Risking Roots

Risking Roots June 28, 2016

Hope Jahren’s memoir of a life in science, Lab Girl, has three sections: “Roots and Leaves”; “Wood and Knots”; “Flowers and Fruits.” She intersperses autobiographical chapters with vivid, personified descriptions of the life of plants.

“No risk,” she writes, “is more terrifying than that taken by the first root. A lucky root will eventually find water, but its first job is to anchor—to anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phase, however passive that mobility was. Once the first root is extended, the plant will never again enjoy any hope (however feeble) of relocating to a place less cold, less dry, less dangerous. Indeed, it will face frost, drought, and greedy jaws without any possibility of flight. The tiny rootlet has only one change to guess what the future years, decades—even centuries—will bring to the patch of soil where it sits. It assesses the light and humidity of the moment, refers to its programming, and quite literally takes the plunge” (52).

Rooting comes first, before any shoot shoots up. And the root takes up all of the resources that are in the seed, all the while the plant is not yet capable of manufacturing fresh nutrients from sunlight, water, and soil: “Rooting exhausts the very last reserves of the seed. The gamble is everything, and losing means death. The odds are more than a million to one against success” (52).

If the root takes root, it “wins big.” Its taproot might go down twelve, thirty, forty meters. The root gives promise of long life, perhaps lasting centuries: “If the root finds what it needs, it bulks into a taproot—an anchor that can swell and split bedrock, and move gallons of water daily for years, much more efficiently than any pump yet invented by man. The taproot sends out lateral roots that intertwine with those of the plant next to it, capable of signaling danger, similar to the way that information passes between neurons via their synapses. The surface area of this root system is easily one hundred times greater than that of all the leaves put together” (52-3).

If the root takes root, then the plant becomes all but indestructible: “Tear apart everything aboveground—everything—and most plants can still grow rebelliously back from just one intact root. More than once. More than twice” (53).

Jahren sometimes draws her own parabolic conclusions from her botany lessons. She describes her favorite childhood spruce’s “needles . . . sharp and angry against the white snow and gray sky; it seemed a perfect role model for the stoicism being cultivated in me” (27).

Even though she doesn’t tell us the moral, we cannot help both to marvel at the miracle of plant life, and to suspect that there’s a double meaning in that.

(Photo by Tia Monto.)

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