Book review: ‘Lab Girl – A Story of Trees, Science and Love’ by Hope Jahren

Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Like most people I have a particular tree that I remember from my childhood…”

Most people?

She chooses night-time to work. Turns down champagne if it would mean conversation. Gives her hair to trees. And I thought I was Introverted. Lab Girl reveals the inner life of a true, Northern introvert and the trees that are her scientific passion.

The narrative alternates between evocative descriptions of trees’ inner machinations – have you ever wondered, for example, how a tree, static and lacking any source of heat, survives an arctic winter without its watery cells bursting like frozen pipes? – and the day-to-day struggles of a woman in her scientific career. The passings-over for grants and promotion, the incredulous gawps from new colleagues; the sacking due to pregnancy. Some of these – thankfully not the last – I found horribly familiar, and so might you.

The friendship that blossoms with ‘Bill’, Hope’s if anything even more eccentric lab-mate, is a joy to read. Like the friendships among characters in Tove Janssen’s Moomin books this one imposes no burdens and asks no questions. It just is.

It even survives Hope’s later falling-in-love. With somebody else. At which point the thread took such an unexpected turn it left me breathless.

I loved this book. It does for trees what Rachel Carson did for the oceans, while also being a paean to proper Scandinavian introversion and the stresses ‘normal’ life imposes upon it.

“Once we got our lab coats on, everything felt more normal: the night was still young, it was barely nine o’clock and prime working hours hadn’t even started yet”

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The promise

Things have been a bit quiet at the Community Orchard of late. Covid stymied our Committee meetings for several months, last autumn’s ‘harvest’ was pretty sparse (we’ve put it down to the cold windy spell that coincided with much of the blossom, keeping the bees ‘indoors’ so that not much pollination happened), and then in winter there’s not much to do and a dearth of acceptable weather to go out and do it in.

But we’re back!

The row of big Limes along the Northern edge of the site are beginning to impinge on the fruit-trees, and need cutting back. The trees themselves, many of them, could also do with a spot of pruning. All this is easier said than done: many branches are at least 20 feet up. The fruit trees don’t only need sunshine: they also need air to circulate freely about them or, like damp rooms, they’ll ‘go mouldy’.

So we sawed down a load of branches, chopped them into lengths, and hauled them off to the periphery where, heaped-up, they’ll make houses for hedgehogs, beetles and other wildlife.

In the course of all this, we spotted the first snowdrops of the year. They are the Promise: First the evenings will stretch out, lighting your way home from work (if, like me, you finish at 5:30), then the mornings will follow, getting lighter by the day.

The Promise says nothing about temperature, wind or sleet, mind you: snowdrops are tough little blighters and will shine through it all.

Tuesday Man: A short story for January days

January mist glides in waves over the flat river. It drips from the blackened branches of the stately chestnut trees that line the long, straight path.

I can make out a figure a couple of hundred yards ahead. The elderly gent I see, every Tuesday, when I walk into town to do my weekly shift.

My route takes me first on a rough gravel turn through vegetable allotments, then out onto the flat Ings near the taut-drawn steel arc of the Millennium Bridge before bearing right, along the straight promenade – ‘New Walk’ – lain in Regency times for ladies of leisure and gentleman flâneurs to parade in their finery.

My shift starts at ten. If I’m late, I see him near the beginning of the path: if I make good time I see him further north, at its end by the little blue bridge below the flood barrier. Here two rivers meet in a letter ‘Y’: the barrier’s to prevent the main flow making a rearguard action – backing up the smaller tributary, into the city centre.

Today I make good time.



It took me three years to get that much. Heaven knows how long it might take before a handshake – ‘My name’s Louise, but most people call me Ziss’. I suppose it’s a Brit thing.

*      *      *

January gales sweep the bare branches in broad gusts. Spindrift rolls over the choppy grey river. A year has passed and my new year’s resolution to find paid work has foundered again.

Perhaps it’s because I like my Tuesdays at the charity shop too much.

A few hardy joggers and determined dog-walkers are braving the storm. Here’s the gent, in his usual long dark coat.



He always carries a cane, though I’m pretty sure he doesn’t need one: his back is straight and his gait easy.

I’m early: I’m practically at the blue bridge.

