Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest Suzanne Simard Alfred A. Knopf, 2021
Note: There are spoilers in this review. This book is a work of non-fiction, but it is also a great narrative. Reading this review may lessen the creative tension in the narrative flow of the book. However, maybe you won’t actually read the book unless you first read a review. So here goes…
Finding the Mother Tree is essential reading. It is the summary of a career spent among the trees, coming to a deep understanding of how nature actually works and how our actions tend to interfere with the reality of life. Suzanne Simard is a gentle voice of reason and experience. She has lived this book, not just written down what she has studied from afar. Her experimental life is inspirational.
I have noticed that most of those who do their research in situ, among living communities, find that nature is cooperative. Deeply cooperative. As in, whole ecosystems die when cooperation is inhibited. But those who research in labs generally believe the living world operates in isolated competition. Of course, there are many research grants that pay for this message to be supported with “science”. Competition is profitable. Cooperation, not so much.
Moreover, our culture is not merely one of competition for scarce resources and the profits inherent in that scarcity. It is competition for competition’s sake. Or, more precisely, for the sake of creating many losers as the collateral damage of naming a few winners. We compete aggressively just to do that, not for any gain. The other day, I read an essay from Anne Helen Petersen, Against Kids’ Sports. She is not against competition, but against the valorizing of competition to the point that we force our kids into this competitive culture even in play. She says, “Ask a millennial or a Gen-Zer about the sport they played in high school, particularly one they played in hopes of getting a scholarship in college, and chances are high they will tell you about a sport they haven’t played in years.” I think that applies also to my generation, but she is right in claiming that this culture of elite competition, playing the game just to get ahead (of what? of whom?!?), has become more vicious in recent decades. “We have lost sight of the idea that play is how we become people, and replaced it with the anxious understanding that play is how we become careers.”
I am radically non-competitive. I don’t believe I have ever gained one thing from competing against anyone else. I do not like winning because there must be losers. It feels false, both for me personally (I have strong imposter syndrome) and in general (this is not how life works when it works well). And I do not believe that anyone does truly enjoy the sensation of besting others, of leaving others behind, of being better. Most people — losers and winners — are not happy in a competitive culture. This, I believe, is rooted in our own collaborative natures. Dave Pollard was describing alternatives to our broken systems of representational “democracy” the other day. I think he summarizes our essential nature quite succinctly.
Despite the popular myths, it’s likely that early tribal humans, far from being hyper-hierarchical, made decisions collectively, though they respected the right of individuals to do their own thing, as long as those personal actions did not negatively affect the group. Those decisions were made, probably even before language evolved, by the subordination of personal interests to the collective interest of the tribe. But they listened to and respected dissenting voices. The collective decision thus emerged, from listening, until there was a clear consensus. There was no need, or space, for debate, or voting.
We naturally work together as a species. We naturally work together with other species. We naturally cooperate. Personally, I do not believe that I have ever truly accomplished anything without collaboration. Worse, I do not feel that this is true. I am viscerally opposed to this idea that anyone can thrive in this system of radical independence. I know I could not have run a bookstore on my own. I could never write music by myself as well as I write with others. I don’t write words without inspiration from the rest of the living world. I am constantly aware that I would not even exist without a great many others. So perhaps my views on this subject are too aslant. But still, there seems to be more evidence of cooperation in nature than competition. There is more evidence of abundance than scarcity. Simple common sense should tell us that competition between parts will not allow the whole to thrive, nor even survive for long. Competition is not a path to well-being, not for anyone. It is damaging, even to the winners — because there are no winners if there are losers in an interdependent system. None of us thrive when many of us are harmed.
Suzanne Simard has spent a lifetime showing that this is the truth of reality. She is at her core a forester. She grew up among the trees in a family that made its living from the forest over many generations. She knew instinctively that this relationship between her tree-cutting family and the rest of the forest was sustainable over the long term because it was collaborative, not competitive. It was a balanced relationship in which few organisms were irreparably damaged. The forest itself remained alive and healthy, and her family thrived within this healthy environment.
