By Arely Mendia Perez, Environment for the Americas Intern, and Stacey Vigallon, Director of Environmental Education | Western Tanager Vol. 84 No. 1, Sept/Oct 2017

Our guest author for this issue’s Interpreting Nature column is Arely Mendia Perez. A Greenhouse Program alumna and a current Environment for the Americas intern with Los Angeles Audubon, Arely has a keen interest in both botany and creative writing. In the paragraphs below, Arely reviews Hope Jahren’s 2016 memoir, Lab Girl, through the lens of her own love of botany, nature, and learning.

Lab Girl is an extraordinary story about Hope Jahren and her fascinating endeavors of following her dreams of being a scientist. As a young girl, Jahren found her identity of becoming a scientist, as her father was before her. Her father’s lab was her playground, and as an adult her own lab became her solace and her happiness. Hope Jahren ties important aspects of her life to that of the life of plants.

Jahren is a scientist with a Ph.D. doing research in paleobiology. Recipient of three Fulbright Awards, and she is one of only four scientists (and the only woman) to have been awarded both the young investigator medals given in the earth sciences. Jahren does not fail to keep her readers engaged, she gives her audience lessons about science and botany and trails it off into memory lane for us to be captivated by her passion, her struggles, her beliefs, her fears, and her courage. Jahren helps her readers visualize that plants are in a certain way like humans. They grow, just as we do, and die, just as we do. Her visualization gives us a new way to view the world, to observe what we often fail to see. As looking at a leaf from a tree, she encourages her readers to explore and ask questions.

ArelyMendiaPerez Yosemite june2017 web

Arely Mendia Perez on her 18-day backpacking trip in Yosemite this summer. Arely was selected to attend this trip as part of Outward Bound’s Pinnacle Scholars Program (photo credit Arely Mendia Perez).

Arely Mendia Perez on her 18-day backpacking trip in Yosemite this summer. Arely was selected to attend this trip as part of Outward Bound’s Pinnacle Scholars Program (photo credit Arely Mendia Perez).

Arely Mendia Perez leads a team of high school students on a nature walk in the Baldwin Hills, as part of her Greenhouse Program internship when she was in high school (photo credit Stacey Vigallon)

I really enjoyed this book because, in a way, I sensed that there was so much I had forgotten that Jahren helped me to remember. I remembered how alluring botany was when I first learned about it as a Greenhouse Program intern studying Janice Timbrook’s Chumash Ethnobotany. That was all the push I needed to quickly enroll myself into a botany class once I started college. I can still remember the first conversation my classmates had when we first sat in the classroom filled with posters of flowers and leaves, parts specified in detailed, and a wide chalkboard greeting us upon entry. Almost as a unit, I can hear students presenting their names to each other and stating that the only reason they enrolled in the class was because this was the “easiest” class needed to complete their lab requirement. I fiddled with my sweater sleeves thinking about how the reason I enrolled in the class was to learn more about botany. It came as a big surprise to us all after the first few days to find that botany was not so easy. The study of plants is indeed more complicated than we thought. I wasn’t the smartest in that class, but I believe my curiosity and fascination are what actually made me worthy of getting a “B” from my professor. I never failed to start a long conversation with her about my own small garden. I wasn’t only satisfied with my letter grade but also that I learned so much and began to see the world differently. This made me happy, both as a student learning the little things that we take for granted and as a writer appreciating the wonders of the Earth. “Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life,” Hope Jahren observed. She was right about this.

While reading Lab Girl, I was also surviving my first backpacking trip this summer – eighteen days in Yosemite as part of Outward Bound’s Pinnacle Scholars Program. It was my first time being in the wilderness, let alone the forest. I was excited mainly to look at the conifers and wildflowers. I wanted to explore the nature that I don’t get to see in Los Angeles. Jahren mentions in her memoir something that I deem important as well: “When you go into a forest you probably tend to look up at the plants that have grown so much taller than you ever could. You probably don’t look down, where just beneath your single footprint sit hundreds of seeds, each one alive and waiting.” It is true that I mainly noticed the majestic trees as I hiked and got higher in elevation through the mountains. But, I remember being even more fascinated when seeing baby pines sprouting out of the soil that we stepped over, or noticing that odd wildflower known as Steer’s Head growing out of granite. I’m sure many in my group on that trip thought I was weird for shrieking in excitement when I noticed that small patch of lupine growing happily on the ground.

I would recommend Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl to young adults and older adults. Jahren pours love, delight, and science into her writing that will captivate readers chapter by chapter. This book will both keep you knowledgeable about botany and keep you amused.