The forest scientist takes us deep into the forest to learn its many startling and wise lessons.
IF YOU COULD HOP IN A TIME MACHINE and find yourself in the orchard with Sir Isaac Newton, watching that apple drop, would you go? Billionaires can dream, but the beauty of books is that we can share the journey of scientists making great discoveries while they happen.
Forest scientist Dr Suzanne Simard (photograph by Brendan Ko)
Suzanne Simard’s Finding The Mother Tree tells the story of her discovery of how trees talk to each other.
Trees also communicate with other species, in chat rooms connected by another biological kingdom—fungi. And trees don’t just talk, they share resources. When young trees are having a rough time getting started in life, their parent trees send them a little carbon to help out.
Anyone with a child in university knows about this.
It gets even wilder. Simard found that trees thought to compete with each other, actually cooperate, sharing water during summer droughts. All of this is contrary to the forestry textbooks she was given.
How did she make this breakthrough?
Simard invites us to share her journey with a storytelling approach, letting us inside her life from her country childhood in a family of hand loggers in the Monashee Mountains of BC, through her school and career in forestry science, raising her own family, her battle with breast cancer helped by paclitaxel (first discovered in Yew trees), to her decision to create The Mother Tree Project.
I call her approach the “Pollination Model” of science writing. Simard’s book is a flower, and we pick up her ideas and knowledge like pollen on our “bee legs,” as we walk through, sipping narrative nectar. (Hollywood’s Amy Adams likes the book too—she plans to turn it into a feature film.)
It makes for great reading, but the stories help the ideas stick better. Once you have become attached to “Suzie” as a rambunctious young outdoor dreamer, you can’t help but smile as she comes out with lines like: “I picked paper birch as my test species, because I knew from childhood that it made rich humus, that should be as helpful to conifers, as it had been delicious in my dirt-eating days.”
Young ecology students will come out of the book knowing the difference between arbuscular and ecto mycorrhiza. The rest of us will have proof of what writers from Tolkien to Mary Oliver have been telling us all along.
That trees are our family.
Reading Dr Simard’s book is like perching on the shoulder of Sherlock Holmes while he unravels a case. You can see the scientific mind at work. By page 20 I felt like I’d signed up as a cabin boy on the HMS Beagle, off to the Galapagos in 1831, and lucked out by getting Charles Darwin as a roommate.
Suzanne Simard and Charles Darwin have a lot in common. They are pure scientists. They get inside their subject. They open themselves to nature, and then think about it. As Darwin observed how the finches evolved on their separate islands, Simard observed how Douglas fir and birch trees grew stronger by sharing information and carbon resources.
Both saw far beyond the limited world view of their day. Both are paradigm shifters.
Darwin was told that evolution couldn’t be possible, because it threatened the Church, who had locked themselves into a dogma of “creation” happening only 4,000 years before. Simard’s discoveries have threatened our State, who have locked themselves into a dogma that the only way to get jobs out of a forest is to clearcut them.
Belief that forests are just resources to be exploited is the primitive, dangerous dogma of our day.
Anticipating the coming storm, Darwin hesitated to publish. Not realizing that trees sending each other biochemical texts about insects would cause a fuss, Simard published. Both were attacked by traditionalist academics and policy makers.
Ironically, Simard’s ideas got dragged into a debate between two factions of today’s evolutionary scientists, the “competitionists” and “cooperationists,” who are bitterly divided over which is the dominant survival strategy. Does everything need a dominant factor? Like the split between Republicans and Democrats, this either/or, Us and Them, winner-take-all argument itself is now threatening our survival.
Simard’s findings build a compelling case that cooperation and competition are complementary evolutionary strategies, woven into a resilient tapestry of life. Ecosystems are full of complex, “give and take” relationships.
Scientists call these “reciprocal relationships.” (Remember that phrase. It’s on the test).
Simard’s cancer doctor told her as a survival tip: “We are defined by our relationships.” For humans to survive, we need to learn to maintain reciprocal relationships. The best way to visualize this is to start treating our planet as family.
When Darwin’s scientific discovery raised the implication that all life was extended family, the public freaked out, saying “We’re not monkeys.” One hundred years later, Jane Goodall proved that chimpanzees made tools, have personalities, and loved their children. Her PhD advisors insisted she refer to “David Greybeard” by a number. She refused, and brought chimps into our hearts, helping us connect with the animal kingdom.
By helping us connect with mycelia and trees, Simard has taken us a step further, bringing two more entire biological kingdoms, of plants and fungi, into the house. Now we have the whole picture. Forests are not just stands of unsliced 2x4s with bark on them, they are an infinite universe of plants, fungi and animals.
They have a right to life. And liberty. And the pursuit of happiness.
