Network Giants

Finding the Mother Tree captures the majesty and magic of the natural world and provides a new perspective on what it means to be a tree.

Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest
Suzanne Simard
Knopf, 2021, 368 pages

Growing up in the rainforests of British Columbia, Suzanne Simard experienced a defining moment when her dog, Jiggs, fell into the hole in the outhouse.

Simard’s grandfather jumped into the muck to rescue the mutt, but the only way to get at the dog was to dig an adjoining pit. As she watched, the future forest ecologist saw her grandfather unveil layer after layer of organic matter and mineral deposits. As she recounts in her new memoir, Finding the Mother Tree, the incident “opened up a whole new world for me. One of roots and minerals and rocks that made up the soil. Fungi, bugs and worms. And water and nutrients and carbon that ran through the soil and streams and trees.”

Years of research as a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia and more than a hundred experiments would convince Simard of the massive network of connectivity underlying her beloved forests. Her TED Talks have attracted more than 10 million viewers, and her writing reportedly inspired Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory and James Cameron’s blockbuster science fiction film Avatar. Her new book is an exploration of those hidden networks and a call to action on behalf of what she calls “Mother Trees.”

Simard writes: “When Mother Trees — the majestic hubs at the center of forest communication, protection, and sentience — die, they pass their wisdom to their kin, generation after generation, sharing the knowledge of what helps and what harms, who is friend or foe, and how to adapt and survive in an ever-changing landscape. It’s what all parents do.”

If Simard sometimes seems to over-rely on anthropomorphism, there is enough rigor in her work to allow some leeway. The message, above all, is that forests are more than just collections of trees, a thesis hard to argue with.

One of a new generation of women employed as a researcher in the Forest Service in the late 1980s, Simard shares plenty of stories about how difficult it was to stand up to the political operatives who believed in clear-cutting or that seedlings could be planted willy-nilly. Many of the older men dismissed her out of hand, and she had to fight to be respected.

Simard’s attention as an ecologist was captured by mycorrhiza, the fungus roots that enjoy a symbiotic relationship with a whole host of living things. She describes her long days in the lab and in the forest building a case for the idea that trees send messages to each other over considerable distances, somewhat as the human brain does. She eventually finds in them “chemicals identical to our own neurotransmitters. Signals created by ions cascading across fungal membranes.”

Simard also writes movingly and sensitively about her family and personal life. She details her own struggle with breast cancer and includes scenes with her husband and their teen daughters as they all adjust to her nine-hour weekend commute between the rural town of Nelson and a tenure-track position at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. She also writes about her bull-riding brother Kelly’s numerous close calls. These glimpses of family life don’t feel extraneous. Rather, they are integral to Simard’s story, illustrating how many social and familial connections she has and how they react to her in times of stress.

While the narrative couldn’t be called action-packed, Simard has an ability to keep the pace swift and not get too bogged down in the details. There is actual suspense as Simard experiences family strife, hostile PowerPoint presentations, and the loss of people close to her.

Finding the Mother Tree is well suited to the current moment, as global carbon dioxide concentrations trend towards cataclysmic levels. Humanity needs books like Simard’s to remind us how forests provide some of the carbon sequestration that might slow the headlong acceleration into disaster.

But the general mood in Finding the Mother Tree is more hopeful than in many recent works of environmental nonfiction. Simard writes, “By understanding their sentient qualities, our empathy and love for trees, plants, and forests will naturally deepen and find innovative solutions. Turning to the intelligence of nature itself is the key.”

With an inviting prose style, deep scientific insight, and a gripping storyline, Simard captures the majesty and magic of the natural world and the connections between plants and animals. And in the process, she provides a new perspective on what it means to be a tree.

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