After that the path roughens before passing under the bone-like arches of Skeldergate, along the quayside and in front of the two old pubs – the King’s Arms and the Lowther – that are always on the national News when it floods.

*      *      *

The pale sun of the New Year casts a long, indistinct shadow that leans left on the path before me. I’m once again enjoying my first walk in of the year. The river is blue and smooth. An eight glides like a blade, the coxswain calling the strokes.

Last June my number came up for an allotment. I noticed as I passed just now that the broccoli leaves have wilted. But it’s only frost: they’ll recover.



Funny how, past a certain age, people don’t seem to get any older. It’s been six years now.

*      *      *

I can’t believe how mild it is this New Year: I’ve not even bothered with a coat. Several cyclists bowl by on the other side of the path’s white line. One of them has a breathless Staffy on a lead.

I wonder if this year will be as eventful as last: our eldest left home, someone burned down the shed on our allotment, and I found a book about wine-making in the shop and took the plunge.

I must be walking faster: I’m at the blue bridge.

The sky and the river are dark steely grey, but snowdrops gleam like tiny shields on the grassy bank between the two rivers, at the ‘Y’ by the flood barrier.

His face is quite distinctive: chiselled and triangular.



*      *      *

January sleet drives like an onslaught. Just as well the Council reinforced the path last autumn. I wasn’t even going to walk this way: their site said Viking monitor was reading two metres above mean summer level. Water would have cut off my route. The river speeds, brown and whorled, but the earthworks have kept the walk clear, as promised.

When the path’s flooded I have to resort to the main road. I make the same time, but I never see him there.

Our youngest left home last year.

My wine won a prize at the local show.

“Happy New Year.”

I almost stop in my tracks.

“Oh… er, and you too!”

*      *      *

Rain lashes the bedroom window. It’s nearly 9:30, but dawn hasn’t gone past dark grey. My eyes are burning. I’m almost too weak to lean across and find the number.

“I’m sorry, Nick. I can’t come in today: I think I’ve got that ’flu.”

“Oh dear. Thanks for letting us know. Take care.”

It’s been the wettest year in a decade, the ground sodden since September. This storm’s so bad they’ve given it a name. It rages on for days. So does my fever.

I sit up in bed and scroll through the news.

The river’s breached its banks. Viking’s broken its record: nearly six metres up. Someone canoed through the top storey of the King’s Arms. The electrics of the barrier seized because water infiltrated the wheelhouse – bit of a design fault there – allowing the flood to overrun the city centre. The Army are on the streets, with sandbags and pontoons. The B.B.C. interviewed an historian from the University, who said the flooded roads used to be a fishpond in mediaeval times. Only human ingenuity defends them nowadays.

Days pass. The floods and my ’flu subside, as they must, and I’m back on my feet by the Tuesday.

Mild air greets me as I leave the house, almost as if in apology for the excesses of last week.

A tall well-built lad passes me near the Millennium Bridge: odd, his type are usually jogging, cycling, or on the main road instead, riding a motorbike or driving a van. I smile at him.

I steel myself to pick my way over treacherous, slimy mud – the floods’ usual aftermath. But it’s not necessary: the Council have already been busy with the clean-up. The path is dry.

The usual cyclists breeze by: students, suits; shoppers. I overtake elderly couples, dog-walkers; young lasses with rucksacks.

I’ve reached the blue bridge.

No gent.

He’s not on the rough path to Skeldergate, or on the cobbled landing by the pubs, now both back in action after the floods.

I’ve never before not-seen him on my riverside walk in.

I’ve even given him a nickname: Tuesday Man.

He isn’t on the steep street up to the shops, past the Dungeons museum with its display of grizzled Viking fighters. Funny how we still invoke their old Gods in our weekdays’ names. And how Tew – God of war – is the one nobody remembers.

I don’t mention it at the shop.

*      *      *

When I walk home I face the low sun – piercing white.

The river glitters, silver and gold. Tiny translucent spears of grass poke up through new mud on the banks. I screw my eyes: can just make out a silhouette crossing the Millennium Bridge.

As I get near, I recognise the lad from this morning.

I wonder why he’s carrying a cane.



