Exploring “Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest” by Dr. Suzanne Simard

Book Review by: Melina Sempill Watts

The World Wood Web is the most enchanting idea to come out of science in our lifetime: the concept is that trees are in a symbiotic relationship with vast underground lattices of numerous species of fungi that function as a network interconnecting trees, both with trees of the same species and with trees of adjacent species, via their roots, exchanging both nutrients and water, while communicating on levels that we can barely beginning to understand.  The progenitor of this concept is Canadian scientist Dr. Suzanne Simard, whose bold memoir shares how she came to consider, research, and share this stunning theory.

Responding to Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest as a book about ideas, about science, about trees and about the personal life of Dr. Simard, there’s a quality to the writing that mimics her life – as wild new ideas about trees take root in her thinking and she decides to be open to sharing them –  with each degree of increasing willingness to stand her ground and speak for the trees, the power of her writing grows. Starting off as a decent memoir, the book is thundering in power by the last twenty-five percent, which I binge read pausing only to cut favorite quotes and post them, one after another, on Facebook and Goodreads. I couldn’t help it, the ideas were so important I had to share.

Simard grew up in a family in which logging was an integral part of the family revenue stream – but her grandfather and other relatives would pick out a single massive tree, take it down, drag it to an adjacent creek and float it down to the Shuswap Lake, near Sicamous, British Columbia.  Clear-cutting was beyond anyone’s thinking back then.  By the time she’s a young woman working in forestry, clear cutting, leaving only a very few trees standing to reseed was de rigeur in Canada (and the United States and many other places.)  And, arguably even worse, was the concept of using glyphosate and other herbicides to eliminate perceived competitors, leaving lumber-friendly species “free-to-grow.” It’s impossible to overstate how catastrophic this approach was to ecosystem function.

Even while working on behalf of the lumber industry, Simard’s childhood habits of hiking took her out on into the wild on her own time. Camping with fellow forester/friend Jean Heineman, she survived a close encounter with bears. Pausing one afternoon during their foray, she dug into the soil curious as to why trees out of easy range of water were thriving.  She explains the moment that began her thought process, 

I followed another pulpy skein in the other direction, and it led me to a cluster of root tips that looked like white translucent pussytoes. The fine, soft brush I’d borrowed from Hannah’s paint set was perfect for sweeping them clean. One root tip was especially welcoming, and I gently tugged it, like pulling a stray thread in a hem. A seedling a hand’s length away shuddered slightly. I pulled again, harder, and the seedling leaned back in resistance. I looked at my old tree, then at the little seedling in the shadows. The fungus was linking the old tree and young seedling.”

She knew this physical link had profound implications and began compulsively reading about fungi in an effort to understand the improbable ecological successes of some trees. Soon she discovered the work of “a young Swedish researcher, Kristina Arnebrant, who’d just found that a shared mycorrhizal fungal species could link alder with pine, delivering nitrogen directly.” Simard explains, “Pine got nitrogen from alder not through the soil at all but thanks to mycorrhizal fungi!”

Simard leads us through the experience of bouncing her ideas off her sister Robyn and her colleague and future husband Don and how this led to her series of epiphanies, rarely will any reader have better access to the hot unspooling of the creation of brand-new science. When her sister Robyn asks, “Wait, wait, wait. How does the fungal pipeline know how to do that? And why would the alder bother to send it in the first place?” Simard is “stumped.”  So Robyn continues, “Or the pines give something back to the alders?” This resonates with Simard.

Simard jumps into Don’s office to share these ideas. “He told me about a new study from California showing the same mycorrhizal fungal species colonizing Garry oak and Douglas fir, and scientists were trying to figure out whether the tree species were linked. And whether nutrients moved between them.” Suzanne has been eviscerated, privately, by forestry practices that she sees as devastating to trees and forests. So she asks her soon-to-be husband, “Do you think this could stop them from spraying the alders?” “Don tapped on his keyboard as his calculations finished. “Suzie,” he said, “Sorry. I doubt it. The forest industry wants fast, cheap wood, and they’ve perfected growing Douglas fir in forty years instead of hundreds on the Oregon Coast Range. They’ve been doing this for years. They’re making money hand over fist spraying red alder, then adding nitrogen fertilizers.” Red alder was a tree, not a shrub like its cousin the Sitka alder, so it was substantially more competitive for light, even though it added more than ten times more nitrogen to the soil. It was number one on the hit list.”

Simard spells out her growing understanding of forest ecosystems, 

“They missed what we could not yet fully see: how the symbiotic bacteria and mycorrhizas in the roots of the alder, and the other invisible creatures in the soil, helped the pine. And they failed to illuminate the bigger picture: that interactions over resources of the alder, and the other invisible creatures in the soil, helped the pine. And they failed to illuminate the bigger picture: that interactions over resources isn’t a winner-take-all thing; it’s about give-and-take, building more from a little and finding balance over the long term.”

As a non-scientist, it’s always been a bit of a mystery how scientists go from innovative question to proven theory that becomes a part of the galaxy of known science facts. This book is by far the best at explaining how a scientist first sees and frames a problem, then provides a look at the genesis of the new explanatory idea, an exploration of the bashing around of the idea with trusted friends and colleagues, and, in this case, relatives, and then the grit of creating and running long and complex experiments, doing the research, then the writing and the scary moment of standing up to say something … new.  Presenting to an audience of foresters was harrowing but when Nature published her ideas in 1997, coining the indelible phrase “world wood web” the tide began to turn, albeit slowly. Now there are dozens of projects going on all around the world based on her premise and building the complexity of the idea out further.  Indeed, Simard’s work, the work of her many graduate students and scientists around the globe demonstrates that trees are giving one another carbon and water, proves that trees are warning one another of threats and shows that sharing water is a part of forest life. 3

Interwoven with these major jumps of science are the stories of her relationships with her family, her brother, her courtship with her husband and the raising of her two daughters.  There are several big rollercoasters turns in her personal life which I will not divulge here because the surprises fuel both the narrative and her subsequent research.  Her willingness to feel the trees that she studies inspire one of her graduate students, postdoctoral fellow Dr. Teresa “Sm’hayetsk” Ryan, who is part “of the Tsimshian Nation, the people of the Skeena River to the north, a traditional cedar basket weaver and a salmon-fisheries scientist on the Canada-U.S. Pacific Salmon Commission, Joint Chinook, and others First Nations community members to start introducing her to First Nations leaders, teachers and thinkers to talk about traditional views of trees and forest function. Dr. Simard is humble about articulating that all her scientific research is only revealing what local indigenous people knew all along: that the trees are alive, that the soil is a complex living community worthy of all our love and devotion, that the salmon feed the trees and the trees bring the water into the ecosystem and that all of the forest is intercommunicating with each other and with us. 

Constantly exploring parallel arboreal science, Simard addresses the mountain pine beetle infestation, telling her friend Mary, ““It’s even possible the firs and pines can warn each other about infestations,” I explained how Dr. Yuan Yuan Song, a scientist from China, had been working with me to see if firs infected with budworms might warn neighboring pines to prepare themselves.”

The sobering piece of the book is her unflinching look at forestry practices in which she was deeply enmeshed in her twenties – which have had impacts on forests across Canada and the world for decades and are likely to continue to do so for hundreds of years.  Most people intuitively recognize that clearcutting is a catastrophe, those with even a minimal understanding of forestry are cognizant that monocropping trees makes for greater fire danger and radically lowers the potential for biodiversity, but the element that comes out loud and clear in her book is that foresters have been nearly eliminating other species, which they perceive of as competitors, not only by narrow planting choices but by aggressive use of herbicides on a scale that boggles the mind’s ability to fathom.  Her research, proving that cash crop trees like pines do better with companion plants such as aspen, and that each of the trees in the Canadian forests are tied to both to specific fungi and to a complex mass of underground soil composed of hundreds of species, has the potential to help industry leaders develop a more economically functional approach to forestry based on the reality that more biodiverse friendly practices to forestry are not only more sustainable on an ecological level but will be more economically productive. Can we get there faster while we still have some forests left to preserve? Can we replant to mimic historic forests?

As an arbophile, I sometimes find the celebration of people planting trees (admittedly an important and joyful act) to be, nevertheless, fingernails on a chalkboard, because baby trees have such a long way to go to become mature trees and the glee with which we celebrate massive plantings becomes a tool to excuse deforestation, or a way to look away from ecocide. Not only do mature trees contribute more carbon, more oxygen, all of those statistics people like to fling around, it turns out they are vital contributors to up and coming sprouts, saplings and young trees.  Simard’s research shows that mature trees of different species are engaged in supporting one another by warning about infestations, or sharing water, nitrogen, and key ingredients for life.  By inventing the concept of the Mother Tree, by which Simard means a mature tree that is committed to supporting its own progeny and the neighborhood of co-existing plants, Simard is changing the conversation about what matters. A tree that is very old or is diseased or badly burnt, can and will download its own water and nutrients into young trees, giving them a critical push upwards in the start in life. Mature trees, thriving, do the same.  Simard’s and her many students’ science is proving our planet is best served by cherishing our giants and holding on to fading monster trees. Yes, plant an acorn or a seed, but double yes, preserve standing forests.

One last insight about Simard, she is clearly fond of all the many people who have reached out to her with art about trees, personal notes, books and emails.  Fame has not blinded her to the sweetness of being understood and seen by others, and she recognizes that people love her precisely because they, too, love the trees she loves. It sounds beautiful to become a part of the forest of people standing in Simard’s shade and I’m guessing if you read her book, you’ll become a part of her widespread emotional ecosystems as well. 

The take home? Read this book. You’ll see the forest for the trees.

Melina Sempill Watts is the author of novel Tree.

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