A scientist discovers a world of wonder in a graveyard weed.
Nearing 50 and feeling directionless in his research, leading British plant geneticist Harberd (Biological Sciences/Univ. of East Anglia) stole away from the routine of academic science at the noted John Innes Centre to rekindle his sense of wonder outdoors. In St. Mary’s churchyard in Norfolk, he observed over a yearlong period the life of the thale-cross plant. “It’s just a weed, we’ve got plenty of them in the garden at home,” remarked his young son. This exquisitely detailed journal—at once rigorously scientific and yet bordering on the mystical—belies that statement. The author recounts the many stories a weed can tell as it grows, flowers, faces threats (first a slug, then apparently a rabbit) and is finally destroyed by a mourner weeding at graveside. Because the plant was in the world (rather than isolated in the lab), Harberd found new ways of seeing its growth, death and regeneration, all of which depended on “connectivity” to the earth and sun. While cycling from home to his beloved churchyard, working in the lab, attending concerts or traveling on business and holiday, the author muses on nature, memory, life and death. His written-on-the-run observations eventually helped break his “scientist’s block” and left the hardheaded DNA expert with a newfound, quasi-religious reverence for the oneness of life: “Music, landscape, life, all connected.” Although Harberd’s intended reader is the nonscientist, some passages are daunting. Those with the patience to stick with him will be rewarded by fascinating glimpses of a first-rate scientific mind at play. Most refreshing is the author’s candor about the imperfections of science: its starts and stops; the gap between separating and classifying things in the lab, and the wholeness and harmony of nature in the field.
Inspires new respect for weeds—and life. (Illustrations)