First published April 2019, in the Cabinet of Heed:

The physics of Santa

Much scientific ink has been spilled on the thorny subject of how it is possible for Santa to deliver presents to millions of eager children in the hours between dusk on Christmas eve and dawn on Christmas day. Mikkelson (Snopes, 2003) for example, has calculated that in order to deliver presents to the nearly 100 million households in the Christmas-marking parts of the world, Santa would need to deliver to approaching 1,000 households, and travel at some 650 miles, every second of his long night, starting in New Zealand and working his way westwards towards Hawaii.

Each present, once at its destination, is of course stationary (i.e. not moving). It must therefore, whether on the sleigh or in the process of delivery, decelerate from a velocity of 650 miles per second to zero in either less than 1 thousandth of a second (if it is hand-delivered), or at the very least as it travels the distance between the sleigh (on the roof) and the stocking or tree, some 3 metres away (if it is jettisoned while the sleigh remains in flight). Either way, the g-force experienced by the present would reduce it to a heap of smouldering mush. This may afford the explanation for the Figgy Pudding that was so often delivered to households in Victorian times.

However, science (and with it the quality and variety of presents) has moved on since then, and Santa has availed himself of a more up-to-date, if abstract, branch of physics.

Heisenberg’s well-known Uncertainty Principle – often invoked by drunken physicists as they struggle to find their way from one Christmas party to another (in the days before Covid 19, of course) – states that the position and velocity of any object cannot both be known at the same time (we shall leave aside, for the purposes of this note, what Einstein said about ‘the same time’ because it only complicates matters). Thus, if Santa and the team of reindeer stick to a strict speed limit, so that the velocity of any given present is a known constant, its position is indeterminate, lying somewhere within a ‘probability cloud’ of possibilities. The present can, in a way, be said to be wherever one wishes it to be, just as Schrodinger’s cat can be said to be both dead and alive. The exact mechanism linking this essentially thought-driven process to a solid object such as a present, via quantum mechanics, is not yet fully understood but was first explored towards the close of last century (Penrose, 1989).

The ‘wave function’ (if you like, the ‘shape’ of the probability cloud), determined by boundary conditions such as answers to the questions ‘what am I getting for Christmas?’, ‘Does Santa exist?’ and ‘Did my letter really get to the North Pole?’, will ‘collapse’ into a singular position as soon as the present’s velocity is changed (for example by lobbing it off the constant-speed sledge) And lo! It appears, delivered by Quantum Santa.

One final warning: exhortations to ‘look for Santa in the night sky’, if they were to result in a genuine sighting, would result in the collapse of the delicately-maintained wave function, denying the observer, and everyone else, their Christmas present.


It looked like an early touch of autumn colour on the leaves of our pear trees. We thought nothing of it, especially since they’d both produced a bumper crop of fruit.

Until we looked underneath the leaves.

Here be monsters.

Not having seen anything like this before, I had to do a bit of digging – not in the garden this time, but on Google and the like.

Our trees were suffering from Pear Rust. It turns out there’s no publicly-available treatment, and even those used by professionals would have left our pears toxic and inedible. We should have been taking off the first affected leaves to stop the spread, but by the time I’d found there was a problem, that would have left our poor trees denuded in September and without their supply of Chlorophyll – which trees pull back from their leaves before letting them drop so as to avoid the effort of having to manufacture it anew the following spring.

The only thing for it is to rake up the leaves as they fell and burn them – which for us means stashing them in the garage and waiting for the chance for a good bonfire. It’s boring and there are other things I’d rather be doing with my time but in the absence of treatment or a vaccine there doesn’t appear to be an alternative.

I can only hope it works better than our country’s pre-vaccine efforts to stop the spread of a more well-known blight.


Here in York, August is the wettest month. Followed closely by November but, nevertheless, August outdoes Fireworks Month by 68mm to 65.

The number of August days with any rain in them, however, is fewer: 14 rather than 17. It’s worth noting, though, that none of our months have fewer than 13 days with some rain (‘some’ here being a hundredth of an inch, or 0.25mm – hardly enough to ruin your garden party.)

August rain simply falls heavier – because warm August air is capable of holding more moisture.

Oh – and some stray tomatoes probably didn’t help.