Consider the forests of the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin. Since 1890, they have supported their community by harvesting and selling billions of board feet of lumber. They only cut the extra wood that grows annually. They “live off the interest.” They don’t sell raw logs, they own the mills, they have safe, secure jobs. They just declared their river to be a person. Although they have always thought of it as having inherent value and rights, the threat posed by a nearby mine opening prompted the tribal legislature to adopt the resolution.
Simard’s Mother Tree Project, which draws from traditional Indigenous forest science, is developing a blueprint, in nine watersheds across BC, for reciprocal relationships between forests and humans. Her harvesting plan provides more and safer jobs than clearcutting, and does not reduce annual carbon and biomass.
The BC government should have started this research 100 years ago, when Simard’s grandfathers were plucking single trees out of the forest and rafting them down the river for collection.
Instead, they throttled up industrial clearcutting.
By the time Simard had grown up and got her first forestry job with a logging company, the industry was so locked into practices based on the competition model, such as intensive brush clearing, that she could see her questions about cooperation being key to survival had no future.
“If I discovered more evidence, pushed in this direction, I’d have to convince the company to change everything. That didn’t seem likely, given that I couldn’t even persuade my boss to plant a mix of species in the new clear-cuts at Boulder Creek,” she writes.
Even after she became faculty at UBC, the BC Forest Service made her prove that their faulty brush clearing policies were wrong, instead of having her design them properly before they started. Today, John Horgan’s government is still ignoring her work, giving the last one percent of old growth away to corporations for peanuts, and throwing citizens who beg to differ in jail down at Fairy Creek.
Fairy Creek valley, with clear cuts surrounding it
Undeterred, the Mother Tree Project is quietly putting the solution on a plate for us.
As long as we ask with respect, and don’t take more than the forest offers, our generous forest family will give us all the wood and jobs we need. It will give us cures for cancer, oxygen to breathe, carbon sequestration, and solace from our busy urban lives.
Most of all, if we learn to treat the elders of our family with respect (and trees, moss and fungi are very much our evolutionary elders) we can find a sense of belonging.
By making peace with forests, we can heal our souls. As Simard says: “This is not a book about how we can save the trees. This is a book about how the trees might save us.”
The 2019 UN Report on Biodiversity reports that humans are causing the extinction of 10,000 species a year, and states that in the next 100 years “organized human existence will become untenable.” I guess that is how international diplomats say “Zombie Apocalypse.”
Simard is offering us a way out of that scenario. I think her book could be particularly valuable to university and college students. My daughter texted me last year from her oceanography class, and said: “Dad, 40 percent of the students in class today are crying, because we can’t handle the information we are being given about the destruction of our oceans.”
As a Father Tree, what nutrients can I send her? How does she manage to keep moving forward?
Simard hopes that reading about her successful struggles through government and academic inertia will help give students and other marginalized populations such as Indigenous youth, “permission to hold on to their innate understanding,” and to get out in nature and find their own path.
Like Ms Frizzle of Magic Schoolbus fame used to say: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy.”
Simard deliberately included the messy bits of her journey in her book, because she believes that science should be just like art, music, love or any human act.
While much of the science in Simard’s book is about how trees connect with each other, the book itself is an invitation for the reader to go out and find the nearest mother tree and say hello.
“Hi mom. Um, sorry I haven’t called enough.” That’s ok. She loves us anyways. God knows why. But mothers are like that.
A grove with mother tree at Wildwood EcoForestry Institute near Ladysmith (photograph by Ben Barclay)
For readers on Vancouver Island, you can find such a mother tree in a grove at Wildwood EcoForestry Institute, near Ladysmith. When Merv Wilkinson cut the small tree at right (in the photo above), the bigger grandmother tree beside it sent nutrients out to place a woody cap on the stump, to protect the family from invasive insects. When you place your hand on that cap, chills will go up your spine. You can hear the trees talking. You can look around at a forest that freely gave a million board feet of lumber in Merv’s lifetime, and still has groves of 500-year-old Douglas fir linked by their ectomycorrhiza, and Cedar linked by their arbuscular mycorrhiza.
Fairy Creek area mother tree (photograph by TJ Watt)
You can also go visit a mother tree in the Fairy Creek valley, one of the last intact old growth watersheds in BC, only a few hours out of Victoria.
But you’d better hurry, because it will be cut down and chucked onto the back of a logging truck in the next few weeks, once the protesters are cleared from protecting it. If the RCMP try and stop you, at least now you have the science on your side to say: “I’m visiting family, officer. My mother is dying, and I want to say goodbye before she’s gone.”
Ben Barclay has run social enterprises and guided non-profits promoting sustainable forestry for 40 years.