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‘Mother Trees’ Are Real. They Model Sharing and Generosity

Suzanne Simard’s book on forest complexity is as sturdy, impressive and beautiful as a big red cedar.

Dorothy Woodend 3 May

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest
By Suzanne Simard
Penguin Random House (2021)

Trees are good socialists. This is one of the more startling ideas that leaps out from Suzanne Simard’s first book, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest.

Simard’s astounding research into the little-known habits of trees came to global attention when her paper on the relationship between trees and mycorrhizal networks was published in 1997 in the science journal Nature with the title: “The Wood-Wide Web.” A prescient description, as it turned out.

What is mycorrhiza? Put very simply, it’s the symbiotic relationship that exists between fungi and plants. In a complex natural system such as a forest, the root systems of trees are joined together by fungal networks that move sugar, carbon, hormones and defence signals — a wealth of information — between individual trees. In this web, the largest, oldest trees (called hub trees or more affectionately, Mother Trees) are the most densely connected, like nodes in the internet.

Simard had planned to write a book for some time, but the woman has been busy. In addition to a full academic career (she received her PhD in forestry sciences at Oregon State University and is currently a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia), she’s also raised two daughters, conducted hundreds of experiments, given TED Talks, beaten breast cancer… and the list goes on.

In light of this level of activity, writing a book might seem a snap, but a literary work that combines hardcore science with memoir is a particularly complex undertaking. A forest-for-the-trees analogy might apply.

In Finding the Mother Tree, science and personal experience are inextricably linked, as densely interwoven as the underground networks that knit forests together — all of it rendered in elegant and thoughtful prose. Simard’s book is as sturdy, impressive and beautiful as a big red cedar.

To put it simply: Finding the Mother Tree is a deeply important book. In cogent and compelling language, Simard lays out not only how forests function, but why the model of co-operation, altruism and generosity they adhere to is so critical at this moment.

On the eve of her book’s publication, The Tyee spoke to Simard about the intricacies of writing about family, the cutthroat nature of academic research, the demeaning of female scientists and how trees just might save us all.

Trekking a male terrain

Before she went into science, Simard considered writing as a possible career. “I loved to write, before I took the science path.”

Part of the impetus of writing her book was to tell her own story. She was tired of “other people writing about who I am and how I grew up.”

A lot of the critique levelled at Simard’s work — too emotional, too mystical, too female — is not unfamiliar when it comes to women’s contributions to science. Many female scientists have faced a similar undermining. Rachel Carson, to whom Simard is sometimes compared, was vilified as a Communist for daring to expose the chemical industry.

In Simard’s case, her work threatens a scientific orthodoxy that has been in place since the time when Darwin wrote On the Origin of Species — namely that the natural world is savage, rife with brute struggle and competition. In other words, a manly place.

Simard’s assertions, supported by careful and exacting science, flew in the face of this idea. She argued that complex natural systems such as forests functioned in a very different fashion and were often predicated on co-operation, mutual support, reciprocity and a level of almost, dare she say, maternal caring. (Although Simard is careful with language, a word like “mother” is still freighted with meaning).

As she explains, putting anything of yourself into scientific research is considered verboten and goes against the notion that science should be a clinical, detached place, free of sticky, trailing emotions.

But Simard argues this compartmentalized approach, long accepted as best practice, isn’t actually how the world works. “To me, this was missing so much,” she said.

Simard argues that the sense of disconnection historically demanded by science serves a specific function, which is to perpetuate the idea that the natural world is simply a resource, something to be bought and sold.

In this resource-management approach, “women are often excluded,” she said. “It’s like trying to do science with one eye closed.”

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Suzanne Simard’s research on forests threatens a long-held scientific orthodoxy. Photo by Brendan Ko.

Forestry has long been male terrain, and as Simard makes clear, many of the battles she has faced come from the old boys’ approach. And their methods of applying blunt, simplistic force to something as layered as a forest has created a multitude of problems.

In the scientific community, detractors of Simard’s work chipped and chiselled, doing their best to cast a cloud of doubt over the rigour of her findings, helped along by the media which often lumped Simard’s research alongside critiques of her published work.

But the reaction from the general public was another matter. She’s received feedback from people from around the world who felt compelled to offer their support and interest.

“They could relate,” she explained. “The relationships feel true.”

Trying, failing and failing better next time

Anyone who’s ever spent time in a forest already knows the feeling of connection one finds among the trees. As Simard recounts in one of her TED Talks, as a child she believed that invisible beings (fairies) protected the forest. In some sense, this is true.

The larger portion of a forest community is invisible. The vast network of mycelium — which functions like the internet of the woods — is underground, weaving between individual trees in a matrix that rivals the human brain in its degree of complexity and connection. In fact, the largest living organism in the world is thought to be a mycelium that covers 3.8 kilometres in Oregon.

Simard’s discovery of the critical role played by mycelium and mycorrhizal networks came about almost by accident during her childhood when the family dog, Jiggs, fell into the outhouse at her grandparent’s place on Mabel Lake in the B.C. Interior.

Six-year-old Simard watched as the menfolk rallied to save poor Jiggs, digging a deep pit beside the outhouse and simultaneously revealing the underpinnings of the forest in the process. The multicoloured tangles of white, red and yellow fungal threads, a chocolate layer of humus and another level of bleached sandy soil, rocks and tree roots resembled an enormous layer cake.

Don’t worry, Jiggs was rescued. But as Simard writes, unbeknownst to her at the time, the incident planted the seed for her later work. Different moments of equally idiosyncratic and circuitous discovery are sprinkled throughout the book.