Raindrops resemble tomatoes more than you might think: they are flattened spheres with a ‘skin’ of surface tension that ‘breaks’ on impact with anything – for example your least-favourite politician in the stocks.

When there are fewer people about, the street art is more noticeable (and it’s easier to get a clear shot.)

A giant deckchair materialised in St Sampson’s Square on Yorkshire Day. Just because. And yes that’s an actual person, for scale.

I love a shot of the steps up to the City Walls.

As I walked around in it last week on my way to the bookshop, I couldn’t help noticing that the mediaeval streets seemed to drain more effectively than many of the modern ones.

The path to Trinity Church and a tree which, like me, appreciates the rain.

The return of a Great Institution

Fulford Show is back!

At least, in part – the outdoor part. No ‘Midsomer Murders’ veggie, produce and craft competitions this year, because they take place indoors and, by the time August Bank Holiday rolls around (OK so it’s only a fortnight, but still…) there may be ‘restrictions’ – again.

So this year we shall be out on the field. I shall be walking through early morning mist to help put up gazebos – albeit fewer than usual. Then I have the Community Orchard stall to look forward to – and a turn round all the other stalls to see what’s on offer.

A new venture for the show this year is the ‘give-and-take’ – bring along any things you think others may use, and help yourself to any you fancy.

The Japanese drummers will be there, and the band – the New Notes – who played two years ago. So will the food, the bar and the Sports – including Fancy Dress and Tug o’War.

I’m raising a glass of wicked home-brew (not for exhibition this year) to the success of Fulford Show!

Places and non-places

Many years ago I used to follow architecture blogs. Not because I had any expertise in architecture, but because at least two of them (I’d been led there when participating in a discussion group about the future of Energy – specifically, where are we going to get enough of it to carry on being a Civilisation) were honestly predicting some sort of imminent collapse, and I was keen to find out how best to avoid such a thing. Aren’t we all?

In the course of all this I learned about the first ‘electric cars’ and why they died (sabotage, and about a hundred years ago now), Oswald Spengler, Peak Oil, the USA’s ‘hardiness zones’ (basically, the way climate is classified for anyone who wants to grow things), and ‘non-places’.


There are an awful lot of non-places, and architects exercise themselves enormously on designing them – and trying to avoid doing so. They are the places where nobody wants to be – we just want to get through.

Airports. Car parks. Everything in a ‘shopping mall’ except the insides of the actual shops.

It had never occurred to me before but the main shopping street in our city (York) is a bit of a non-place – pedestrianised though it may be, and graced with proper trees. Two yeas ago there were even giant concrete lego-shaped bollards with ‘stay, shop, socialise’ emblazoned on them – until the virus came along and put the kybosh on that sort of thing. But it’s… kind of flat there. Even when they organise a farmers’ market on it, or (I kid you not) the occasional Viking tent.

But last week as I walked through, something took me by surprise. Something you’d never expect to find in a main shopping street.

I couldn’t get this in the picture but there were actually a pair of lads using one of them for the purpose Nature intended.

Genius – an instant transformation from a non-place into a proper Place!

My only regret was that I was alone, a bit tired and hungry after a shift at the bookshop, and that the next time I came into town the tables had vanished as mysteriously as they’d appeared.

However, there are still the ones in Rowntree Park…

Howsham Mill in the summer

You can’t tell it by looking at these pictures, but the day we decided to revisit last October’s walk along the River Derwent, it topped thirty degrees.

The woods, though, remained pleasantly cool. There were even tangy wild redcurrants.

The field at the top was full of beans. More than can be said for me by the time we got there! The borders have been left for meadow flowers.

Further on, wheat harvest was in full swing.

The manor overlooks more fields of wheat.

I don’t recall wheat being a thing in Yorkshire when I first learned about it – you associated it with East Anglia. It only takes very little change in climate though – less than half a degree – to shift things miles further north. Half a degree in half a century.

Howsham Mill’s Archimedean Screw water turbine is still working well. You can hear it as a soft, slow, ‘thud, thud’ from across the river.

On the way back to the Priory, another weir awaits. We speculated about whether you could kayak down it.

Back at the Priory, people were enjoying a swim. We dipped our feet in to cool off.