Thoughts on “Lessons in Chemistry” while sitting in my Garden

The monsoon has arrived in Colorado! This monsoon is not bringing any rain my way, but it is carrying in cooler air and gentle breezes through the day. Suddenly I am spending lots of time outside. I’ve worked in the gardens every single evening for a couple of hours and the gardens are actually starting to look like… gardens! Okay, I have to admit, there is still lots of work to get done, but I’m so happy to see tidy weeded gardens with lovely rose bushes without a throng of weeds around them.

In the late afternoons, when it is still a little too sunny to work in the gardens, but nice for sitting outside because my swinging garden seat is in the shade, I move out to read with the wildlife. Look at the great pictures I got this week!

My yard is a playground for a group of juvenile squirrels who are always entertaining. There are huge swallowtail butterflies and tiny birds in the yard, but those guys haven’t stopped long enough for me to get a photo yet. The robin is a regular at my little birdbath, and the first bumblebees of the year showed up to sample some of my flowers. My favorite rose bush, the Princess Alexandra of Kent, now has 15 blooms going. My back gardens are filled with new plantings, and the lavender and yarrow are just a few days away from the first blooms. I’m really enjoying my time outside reading, and then I think about the book while I pull weeds and put the gardens into order.

Lessons in Chemistry: A Novel by Bonnie Garmus has been on my mind a lot this last week. The story is of Elizabeth Zott, an intrepid individualist woman who is a scientist by nature and calling, challenged by her gender and the time in which she lived.

I just love the Elizabeth Zott character. I understand and identify with her so much. Elizabeth is a chemist/scientist trying to do research into an original area of chemistry that intersects with biology. Did I mention that it is the 50s? Oh. Elizabeth has a lot of obstacles to overcome: women are expected to be homemakers, and misogyny and gender stereotypes are everywhere. Other women gossip about her and sabotage her. Men steal her work and take credit for it. She loses her job and ends up doing a cooking show on television.

Where she teaches cooking as lessons in chemistry to produce the best, most wonderful dishes ever. Women love her show, take lecture notes through the programs, cook the meals, and learn to think differently about their abilities, their role in society, and their individual worth. The book is wonderful. The book is about keeping an open mind, questioning everything, collecting data, and thinking for oneself. Also, there is a dog who is a major character in the story and who has a wonderful voice and viewpoint of his own.

So why does this book connect so much to me? Well… I grew up in the 50s and 60s. I entered college as a chemistry major (but once I discovered molecular biology, which is kind of biological chemistry, I was gone…). We kind of forget how things used to be for women, but I do remember how things were.

A small list of events from that time:

  • The men talking out front after church each Sunday sure were critical of women drivers. Like, women shouldn’t be allowed to drive. They were serious!
  • A woman at my church had cancer. Her husband, who was in charge of her health care, had that information concealed from her.
  • My high school counselor told me that I would make a great nurse because I was so smart, I could support doctors in making their diagnoses, helping them with their careers. I decided that maybe I should be a doctor…
  • My chemistry advisor in college told me that women were just taking away a slot from a man and that the education was wasted on them because they would just become housewives. Umm… I had just made the Dean’s List…
  • I interviewed for my first research lab job after college. I had to answer a lot of questions about my husband, his career plans, and whether we would be having another child. I think that I got the job because my husband needed me to support the family while he finished college.
  • Working at my lab bench late one afternoon I overheard the head of the lab discussing the research of one of the postdoctoral fellows, a woman. They were denigrating her work while, at the same time, talking about how they could clean it up for publishing. They published her research under their own names later that year.

Well, that’s enough to give you a glimpse of what it was like for women as they struggled for equal opportunities, standards, and pay. We’ve come a long way, but the fight goes on. What I especially loved about science is that it helped level the playing field and encouraged independent, out-of-the box thinking.

Which brings me back to the book. Elizabeth reads to the dog and teaches him hundreds of words. Elizabeth allows her daughter to read just about anything that she can get her hands on (a reading philosophy that I also benefited from), and teaches her cooking show viewers to take a few minutes to savor their accomplishments. Elizabeth rows with men. Elizabeth moves through the world, astonishingly self-confident, striving always to extend the envelope of her knowledge, fearlessly challenging the status quo, viewing everything through the lens of science.

I kind of think that Elizabeth Zott is my hero!

And science. Always, science.

Cooking may be chemistry, but biology is life.

This is me, sitting in my garden, thinking about life.