Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest
In Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, a botanist called Merlin Sheldrake describes the messiness and difficulty of a research stint he once spent studying ghost plants in a Central American jungle preserve. Sheldrake jokes that for every official paper he publishes, he would love to write “its dark twin, its underground mirror-piece—the true story of how the data for that cool, tidy hypothesis-evidence-proof paper actually got acquired.”
It would probably be good for public science literacy if more scientists described the reality of how science gets done, and that’s exactly what Suzanne Simard does in her new book Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. The book is not exactly a dark twin of her revolutionary research on forest ecosystems, but it does tell the story behind the science—the moments of insight, the development of experiment design, the frustrations and setbacks. Throughout, Simard braids the science story with episodes from her personal life, revealing what her work has cost her as well as how it has offered wisdom in return.
Suzanne Simard is the person most famously associated with the discovery of the “wood wide web”: the mycorrhizal network that connects trees under the soil’s surface. Mycorrhizal— a term combining the Greek words for fungi and roots—refers to the vast network through which the tiniest threads of fungi bond with tree roots, thereby allowing trees to exchange nutrients and biochemical messages within and across species. Beneath the soil, that is to say, the forest is interconnected organism.
Finding the Mother Tree describes the series of “aha” moments through which Simard came to suspect and then verify this network. In her early years, she was working for the forest service in Canada, wondering whether the “free to grow” policy long settled into forestry policy was based on the how forest ecology actually works. The lumber industry at the time operated on the assumption that the most efficient way to grow Douglas firs was to obliterate any competing trees, particularly birch, and grow firs in monoculture plantations. Simard noted, however, that perhaps the birches and firs cooperated more than competed, so that Douglas firs accompanied by birches would actually thrive better in the long term. In the end, she was right, and she proved it in a series of experiments over many years. But she also quickly learned that when money and power are involved, research results can be regarded as inconvenient and thus dismissed—especially when the person doing the research is a young woman.
Throughout the book, technical accounts of carbon isotope procedures and infrared gas analyzers are embedded in a broader narrative of Simard’s personal joys and tragedies. She frequently describes the difficulty of being taken seriously as a woman scientist in a forestry and academic science culture dominated by men, even though she came from a family of Canadian forestry workers and knew the industry well. It didn’t help that what she was uncovering beneath the soil amounted to a fundamental shift in ideology about how natural systems work. Rather than presuming that nature is a matter of ruthless competition among species—survival of the fittest—Simard was essentially demonstrating that species cooperate and help one another. She makes a good case for a kind of corporate intelligence within the forest organism—through the mychorrizal network, trees can adjust to changing conditions, warn one another about threats, share resources. “The scientific evidence is impossible to ignore: the forest is wired for wisdom, sentience, and healing,” she notes in the introductory pages.
I enjoyed the “here’s how we did it” aspect of Simard’s account. We see her studying the science literature late at night, struggling to work out just the right experiment designs, mentoring grad students who helped do the less-than-glamorous grunt work that field research inevitably entails. But I also appreciated the way she portrayed her scientific work arising from personal experiences. Her stormy relationship with her beloved brother prompted her to think about how families both compete and cooperate. Her breast cancer diagnosis led her to wonder about aging trees and whether they leave a legacy—and this led to her more recent work understanding how “mother trees” fund the younger generations with their tree-wisdom, in the form of protection and distribution of resources through the network.
Simard’s account demonstrates that science is never entirely objective, but that’s also a strength of the scientific endeavor. Insight and wonder drive science, too. Without her deep love for forests, or the coincidental noting one day of roots covered with fungal threads, or her anguish over a long commute while her daughters were young, would Simard have even raised the questions she set out to test? Since her initial work appeared in the journal Nature in 1997, whole generations of further researchers all over the world have confirmed and expanded upon her initial insights. That’s how science works, too. After decades, the forestry policies and practices Simard initially questioned are finally changing, and our increased understanding of species interdependence is helping managers create plans to build climate resilience in forest ecosystems.
I admire Simard for accepting her role as a science communicator. She notes early in the book that getting the data is one thing, communicating it well quite another. As a basically shy person, Simard has had to learn how to speak to professional and general audiences and how to manage her own celebrity. Her work features, as I mentioned, in a chapter of Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, and even more centrally in Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory, not to mention in a more Hollywood-ish way in the blockbuster movie Avatar.
Now she has attempted a memoir, too. The Acknowledgements make clear that Simard worked closely with a writing coach, and I could recognize the traces of strain in the writing style. Some scenes felt a little overconstructed, and the sentence styles sometimes devolved into dense thickets of absolute phrases. Nevertheless, I appreciate the effort to craft her experiences into a pleasingly readable format.
At one point in Powers’ novel The Overstory, a character loosely based on Suzanne Simard observes, “It could be the eternal project of mankind, to learn what forests have figured out.” Simard fully acknowledges that First Peoples have understood the wisdom of the forest all along—that we are all interconnected, interdependent. Simard’s work has simply accounted for how a portion of this interconnection works on a biochemical level. The implications of this wisdom are profound. As Simard writes, “There is no moment too small in the world. Nothing should be lost. Everything has a purpose, and everything is in need of care. This is my creed.”