1175 Communication not competition
Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest
by Suzanne Simard
Toronto: Penguin Random House (Allen Lane), 2021
$34.95 / 9780735237759
Reviewed by Luanne Armstrong
What a truly brilliant book. What a gift to the world both the book and its writer are. I came out of this book so happy it existed, so happy I had read it. The book is impressive on many fronts, not just because of the content, the research, the findings about how trees in the forest cooperate and communicate, but also by the triple achievement of this writer: to write a book that is a powerful and moving memoir about love and loss and illness and achievement; to make complex scientific research accessible and available to the general reader; and to write a moving testimony to the enduring power of family and belonging. Whew!
Dr. Simard has spent much of her life working to find out how the forest truly works, in part because it became clear to her when she first began working in forestry as a tree planter, and watching the young trees she had planted, die. She had to find out why. This spurred her through a research journey in university and her PhD thesis, the main findings of which were subsequently published in the prestigious Nature magazine, in which she wrote about how she had discovered that trees communicate their needs and send each other nutrients through the mycelium in the soil — in other words, she found, they “talk” to each other. Since then, her research has shown that trees not only converse, they send warning signals about environmental change, they search for kin, they transfer their nutrients to neighbouring plants before they die. Trees, Simard writes,
… form mycorrhiza (literally meaning “fungus-root”), which are symbiotic relationships between trees and fungi. These mycorrhizal fungi have many branching threads (called mycelium) that grow out from the root tip of a tree and connect with the roots of other trees and plants to form a mycorrhizal network. The mycelium spans vast areas connecting trees and plants across a forest in an expansive underground network.
Essentially, Simard disproved the central assumption upon which much of plant biology, and particularly forestry, has been based for far too long, the idea that plants compete with each other, and therefore, the idea that the best way to grow trees is in plantations, each tree trapped in its small tube of roots with nothing around them but barren ground. The British Columbia Forest Service is still spraying “weed” trees — such as birch, alder, and willow — with RoundUp because they might compete with such plantations of new trees. But Simard’s work shows that when fir trees grow up in a natural forest, where they interact with each other and receive nutrients through the mycelium, adjacent birch and alder trees both add nitrogen to the ground and protect young fir trees from disease. So, why is Forestry still carrying on such a destructive and short-sighted policy of exterminating these “weed” trees?
Dr. Simard conducted much of her ground-breaking research while dealing with her own personal difficulties: the death of a beloved brother, the births of her two daughters, her marriage ending, and breast cancer and recovery. Through it all, she retained her focus on her research and her family in equal measure. When I finished Finding the Mother Tree, I was in awe of her incredible research and discoveries, but even better, I really liked her as a person. I liked her values, her ideals, and her way of being in the world.
Even though I was aware of Simard’s work before reading this book — and, full disclosure, my grandson works for her doing research — this book still contained many revelatory sections for me. Finding the Mother Tree contains deep insights, including how forgiving and resilient a forest can be when given a chance; that a forest communicates in many ways and along many fungal pathways;’ and that previous forestry work made many wrong and unresearched assumptions.
When I was a child and spent much of my time in the forest, I always knew enough to stop at the edge of the trees to wait; I always knew there was a vast intelligence there that was somehow aware of me, and that I should go slowly and listen and watch. I am so glad to have my childhood intuition reinforced.
Dr Simard began a new research project in 2015, The Mother Tree Project, which will study “connections and communication between trees, particularly below-ground connections between Douglas-fir Mother Trees and seedlings, which could influence forest recovery and resilience following various harvesting and regeneration treatments.”
Climate change and the present high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere make this work, these discoveries, and this knowledge crucially important for now and for the future.
Perhaps someday soon, foresters will look up from their plans for clear cut logging and replanting lonely plantations of single tree types, to realize that what they doing actually goes against the nature and inclinations of a true forest and they will finally begin to work in a new and more aware way. One can only hope. The research is clear. They only have to read Suzanne Simard’s book and actually pay attention.
I am quite sure that this is one of those books that, like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, will come to anchor a turning point in our somewhat blind and reckless destruction of the natural world. If people can finally begin to see the world around us as alive, as having value beyond being merely “resources,” and that we need to do more than save “nature” in a few parks, within a desert of houses, lawns and industrial expansion, we may yet save ourselves.
Luanne Armstrong has written 21 books including young adult, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She has contributed to many anthologies and edited Slice Me Some Truth (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011), an anthology of Canadian non-fiction. She has been nominated or won many awards, including the Moonbeam Award the Chocolate Lily Award, the Hubert Evans nonfiction Book award; the Red Cedar Award, Surrey Schools Book of the Year Award, the Sheila Egoff Book Prize, and the Silver Birch Prize. Luanne lives on her hundred year-old family farm on Kootenay Lake. She mentors emerging writers all over the world on a long-term basis, and in the last three years has edited eight books through to publication. Her most recent books are Sand (Ronsdale Press, 2016), and A Bright and Steady Flame: The Story of an Enduring Friendship (Caitlin Press, 2018; reviewed by Lee Reid). Armstrong is now working on a book of essays, Going to Ground, as well as a new book of poetry, When We Are Broken. Editor’s note: Luanne Armstrong has also reviewed books by Peter Wohlleben, Wayne Sawchuk, Katie Mitzel, Tom Lymbery, Richard Vission, Deni Béchard, Briony Penn, Ann Kujundzic, and Lee Reid, among others, for The Ormsby Review.
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“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster