, Jahren makes time to enjoy her relationship with her son, striking a balance between her two competing roles. She mixes both in her interactions with her son, teaching him about a prehistoric animal, but also letting him believe that he will turn into a tiger, thanks to a vial of wheatgrass juice. She is not following a set of expectations, and instead is parenting in a way that makes sense to her.
Jahren’s son asks if she will be going back to the lab that night, and Jahren says yes, but that she will be home by the time he wakes up. Also, the boy’s father (Clint) is at home, as well as their dog, so the house is full of people who love him. She leaves the room and checks her phone, seeing a message from Bill asking for ipecac (a chemical compound that will induce vomiting) and more food. She then brings her husband another cup of coffee, lets him know that she will be going back to the lab, and hops onto her bike to ride back to work for the night.
Part of the balance that Jahren strikes between her professional and family responsibilities is due to the fact that she does not sleep much, and is able to return to the lab after her son is in bed, and spend much of the nighttime hours working on her research. This is a sacrifice she is willing to make to achieve all of her dreams, personal and professional.
Jahren finds something very sad about ending a plant experiment. She used to be able to work for two days without stopping, sustained by the excitement of discovery; now, she has more profound discoveries that come to her when she is sitting down and relaxing a little. She was also happy to be able to stand by and proudly watch a student take a leadership role in their most recent experiment. They had discovered that sweet potatoes grow larger but less nutritious under higher levels of carbon dioxide, a major discovery with regards to climate change. But now it is all over, and Jahren feels like she has just sent a child off to college.
Jahren’s relationship to research has changed as she has matured, and while before she was able to work nonstop, possibly fueled by a fear of failure and increasing anxiety, she is now able to sit back. She is currently researching the effects of climate change on plants, and hopes that by letting some of her students take ownership of the work, she can usher in a new generation of plant lovers and, ultimately, conservationists.
Jahren realizes that she is missing her mammogram, which is already three years overdue, and that she has rescheduled once already. Bill comes in to the lab, and as she is noticing that he hardly looks any different after 20 years, he tells her that she looks haggard and tired. She jokes with him, telling him that he’s fired, but he pulls her outside to see a double rainbow that has appeared in the sky. They discuss the fact that as scientists, they know that the two rainbows are one in the same, and that they just give the appearance of two. They come back in to smell the orchids from another biologist’s experiment, and revel in how good they have it.
Jahren makes a point of noting that while her life has changed and improved in the past few years, she is still far from perfect, and cannot always strike a perfect balance between work and life. Bill helps her strike that balance, and their relationship has not changed much in all of the time they have been together—they still share in their love of science and nature, and have finally found a way to make that work for them.
Jahren worries about Bill, however—he seems to have missed out on having a wife and kids, because he has dedicated so much time to Jahren and the lab. He seems unconcerned about this, noting that at 50, he is too young to be dating, since Armenians regularly live over 100 years. He no longer worries about money now, as he made a lot of money on the sale of his Baltimore rowhouse, which he fixed up on his own. He now owns a house on a hill overlooking Honolulu, with a flourishing garden, and jokes that women were once put off by the fact that he lived in a van, but now they only want him for his money.
Bill’s life has changed quite a bit in the past years, as well—he is no longer homeless, living in precarious conditions without a bathroom—but Jahren wonders if he has made too many sacrifices for the sake of science. He responds to her concerns in the same way he always does, with humor. What is deep within Bill may never be clear to Jahren or to readers, as he is selective about what others know about him.
People still wonder about the nature of Jahren’s relationship with Bill, as they spend so much time together, have intertwined their finances and personal lives, and seem even closer than family. Jahren is happily married, but Bill is still a part of the family that she has created, and she would never give him up. She cannot put a label on their relationship, but that is not important to her. They discuss their plans for further research, and Bill is excited about all of the possibilities that lie before them.
Jahren reiterates the fact that Bill is part of her family, yet distinct from her romantic relationship with her husband Clint. This kind of deep, platonic relationship is rare in adulthood, though possibly because of the cultural expectations of men and women, which Bill and Jahren do not seem to care much about.
As Jahren and Bill discuss their plans for the future, they begin to recount stories of past experiments and adventures. They realize that between the two of them, they have received three degrees, held six jobs, lived in four countries and visited 16, been admitted to the hospital five times, owned eight cars, driven over 25,000 miles, and made around 65,000 carbon isotope measurements. They have published those measurements in 40 journals, providing valuable information to the science world. But what seems to matter most in this moment is the story—and Bill tells Jahren that she should put it into a book.
Bill and Jahren have been through a lot together, and that is part of what truly bonds them. They both believe deeply in the value of what they are doing, and they enjoy doing it together. They were happy when they were poor and struggling for legitimacy within the science world, and they built important memories during those times. And as Jahren has noted, writing down those memories will keep them from slipping away.
Bill knows about Jahren’s writing—she writes poems and stashes them in the glove compartment of her car, types out numerous stories on her computer, reads books and writes long letters to the authors, and looks through the thesaurus for fun. She needs to write, and he is now giving her permission to commit their stories to paper.
Jahren’s love of literature is due in part to her mother, who exposed her to a variety of authors and works as a young girl. This is another way that Jahren connects to the joys of her childhood, through reading and writing.
In some ways, Jahren vows not to take her job too seriously, especially because she often feels like an ant, plugging along anonymously within the context of a huge world that may not recognize her in the moment. But she is also part of that larger context, and is helping to build something that will amaze her great-great-great grandchildren, and building on something that her great-great-great grandfathers initiated. She is a small part of the larger scientific collective, and she longs to tell her story.
Jahren likes to step back and look at the bigger picture, whether in a research project, in her writing, or on a field trip with Bill. She finds both frustration and comfort in the idea that she is part of a larger chain of knowledge: she will not see the big discoveries in her lifetime, but she is confident that she is laying the groundwork for them to be made someday.