FINDING THE MOTHER TREE: DISCOVERING THE WISDOM OF THE FOREST
Suzanne Simard, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2021
Suzanne Simard has written a very personal, poetic and, at times, philosophical book about the science of forests. A professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia, Canada, her 2021 book, FINDING THE MOTHER TREE: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest chronicles her early life, and that of her settler family in the western Canadian wilderness. “For generations, my family has made its living cutting down forests. Our survival has depended on this humble trade,” writes Simard in the introduction.
The book is more than a scientific detective story. In fact, the science, the mystery, the investigations and the autobiographical are deftly interwoven, not unlike the interconnectedness at the heart of the book’s narrative.
Simard, a breast cancer survivor, grew up in a horse-logging family that practiced selective harvesting whereby certain tree species of particular sizes were felled. She describes the logging activity at this time as very slow and labor- intensive, and thus was “a light touch” on forest environments. There was no tree planting at the time, but trees were able to re-seed into the small gaps created by the harvesting and then regenerate into a forest. It was an unspoken policy of take what you need and leave the rest.
The forests she grew up in were inland forest, temperate rainforest in the Central Interior of British Columbia. These forests are not only biodiversity hotspots and centers for carbon storage, but are also sources for clean air and clean water in BC that flows all the way down through North America.
Big industrial clear-cutting, a method of harvesting and regenerating trees in which all trees are cleared from a site and new trees of the same age is grown, has overtaken the small scale horse-logging way of life in BC. But over time, this practice has been a disaster as Old Growth Forests have been victims of this new type of logging method. Today, these ‘Grande dames’ of the forests are being converted to a landscape of clear cut plantations with only small pockets of Old Growth Forest remaining.
(In British Columbia, coastal forests are considered to be old growth if they contain trees that are more than 250 years old, while forests in B.C.'s interior are considered old growth if the trees are at least 140 years old.)
In addition, clear cutting demands that all other vegetation is weeded out with the use of toxic herbicides to favor the one (monoculture) or two species of trees that is most profitable for the logging company. The idea being is that if you get rid of native plants, then all the resources such as sunlight and water would go into growing large healthy trees.
But mono-cultural replanting has led to serious environmental vulnerabilities and challenges. One of them being the rise of the Mountain Pine beetle, which devastated lodgepole pine forests in western North America including in the Rocky Mountain National Park back in the mid-1990s (in British Columbia more than 40 million acres of forests were affected).
In 2014, the World Resource Institute (WRI) reported that Canada in the past decade has had the highest forest disturbance rate of any country in the world-more so than Brazil, Indonesia or the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is only about 3% of old growth forest left on the West Coast of British Columbia. Experts say that this affects wildlife habitats and eco services such as the hydrological cycle.
Throughout the book, Simard paints vivid family portraits of her parents, siblings, extended family members, as well as friends and colleagues. She also discusses the relationships, or lack of, between these individuals as well as describing early settler life in the wilds of British Columbia.
In addition to eating sweet humus, a component of soil, from a white-barked birch tree (a true daughter of the soil), Simard’s youth was also spent lying on the forest floor and marveling at the tree canopy high above-the changing of the color of l eaves as the season’s changed.
As a teenager growing up in the 1960s, Simard and other young women were expected to enter into traditional professions of that time such as teaching, nursing and secretarial work`. Girls were largely discouraged from entering into the forestry profession. Luckily, she came of age just as the University of British Columbia was for the first time allowing women through its doors.
But destiny is inescapable.
It was the hidden world beneath the forest floor that proved a revelation.
“My fascination with tree roots had started from my growing up amazed at the irrepressible power of the cottonwoods and willows my parents had planted in our backyard when their massive roots cracked the foundation of our basement, tilted over the doghouse, and heaved up our sidewalk,” writes Simard.
A serendipitous moment came when Jiggs, her Uncle Wilfred’s pet beagle, provided Simard with an epiphany when he accidently fell into the family outhouse. During the rescue, as her uncle, father and others dug deep next to the outhouse, she got a glimpse of the soul of the forest.
“He had no idea, nor did I, that his adventure had opened up a whole new world for me.”
This subterranean world was a visceral feast. There were intertwining roots of all colors and sizes: white papery birch, purple red cedar, reddish-brown fir and black-brown hemlock. Rocks and boulders, the size of basketballs and baseballs, were juxtapositioned perhaps resembling the tumbled-down walls of a derelict medieval fort. There was soil of pulverized rock grains. There were also blacks and white and greys in layers of earth. There were earthy, fruity smells. There were mushrooms, rhizomes and fungi with unusual geometry. And there were bugs-centipedes and snow bugs.
The book is filled with Simard’s unique experiments and innovative techniques. She employed such methods in trying to find out why Douglas firs need birch trees around. Using a radioactive form of carbon dioxide gas filled into plastic bags containing birch trees, Simard was able to demonstrate with the aid of a Geiger counter that both birch and fir (but not cedar, which was also part of the experiment) had absorbed the radioactive gas. This indicated that the roots of both trees had some kind of covert trade relations that also included nitrogen and water.
