Last Updated on July 17, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 649
The Importance of Discovery
Early in her book, Jahren writes:
My laboratory is like a church because it is where I figure out what I believe.
With this sentence, Jahren begins to offer an opinion about discovery that she builds upon throughout the book. By comparing the space of her laboratory to the sacred space of a church, Jahren draws a comparison between scientific discovery and religion. There are several reasons this analogy is true for Jahren, as she explains:
I know there'll be silence; I know there'll be music, a time to greet my friends, and a time to leave others to their contemplation. There are rituals that I follow, some I understand and some I don't. . . . My lab is a refuge and an asylum.
The practice of science (like, perhaps, the practice of prayer) seems to gain meaning over time and in repetition. However, this steady work is not monotonous; rather, its ritual allows Jahren to explore and discover the world—and her place in it—in ways she otherwise could not. In these passages and throughout the book, Jahren suggests that science functions for her as a sort of religion because it invests her life with meaning.
Choosing One's Own Family
Though much of Jahren's book explores her relationship with her immediate family (including her parents; her husband, Clint; and her son), one could argue that its core relationship is the one Jahren shares with Bill, her longtime friend and lab partner.
After the death of Bill’s father, Jahren describes her intensely protective, familial, and loving feelings for Bill:
There were so many things that I wanted to say. I wanted to tell Bill that he wasn't alone and that he never would be. I wanted to make him know that he had friends in this world tied to him by something stronger than blood, ties that could never fade or dissolve. That he would never be hungry or cold or motherless while I still drew breath.
Indeed, her feelings for Bill are similar to those she professes for her son:
Before my son was born, I anguished over whether I would be able to love him. Now I worry that my love is too vast for him to understand.
By showing strong love of people in its various forms, Jahren shows that the family one chooses can be as important as one’s immediate family. Even the plants Jahren studies so lovingly and attentively can be seen as part of the family she chooses to gather and cherish.
Comparisons of Science to Life
Jahren contends that scientific understanding can provide helpful analogies for understanding ourselves and increasing our empathy for other, seemingly alien, forms of life. The book itself is structured like the growth of a plant, starting with the section "Roots and Leaves," which profiles Jahren's childhood; continuing with the section "Wood and Knots," which details Jahren's time building her first lab; and ending with the section "Flowers and Fruit," in which Jahren talks about her second and third labs and the birth of her son. Jahren frequently colors her story of personal epistemological growth—that is, her evolving understanding of what she can "know" and "do"—with metaphors connecting botanical and human maturation.
The Nonlinear Patterns of Growth
Like plant shoots that are killed off and then required to regrow, Jahren's plans are often thwarted by her unpredictable external world—as in, for example, the difficulty of securing research funding just because she happens to be a woman in academia. No matter what conditions any organism is subjected to, it will always require repeated failures in order to find an optimal life path. Jahren also emphasizes the importance of patience in building the life one wants: "A seed knows how to wait," she writes, and goes on:
In the right place, under the right conditions, you can finally stretch out into what you're supposed to be.