Her ancestors and parents lived within the forest, both metaphorically and physically. This is not an insignificant point, though I don’t believe she truly addresses it. Sustainable forestry happens when humans live within the forest. When their homes and livelihoods and well-being are physically tied to the forest. When all their plans for the future and the futures of their children are dependent upon the forest. A forester who lives within the forest does not clear-cut her home and cut off any path to her future well-being for short-term profit. She manages her part of the woods to the long-term benefit of the whole organism — because that is how she thrives, by ensuring that all are thriving now and far into the future. Extractive industry is not possible when the industry is physically rooted in a place because humans do not readily harm themselves in such a directly physical way. Extractive industry is only possible at a great remove from the places that are being stripped of resources and, significantly, from the people who live in those places, many of whom are coerced into participating in the destruction of their own homes — as Simard was to discover in her life.
She lived among foresters in a healthy forest system and decided to pursue forestry as a career. However, very early in her career, she noticed that it was not the sustainable industry that foresting used to be. The forests were not regenerating; the transplants were barely living. Her job entailed collecting the data that shows that these extractive practices unequivocally do not work. A forest is not just a collection of trees, especially trees of all one species. There is no forest, there are no healthy trees, when there is no soil network of collaborative organisms.
Simard’s brother, Kelly, died young and suddenly, leaving behind an unborn child and a devastated family. More tragic, the last time Suzanne and Kelly were together they had an alcohol-fueled argument that bred resentful silence. They never spoke again. Simard’s other family relationships are similarly fraught. She is the middle child of a bad marriage and an apparently horrible divorce in which both parents spent recovery time in the hospital. All three siblings sound rather anxiety prone, perhaps with borderline mental health issues — isolated and cold, not warm and communicative. At the end of her description of the bar fight that ended her relationship with her beloved brother, Simard wonders why it is so hard to stay connected to our families, why we are not more inclined toward community, while all her studies, all her experimentation, all her instincts told her that cooperation and interdependence are far more essential in this world.
We emphasize domination and competition in the management of trees in forests. And crops in agricultural fields. And stock animals on farms. We emphasize faction instead of coalitions.
There is a question that she does not ask explicitly, one that bleeds out of the edges of her words: “What is wrong with our culture, or perhaps with humans, that we can’t see the inherent cooperation in life?” How are we so broken that we can’t even maintain community among our loved ones? And how is this broken species supposed to act beneficially when it is blinded to the collaborative nature of healthy living? She set out to fix those problems.
An early influence in her studies, David Read, at the University of Sheffield in the 1980s, had discovered that trees within the same species exchanged physical matter like food and water — not simply information — through mycorrhizal fungi. He had isolated pines so that they could be marked with radioactive carbon and then traced the transfer of carbon compounds between individuals. Simard took this even further. Noting that in nature fungi connected not just the same species of trees but whole varied communities — and that all these trees were healthier in these connected fungal networks — she devised an experiment like Read’s to show that communication and material transfer occur between unrelated species. She noted that birch and fir, against all common forestry knowledge, live healthier lives when entangled — even when quick-growing birches were shading out the sluggish firs. She theorized that birches might be passing sugars to the firs to make up for the lessening of photosynthesis in being shaded. She also wondered if the roles might be reversed in the shoulder seasons, when birches had not yet leafed out in the spring and had lost their leaves in the autumn while firs, evergreens, continued to produce food through photosynthesis.
Her exhaustive experimental evidence proved all her intuitive thoughts abundantly accurate. If anything, she had underestimated the importance and sheer volume of communication and sharing that happens through soil and root networks. Not only trees and fungi, but many kinds of plants were found to be in intimate relationships, nurturing and protecting each other. Moreover, through numerous other forms of chemical signaling and material transfer, animal species, from wolves to microbes, are interconnected and entangled. A forest is an organism, just the same as our bodies except in scale. It is one living being with many interconnected and interdependent parts, many of which are also organisms (true of our bodies as well). This interconnection is essential to life. Life does not happen without it. She shows that life would not exist without it.