Foresters routinely cut down Paper birch (Betula papyrifera), its thin white bark often peels in paper like layers from the trunk, to give Douglas firs more room to grow. Paper birch, like Western red cedar, was/is considered more or less a weed in the eyes of foresters. But when Paper birch is cut down, the Douglas fir does not do so well.
In 1997, came Simard’s most influential publication. Her investigations via a series of field and greenhouse experiments led to the publication of Net Transfer of Carbon Between Ectomycorrhizal Tree Species in the Field in the prestigious journal Nature.
The paper dealt with the workings of mycorrhizal fungal networks (MY-CORE-rye-zil). Mycorrhiza is a mutual symbiotic relationship between a fungus (mushrooms, yeast and the mildew on your bathroom wall are all fungi), and a plant. The entire network is created by mycorrhizal fungi and is connected by branching thread-like structures called mycelium.
There are two main types of mycorrhizal networks: arbuscular mycorrhizal networks and ectomycorrhizal networks. Arbuscular mycorrhizal networks are formed between mainly land plants that associate with glomeromycetes (GLOOO-moro-MY-seats), one of eight divisions within the Kingdom Fungi. Scientists say such networks are form with150-200 known fungal species. Ectomycorrhizal networks are formed between plants that are allied with ectomycorrhizal fungi. Unlike glomeromycetes, ectomycorrhizal fungal are a highly diverse and are descended from more than one common evolutionary ancestor or ancestral group consisting of 10,000 fungal species. These associations tend to be more specific, and predominate in temperate and boreal forests.
Simard’s research demonstrated that these networks link the roots of trees in forests (the formation of these networks she wrote in a 2012 paper "Mycorrhizal networks: Mechanisms, ecology and modeling", depends on factors such as resource availability and soil fertility) She argued that mycorrhizal fungal networks aids communication between trees. These underground communiqués deal with resource sharing (carbon, water, nitrogen, phosphorus, nutrients), defense issues (insect attacks) and distress signals when confronted with life-threatening situations (disease and drought episodes). Researchers such as Simard argue that these tree behaviors have cognitive qualities, including capabilities in perception, learning, and memory.
Simard’s revolutionary discoveries certainly had/have its critics (quite often in science, these are nothing more than ‘turf wars’.) Some experts were actually offended by the mere thought that trees could possess intelligence. She told the Vancouver-based writer Kerry Banks:
“A few well-established researchers did everything in their power to trash my work. As a young researcher, you can get hurt easily by that sort of thing. It slowed down my science. When your work is regarded as controversial, it’s harder to get grants, harder to find funding, harder to get money for talks. At one point I was ready to give it all up.”
Nevertheless, Simard persevered with the determination of her granny “Winnie” (Winifred Beatrice Ferguson Gardner).
Using DNA microsatellites, a short segment of DNA that’s repeated multiple times in succession along the DNA molecule, Simard also helped identify “mother trees” or hub trees- the biggest, oldest trees in the forest. In addition, they also act as central hubs for the mycorrhizal networks. For example, they transmit carbon through these associations to young seedlings in need. The carbon moves along a source-sink gradient, where the larger tree is the source of carbon and the seedling is the sink.
Prior to Simard’s investigations, the perception of trees in a forest by foresters could only be described as, in the words of philosopher Thomas Hobbes about life in the state of nature, ‘nasty, brutish and short’ and that it was a matter of ‘survival of the fittest’- in other words, the perennial struggle and cut-throat competition for natural resources such as water, sunlight and nutrients. The establishment took the Darwinian view of what they thought ALL species went through in order to achieve success, but it was the wrong model.
The forestry policy could be summed up as ‘competition management’. According to experts, this notion pervaded forestry/ silviculture strategies and timber industry practices for decades (silviculture differs from forestry in that silviculture is the growing and cultivation of trees, while forestry is the science or practice of planting, managing, and caring for forests). But the plantation model is a very destructive model that favored row after row of fast-growing and financially lucrative tree species and the conscious extermination of everything else.
“Forests aren’t simply collections of trees”, says Simard “they’re complex systems of hubs and network that overlap and connect trees and allows them to communicate and they provide avenues for feedbacks and adaptation and this makes the forest resilient.”
Simard continually reminds us that forest environments, like other ecosystems, are not only interconnected and interrelated but also interdependent. For example, soil building, species migration and ocean circulation (the late American ethologist Richard Estes, for example, demonstrated similar relationships during his decades long studies of wildebeest and the Serengeti savanna ecosystem in east Africa generally).
It’s difficult not to draw parallels to humanity.
“Why do they have human-like behaviors?” and, “Is nature limited in its ways?” Simard ponders in the book. But perhaps the questions should be, “Why do WE behave like them?” In the evolutionary timeline of life on Earth, trees (and plants???) don’t follow us, we follow them. In the fossil record, the first trees appeared about 360 million years ago during the Devonian period. Mammals first emerged about 210 million years ago. The human lineage only started to appear between six and seven million years ago.
