Book Review: Finding the Mother Tree  (NY: Knopf, 2021) by Suzanne Simard

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy.” Psalm 96:12

I’ll never again walk through a forest obliviously. The research of Dr. Simard has revealed what a fascinating place it is—much of its genius unseen. Under a single footstep spread 300 miles of fungal networks linking trees. “A cubic foot of soil is packed with a hundred miles of mycelium” (p. 224) or fungal threads that transport water, nutrients, and distress signals to cue adaptation when trees are threatened by insects or disease. The signals are as precise as those sent by neurons in our brains. Like the network of arteries, veins and capillaries in the human cardiovascular system, this vast underground system creates a web of life. When her first article was published in Nature, editors coined the phrase: “the wood wide web.”

Simard’s initial research showed an exchange of carbon between fir and birch that tipped her off to a massive underground communication network. When she began, she was one of only a few women employed by the Canadian forest service. They ignored her advice and Canada consequently holds the unenviable record for being first world-wide in forest disturbance rate, thereby sending more greenhouse gases back into the atmosphere. Global deforestation causes more greenhouse gas emissions than all trains, planes and automobiles combined.

Simard tried desperately to show that clear-cutting was a terrible policy because it destroyed the natural biodiversity that keeps forests healthy. Intent on producing more commercially lucrative pines and stuck on a wrong theory that trees are competitive, foresters routinely destroyed aspen, birch and alder whose collaboration would’ve produce healthier growth in the long run.

After years of having her rigorous research debunked, Dr. Simard left for a professorship at the University of British Columbia. This gave her the benefit of many graduate students trained to ask the right questions and eager to conduct more experiments, continuing and expanding her work.

Some of her experiments are hard for a non-scientist to follow, but one I did understand was planting seedlings isolated in bags with pores allowing only water to filter through. (p. 224) Cut off from the “subsidies” sent by older trees, their survival rate was poor. Indeed, the excess carbon sent to seedlings from a hub or mother tree increases their survival rate four times. Much like a healthy human family…

Perhaps that’s why Simard interweaves the scientific study with personal stories and photos. Some will be distracted by the autobiography; others enchanted. One story, of her grampa’s dog falling into the outhouse “opened up a whole new world” for the young girl. As four men dig down to free the dog, they uncover a layered underworld of tree roots, tenacious and multi-colored. It was the budding scientist’s first clue that the mushroom on the forest surface is only the tip of the iceberg. Forty years later, she’d write of mapping the hidden network: “I thought we might see a few links. Instead we found a tapestry.” (p. 285)

Even a dying tree sheds seed, provides habitat for birds, mammals and fungi, and sends its excess carbon stores to younger trees, recognizing those that are “kin” and supplying them with more than other species. (p. 262) Big mistake, then, to cut those down! “Elders that survived climate changes in the past ought to be kept around because they can spread their seed into the disturbed areas and pass their genes, energy and resilience into the future.” (p. 288) A decomposing nurse log protects new trees “from predators, pathogens and drought.” (p. 271)

“The land wants to heal itself.” (p. 302) Towards the end, Simard starts learning aboriginal knowledge about treatment of the earth’s resources. It gives her hope for transformative thinking that will help the planet regenerate. Her sense of awe is contagious; we want to help preserve the precious forest in which she takes obvious delight.

Despte Simard’s frustration with policies that haven’t changed much in 30 years, her work is becoming increasingly popularized. Her Ted talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Un2yBgIAxYs) has had more than a million and a half viewers since 2016, and her book will be made into a film starring Amy Adams.

This tantalizing glimpse of creation’s intricate, elegant design invites us deeper into mystery. And there’s always more to explore…

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