The mycorrhizal symbiosis was credited with the migration of ancient plants from the ocean to land about 450 to 700 million years ago. Colonization of plants with fungi enabled them to acquire sufficient nutrients from the barren, inhospitable rock to gain a toehold and survive on land. These authors [of her mushroom books] were suggesting that cooperation was essential to evolution.
Yes, there is competition. There is disease and damage and sometimes unequal division of resources between species and within the same species. I recently read an essay from Adrian Ayers Fisher on deer that illustrates the necessary collaborative, give-and-take balance in a forest and the mechanisms that undo it.
In a balanced, woodland ecosystem, a small number of deer in a large area will help create and maintain biodiversity and ecosystem health by creating appropriate levels of disturbance. …in the absence of predators they’ll reproduce to excess and destabilizing systemic feedback loops will develop. More than roughly ten deer per square mile, and the ecosystem begins to shift. Overpopulation leads to overgrazing of preferred plants, leaving openings like holes in a worn patchwork quilt, in turn opening up space for browse-tolerant or resistant plants to dominate and invasive plants to establish themselves. This has been extensively studied; computer models have even been developed to predict, for example, the ‘time-to-extinction of forest herb population as a function of initial abundance.’ There are numerous cascading effects on other plants; animals such as birds, bees, butterflies, and small mammals; and even some parasitic fungi.
But competition is far outweighed by cooperation and care. This should be common sense. If life were oriented around competition, that is if some individuals managed to survive by taking scarce resources from others, then there would be less life. As a result of our competitive actions, there is less life now; that is what extinction means. There is less food, there is less oxygen and other essential chemical compounds, there is less everything. There are no absolute winners in a competitive life because even the winners die off like the hungry deer when things run out of balance. And we can all see that the majority of beings in a forest are clearly thriving (unless modern EuroWestern humans impose their competitive ideas upon those forest denizens). They are healthy. There is abundance — which only arises when all the varied individuals are thriving and creating that abundance together, making the best use of resources for all. Simard has been the essential voice, showing us all that this common sense is, in fact, true reality.
However, her research, her hard evidence, her discoveries negate many common practices in forestry, agriculture and other basically extractive industries. Those industries are the roots of our economy. Most of the wealth flow in our culture is derived from these extractive practices — of taking more than we return, of creating only waste for others. Simard has fought many battles against well-funded entrenched ideology within academia and in the practical world of forestry, which, as practiced still today, is a rather grisly theft of life. She noticed and recorded the vast gulf between her experience of growing up among foresters in healthy forests, when a few trees were harvested from a thriving and sustained ecosystem, and the still-prevalent practices of clear-cutting and replacing a diverse system with sickly monocultures of species that profit humans.
In fact, her research negates extractivism itself. A collaborative species does take a resource for itself, it does not harm others to meet its own needs, it does not destroy life. A successful species is a collaborative species; it does not take from others with no recompense. All hubris to the contrary, we are not a successful species. We have existed for a very short time on this planet, and we are not likely to continue much longer given the poor health of the majority of our species and the majority of the planet under our invasive spread. We are rather like an aggressive annual weed, crabgrass, but one that will leave no buried seeds for our regeneration in some benign future of not-our-making.
But in writing Finding the Mother Tree, Simard shows us that we might become more like trees, that we might survive our own mess-making and brokenness, that we have the innate capacity to become beneficial parts in the whole that is life.
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.
We must live within nature. We will all be winners when there are no losers. We will all thrive when we recognize that competition will lose to cooperation in every challenge.
For more information on Simard’s work and the Mother Tree Project, a massive collaborative experiment created by Simard to further our understanding of nature’s fundamental collaboration, go to http://mothertreeproject.org.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021