WATCH: UBC scientist Suzanne Simard locates a Mother Tree and explains how it is networked into ‘trees as far as you can see’ as well as other living species ‘almost metaphysically related.’ The five-minute video is by Dan McKinney with animation by Ben Jacques.

Some of the most wonderful parts of Simard’s narrative are when things go wrong. She forgets to put a filter in her filtration mask, gets chased by grizzly bears, drops stuff, spills things, messes up, but keeps on going. This aspect reminds the reader that science is a human endeavour: imperfect, constantly evolving and full of accidents.

Simard notes that scientific papers carefully edit this kind of stuff out, putting a clean, pristine version forth. However, to put it in Samuel Beckett terms, the real work is a series of trying, failing and failing better next time.

But back to the idea of trees and socialism for a moment. Part of the concerted pushback against Simard’s research, both in the forestry and scientific communities, is that many of the ideas that undergird her work are deeply problematic to capitalism itself — a system that maintains the only value in the natural world is what can be monetized. Thus, forests aren’t nurturing, caring societies, but simply cash waiting to be cut down. The analogy to factory farming and industrialized agriculture might seem an obvious correlative, but it’s somehow worse.

The threat that Simard’s research poses was rendered explicit in the New York Times’ expansive profile of her work, referencing the ideas that trees have occupied something of a liminal space between living beings and blunt objects, with no interior life or feelings, making them easier to destroy.

However, the idea of a forest as a co-operative, communicative and beneficent network upends this model. Actually, that isn’t quite sufficient. It blows it to smithereens. This cognitive shift calls into question not only Darwin’s natural selection, but also implicates capitalism itself. To underscore this point, the New York Times article cited biologist Richard Lewontin: “Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is obviously 19th-century capitalism writ large.”

From cash to caring

Despite recent progress in environmental understanding, the wholesale destruction of ancient forests, especially in Canada, continues at a brutal pace. In her TED Talk, Simard estimates it to be more than four times the rate of what is sustainable.

In British Columbia’s most recent budget, no additional funding for changes to current forestry practices was announced. The silent scream that reverberates in one’s head when you think about these magnificent places being butchered for hundreds of years is hard to endure.

Simard sees the present state of the forest industry not only as capitalism unleashed, but also as a direct outcome of colonization, or as she calls it: “European culture plunked down on North America.”

Indigenous peoples who developed sustainable forest stewardship over centuries had to endure being actively disenfranchised and watching as the knowledge gained over generations of close observation and lived experience was derided as simple mysticism.

Only recently has this ancient knowledge been taken seriously, and as it turns out, First Nations’ understanding has deep roots in science.

“It is science!” Simard affirmed. “Closely observed science, way more mature, we’re not even close. The [current] scientific method is a narrow way of seeing things.”

She describes present-day methodology as “the McDonald’s of forestry,” giving the example of the large-scale use of monoculture plantings, which are particularly susceptible to disease and other natural predators.

But the underlying issue goes far beyond current forestry practices. The worldview that sees nature simply as something to be commodified, and all of it informed by the dominating rubric of profit, is the root of the problem.

“We’ve pushed the forest, managed it to the point of collapse,” Simard said, adding that the only way to continue on the current course of cognitive dissonance — destroying that which sustains us — is active denial.

The alternative? Simard puts forth the idea — sure to be labelled as girlie, mystical and unscientific — of empathizing with and understanding forests.

“If you’re connected to a piece of land, if it’s your home, [denial] is much harder to do.”

Climate change has added exponential pressure to the need to better comprehend natural systems, but the shift can begin with something as simple as spending time in the woods to appreciate its overwhelming beauty, and its enigma. The idea that self-organizing complex systems like forests have evolved to be unbelievably gorgeous remains something of a mystery, even to Simard.

A web of connection to survive

“It is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything,” wrote theologian/philosopher Thomas Merton. This is as true for trees and other living organisms as it is for human beings. Finding the Mother Tree’s subtitle Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest brings up another central idea, namely that living systems are deeply resilient and capable of enormous healing.

This kind of restoration is often predicated on the idea of selflessness. A dying “mother tree” will bequeath her carbon to the next generation, so that they might better survive. Trees will alert others, even different species, to threats like disease or insect attacks.

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Simard carrying out her forest ecology research: The current scientific method, she says, ‘is a narrow way of seeing things.’ Photo via the Mother Tree Project.

One of the questions that pops up throughout many of the articles about Simard’s research is “Why do trees do this?” But the question is a strange one. Maybe they do because it’s simply right, just and good.

In difficult times, the importance of connection is often the only way through. When Simard was diagnosed with breast cancer, suddenly the web of personal relationships — family, friends and other women battling the disease, like a myccorhizal network of her own — was the only way for Simard to survive.

Fittingly, trees also played a pivotal role in her triumph over cancer. Many of the most successful cancer treatments, such as Paclitaxel, were derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree. As Simard explains, First Nations people have long used the yew as a form of medicine.

Simard often asks her students to talk about humans’ place in the natural world, and almost without fail, their responses are overwhelmingly grim.

She has a counter: “We do matter, and not just in a negative way.”

Part of the impetus of writing her book was to provide a sense of agency to ordinary people, to reassure that anyone can steward and protect the environment, even if it’s a backyard garden.

As she writes, “Nothing should be lost. Everything has a purpose, and everything is in need of care.”

COVID-19 has arguably widened our collective divide of disconnection, not only from nature, but also from each other. But the pandemic also revealed that people are vulnerable when they’re alone and cut off from community and the support of others.

Simard’s densely interwoven tapestry of story filled with science, family, memory, kids, parents, grief and love, all feeding into a vast web of connection, offers up a foundational lesson — and a remedy. If we can learn reciprocity, respect, kindness and generosity from trees, maybe there’s some hope for us humans after all.  [Tyee]

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