The nexus between humans and arboreal life can be examined on another level. Simard resides and conducts her forestry research on the unceded territories belonging to several First Nations such as the Squamish, Musqueam and Okanagan; territories that First Nations never legally signed away to the colonialists in treaties, and therefore are today controlled by powerful heredity chiefs who are the titleholders of the unceded land.
For centuries on such native lands, wild salmon, which migrate from the Pacific Ocean and spawn in rivers inland on the west coast of North America, have been a valuable resource and an important part of Coastal First Nations’ cultural identity, spirituality and way of life.
(First Nations of North America view the world in its totality-where the spiritual world is intrinsically interconnected with the physical world. This belief naturally extended to wildlife or ‘Animal People’ as they are traditionally called, on their territories. These ‘Animal People’ were thought to have spirits and enter the human world to give their bodies to supply men with food, fur and other materials. After their flesh is used the animals return home, put on new flesh and re-enter the human world whenever they choose. Therefore, the First Nations revere and work in cooperation with the Animal People to ensure their return).
Some First Nations also carry on the tradition of returning their salmon bones to the water. For instance, the Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl) of the Pacific Northwest Coast holds an annual Salmon Ceremony at the beginning of the salmon run. During the ceremony the head, bones, and entrails are separated from the flesh of the salmon. The fish is carried by twins, who are signs of good luck and believed to come from the Salmon People, to the river’s edge where the chief thanks the Salmon People and returns the remains to the water. After the ceremony, the people gather in the big house to feast and perform a traditional salmon dance.
“They also had these ancient fishing technologies that would help to increase salmon populations where they would throw back the big mother salmon so they. They knew of the variability of salmon population,” says Simard.
Simard’s investigations continue to remind us of the interrelatedness of forest life with life elsewhere on the planet For example, the bodies of salmon represent a transfer of nutrients from the ocean, rich in sulfur, carbon and phosphorus, to the forest ecosystem. Migrating salmon also carryN15, a heavy isotope of nitrogen that bio-accumulates in these creatures because they are at the top of the food chain. Scientists have used this isotope as a tracer to see where it eventually ends up. According to experts, some of the salmon N15 have surprisingly ended up in the trees when salmon are spawning.
During the salmon breeding season, terrestrial wildlife such as grizzly bears, wolves, eagles and ravens gorge themselves on salmon carcasses in the forests at their favorite dining venue including under a big mother trees (the foliage of spruce trees up to 500 meters or 1,600 feet from a stream where grizzlies fish salmon have been found to contain nitrogen originating from fished salmon). Unlike us humans, these creatures feast on salmon brains and guts and leave the meaty fillet to decompose on the forest floor where the N15 is absorbed by the mycorrhiza and ultimately into the tissue of the tree rings (scientists know this because of mass spectrometer analysis of tree rings shavings).
Simard is the brains behind the MOTHER TREE PROJECT, a long-term initiative currently taking place in nine regions in British Columbia. Its primary aim is finding more ecologically sound methods of harvesting trees, but other areas of inquiry include gaining a better understanding of the resilience of forests to human and natural disturbances and climate change.
“Dr. Simard believes that the violent destruction of tree networks through clear-cut logging may spell doom for the future of the forest as a whole. Mother trees share their information and nutrients before they die natural deaths. However, if chopped down, all this knowledge is lost,” reads a statement on Simard’s Mothertree website.
Simard is also a leader of TerreWEB, an initiative set to train graduate students and Post-Doctoral Fellows in global change science and its communication.
Her insights were featured in the 2009 film Avatar, in which tree roots are linked to the souls of an alien race through a “biological neural network.” She was a driving force behind Peter Wohlleben’s 2015 best-seller The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (they appeared together in the 2016 documentary film Intelligent Trees) and she served as the model for Patricia Westerford, a scientist obsessed with tree communication, in Richard Powers 2018 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory, which depicts a desperate bid to save the last surviving acres of virgin forest in North America.
Hollywood continues to beckon. Actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams, through their respective production companies, bought the rights to Finding The Mother Tree. Adams is set to play the role of Simard in the movie.
There is mounting scientific evidence that cooperation, from the cellular level onwards, appears to be a fundamental tenet for the existence, proliferation and preservation of life on planet earth. Simard’s revolutionary findings are just the latest.
Perhaps to her detractors Simard’s decades-long work has appeared too anthromorphic, attributing human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to nonhuman entities such as plants, trees and animals. But ethnologist and ethologists had already hinted at this in their monographs and popular writings, and that nature’s ways was already known to indigenous peoples the world over. It’s also known to wildlife biologists and other naturalists who spend considerable time in the field; it is simply the genius of nature.
Simard is forestry’s equivalent of the late American zoologist Donald Redfield Griffin who, forty years ago, established the foundations for researches in the cognitive awareness of animals within their habitats. His efforts led to establishment of the field of cognitive ethology. Could cognitive dendrology be far off?