Jahren is a beautiful writer. Her chapters on soil and trees and plants were gripping and eye opening--even for this scientist reader. Yet this book, which might better be considered a platonic love story to Bill, her long time lab partner, rather than a book about the life of a scientist, was tainted by the gleeful disdain that Jahren and Bill show for many other people. I would give the book five stars if she'd just stuck to the plants and Bill.
At one point Jahren compares the intelligence of her graduate students to her dog-- and the dog wins. She refers to another quiet student on a trip as "warm-blooded cargo," because of his uselessness as a driver. What really sealed the deal for me was the road trip. 5 Days before a conference, Jahren and Bill decide they want to attend. They decide to drive cross country, taking two graduate students with them to share in the driving (not to enrich their education or anything). One day, Jahren does not heed multiple warnings and directs the graduate student driver to go straight into a snow storm. Predictably, the van flips when they hit some ice. Lessons Jahren learned: 1) When you pee into bottles make sure to cap them. 2) Wear a seat belt. The student driver, understandably shaken, asks to be dropped off at the airport so she can fly home, but Jahren and Bill yell at her and refuse, calling her a quitter. They drag her to the conference in the banged up van so that Jahren can deliver the talk that was so important that it was never mentioned again in the book. When they return, Jahren nobly claims responsibility for the busted university van (as she should-- she was in charge!). How selfless.
Jahren and Bill enjoy giving their students a repetitive, meaningless task, like labeling hundreds of bottles, and then telling them that, sorry, they won't be using their work after all. To pass their sadistic test a student must both resign his or herself to the monotony that is science and accept that the work was wasted, but also salvage something from the time spent. A memorable student saved all the bottle caps, hoping they could be "spares" in the future.
There are little stories like this woven into the book, souring the beautiful language on scientific discovery and personal passion. I was a graduate student once and this culture is pervasive and horrifying and drives good students from pursuing science. A student may have the passion, but s/he just can't contend with being treated like the scum on Jahren's shoes. I admire Jahren's scientific successes and her obvious dedication, but it is overshadowed by her perpetuation of a problematic culture.