Finding the Mother Tree (Suzanne Simard)
Suzanne Simard’s inaugural book, Finding The Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, reads like an inspiring hike through uncharted woodlands. Her thoughtfully written memoir weaves her professional life as a forester, scientist, and researcher with her personal life, taking the reader on a journey through the heart of her dedication to forest ecology and deep respect for nature. As Simard’s story unfurls chapter by chapter, her love of the outdoors - hiking, skiing, snow shoeing, gardening, and so on - paints a landscape of kinship and beauty that inspires and informs her scientific quest.
Descended from a long line of frontiersmen, Simard grew up in the Canadian wilderness. Expanses of northern forests were her childhood playground. Simard’s forebearers carved their livings from the timber of Canadian forests via pre-modern logging practices that, though dangerous, were sustainable in rate and scale. Early in the book, Simard recalls a humorous childhood event that uncovered the rich world of fungal connections living just underfoot. Like a secret branching network of neurons, Simard tells us of the stunning visual wonder as these subterranean fungi intermingle with tree roots and layers of earth and stone. This childhood discovery planted the seed for Simard’s future life’s work and dedication to forest ecology.
As a young forester working for a local timber company in the 1980s, Simard’s duties were to plot out clear-cut sites and evaluate how a cleared forest ought to be replanted under the “free to grow” policy. Under this policy, when a forest was logged the earth was to be cleared of as much vegetation as possible to make room for planting a grid of the most profitable trees - a monoculture of cash crops. If other shrubs and trees were allowed to grow within and around cash-crop seedlings, “free to grow” proponents assumed the new seedlings would be robbed of resources and doomed to an early demise. This thinking stemmed from the Darwinian idea that species are in constant competition for resources, and forests were little more than battlegrounds of loner trees, shrubs, and plants duking it out for sunlight, water, and soil nutrients. Simard tells us of her first encounter with a clear-cut forest replanted with a monoculture of spruce seedlings:
“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 seedlings were struggling - every single sad little planting. Why did they look so awful? Why, in contrast, did the wild firs germinating in that old growth patch look so brilliant? …The replanting was supposed to heal what we’d taken and we were failing miserably.”
Simard’s suspicion burgeoned that the “free to grow policy” was ecologically unsound, destroying a forest’s biodiversity in exchange for one desirable species - an ultimately self-defeating endeavor. This began her quest to discover how the logging industry can meet its needs without destroying long term forest health. In seeking these answers, Simard’s quest led her to study a specific kind of fungus, mycorrhizal, and its relationship with plants and trees.
“A mycorrhizal fungus formed a relationship - a life or death liaison with a plant. Without entering into this partnership neither the fungus nor the plant could survive.” …this group of fungi gathered water and nutrients from the soil in exchange for sugars made through photosynthesis from their plant partners. A two-way exchange… mutualism.”
After her epiphany that cooperation, not competition, was the key to survival, Simard set out to challenge the conventional wisdom of the time: that trees competed for resources rather than cooperated within a diverse community based on mutual exchange and thriving.
Simard eventually left the timber industry and worked for the British Columbia Ministry of Forests, where she had opportunities to test her theories about how trees and their saplings interact and cooperate with neighboring shrubs, plants, and the underground mycorrhizal networks. Simard uses both lab and field experiments within forest plots to demonstrate and understand these relationships. Beyond professional critique, Simard was often subject to attack for challenging the “free to grow” foresting method and for suggesting that cooperation was more important to evolution than was previously thought. By giving voice to the sexism she faced within the scientific, academic, and forestry communities, Simard helps pave the way for future generations of women within those fields.
Thanks to Simard’s perseverance and bravery there is now quite a substantial body of scientific evidence refuting the idea that competition is the main game of the forest. Research shows that same-species trees are communal, care for their kin, warn each other of danger, share intelligence, and often form alliances with trees of other species. Forests have evolved to live in cooperative, interdependent relationships.
Simard makes another brave move with her use of animistic language to talk about our natural world. She gives due credit to the wisdom of the Indigenous people of the lands on which she conducted much of her research. Our human ancestors knew about mother trees; they were shown gratitude and reverence for their role in the forest. Simard tells us, “I wasn’t the first person to figure this out. This was also the ancient wisdom of many aboriginal people.” Simard goes on the mention that “the late Bruce Subiyay Miller of the Skokomish nation, whose people live on the Eastern Olympic peninsula of Washington State, had told a story about the symbiotic nature and diversity of the forest, mentioning that under its floor there is an intricate and vast system of roots and fungi that keeps the forest strong.”
Acknowledging the mysterious ways of nature, of which science is only beginning to reveal, Simard shares, “I had been given a glimpse of these ideals, almost as a stroke of luck, through the rigid lens of Western science. I’d been taught in the university to take apart the ecosystem, to reduce it into its parts, to study the trees and plants and soils in isolation so that I could look at the forest objectively.” She continues to say, “I have come full circle to stumble onto some of the indigenous ideals. Diversity matters. And, everything in the universe is connected. Between the forest and prairies, the land and the water, the sky and the soil, the spirits and the living, the people and all other creatures.”
Marissa is an herbalist and shamanic practitioner devoted to exploring and expressing the healing power, wonder, and beauty of nature. She lives in Northern Massachusetts where she makes potions and perfumes for her online apothecary, PreciousSkinElixirs.com and offers energy healing work through SpiritPrism.com. Marissa is also a contributing writer for Herb Quarterly.