The Yucatan jungle is on either side of the road as I finish reading Finding the Mother Tree. Throughout my four-hour journey through the Mexican south, I’ve been idly looking at the dense foliage and thinking about the mutuality of the life systems before my eyes. We pass by a section of obliterated forest where young palms have been planted in rows. They are sparse and most seem to be yellowing at the tips, a few are grey, clearly dead. The sight sickens me.
Suzanne Simard is a young forester working for a logging company in British Columbia when she encounters a similar scene. Forestry regulations required a ‘clear-cut’ of the native bush and trees when an area is logged for timber. This way new trees can be planted – a single species, in straight lines, at optimal distances, making for easy logging when the trees mature. A policy known as ‘free-to-grow’. However, the newly established spruce seedlings that Simard finds are sick.
The first spruce seedling I checked was alive, but barely, with yellowish needles. Its spindly stem was pathetic. How was it supposed to survive this brutal terrain? I looked up the planted row. All the new seedlings were struggling—every single sad little planting. Why did they look so awful? Why, in contrast, did the wild firs germinating in [the] old-growth patch look so brilliant?
Finding the answers to these questions and those that follow becomes the focus of Simard’s life work.
Finding the Mother Tree is much more than an extended essay on forestry. Simard shares the experiences of her family who have worked in the forests of British Columbia for over a hundred years. We learn from the old loggers about the importance of plant diversity and the rough and difficult job logging was before the advent of specialised machinery. She shares pictures of her family at work, illustrating the old ways; there’s a particularly good one of them balancing on logs by the Skookumchuck Rapids. Photographs illustrate key points in her life too, her childhood, her treks into the wilderness and shots of her children. A personal touch that also serves to add credence to the scientific arc of her research.
She knows that the answer to those yellow seedlings lies in the soil. As a child, she watched with fascination as the family dug a trench to rescue a dog that had fallen into the outhouse pit and was amazed by the distinct layers of soil that they cut through. She was a dirt-eating child, which no one found strange, and was particularly fond of a bit of rich, tasty hummus. She examines the roots of the sick trees and finds them bare whilst those of the healthy new shoots in the old forest are covered in a web of mycelium growing within the nutritious humus. She’s not surprised. Not only that, the mycelium connects the roots of the pine to that of the birch. They are supporting each other and facilitating their mutual growth.
Clearly not cut out to work for logging companies, Simard finds a job as a researcher first in the Forestry Service then as a Professor at the University of British Columbia. Within both institutions, she sets about devising experiments that scientifically prove what she instinctively knows. What she discovers is sometimes referred to as the ‘worldwide wood’ of underground mycelium connections.
Early on in her career, she discovers that ‘in the case of birch, killing it improved the growth of some of the firs but caused, even more, to die—the opposite of [forester’s] expectations.’ She finds a stasis exists between fungi that threaten woodland and those that feed it when the forest is left undisturbed.
The rest of her career is spent expanding on these findings and trying to convince policymakers to change their approach as a matter of urgency as swathe after swathe of ancient forest is logged and replanted with a doomed regime. She’s considered a maverick and being a young woman doesn’t help. She is laughed at and mocked but as an introvert with a passionate belief in her theories, her resolve rarely wavers. Even as she matures, her experiments never fail to delight her; when they exceed her expectations, we share her joy.
The book continues as it began with a mixture of biography and biology. She takes us on walks through the high mountains, on car rides through the Rockies, on trails with her friends. Each one illustrates how her thoughts are progressing and how the next question to be answered arises from her ability to notice what’s around her. She tells us about her marriage and children, the devastating consequences of her work-life balance on her family and her experience of breast cancer. It’s a rare writer who can relate their personal life in such a way as to enhance a scientific narrative. It appears that observing her relationships and the trials of life only serves to help her define more clearly the direction of her research. For her, life and work are as seamlessly interwoven as the trees in her forests.
It becomes compelling reading as Simard’s descriptions of the landscape are evocative and authoritative. She not only knows the names of all the plants, she understands their growing requirements and how they fit into the ecosystem. For instance, we are informed about the biology of the huckleberry. We know that the sweetest berries are low slung and picked on an august day. We can almost taste them in a pie based on Granny Winnie’s recipe, cooked on a tiny stove out on the trail.
We live through a few moments of high tension arising from Simard’s intrepid exploration of the wilderness in her quest for answers. She hangs in a tree for hours with a mother bear on patrol beneath her; being on her own in the back of beyond she’s trailed by wolves; she skis frantically over icy trails trying to exorcise her thoughts about the cancer she was facing.
Through her progressive questioning, Simard discovers that trees communicate underground through an intricate web of fungi. At the centre of this web is an individual “mother tree” which helps to coordinate a support system that, while favouring her own offspring, also nurtures other trees in the forest community, thus creating a healthy, complex ecosystem. A dying mother tree will pass on nutrients to the community retaining carbon within the forest rather than leaving it to disperse.
Simard increasingly respects the ancient ways of the Native people who lived in harmony with the land long before her family of settlers arrived. She admires them for their acute observational skills, for honouring nature and for giving back as well as taking.
We can compare the condition of the land where it has been torn apart, each resource treated in isolation from the rest, to where it has been cared for according to the Secwepemc principal of k̓wseltktnews (translated as “we are all related”) or the Salish concept of nə́ c̓aʔmat ct (“we are one”).
We must heed the answers we’re being given.
When the truth about climate change becomes apparent, Simard’s next hurdle is to persuade policymakers to adapt their practices to mitigate the worst effects of global warming on the forests. She believes that planting to fit the new circumstances can be achieved by working with the established interrelationships within the forest.
Despite all the setbacks and the scepticism she has met throughout her career, Simard ends on a note of optimism.
We have the power to shift course. It’s our disconnectedness—and lost understanding about the amazing capacities of nature—that’s driving a lot of our despair, and plants in particular are objects of our abuse. 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.
After closing the book, I gaze out of the bus window. I’m faced with a barren landscape of failed planting. But in some areas, small stands of young trees have grown together and look healthy. And these trees are of different species, linking up for mutual support, I now know. With luck, these lonely clumps will merge and the jungle will be in balance once more. I am grateful to Simard for telling me so much and for enabling me to see below the surface.
- Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard is published by Allen Lane Books (£10.99). To order a copy go to Allen Lane Books
Deborah Gray is a travel and food writer who loves immersing herself in new cultures. An active environmentalist, her writing aims to communicate the wonder of our planet. More of Deborah’s work can be found at deborahgray.co.uk