Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard
In the spring of 2017 our city’s parks department planted a tree in a nearby park — at our request and expense — in memory of my brother Tim, who had passed away the previous September. Tim spent many hours playing basketball in the park where the tree had been planted, and we thought it would be a fitting way to honor his memory. The tree was planted near the basketball court, but the nearest mature tree was many yards away. The tree blossomed and leafed the next two springs, but it did not survive a third winter. When I noticed that the tree was not thriving I wondered and wrote a blog post asking if trees can be lonely.
While it may be too anthropomorphic (are there degrees of anthropomorphism?) to say that trees experience loneliness, it turns out that trees do a great deal to care for other trees in their vicinity, even trees of different species, through underground networks of fungi. That is a central premise of Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree.
Suzanne Simard is professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia. She has spent thirty years researching how trees communicate and interact with each other and with other plant life. Finding the Mother Tree is written for popular audiences; it draws on work that has been published in over two hundred peer-reviewed articles in scientific and academic journals. It does contain scientific and technical terminology, but it is still quite readable, partly because it is also a memoir, and the personal stories the author tells communicate scientific information in a manner that makes it easy to understand.
In composing her memoir Dr. Simard, who admits to being shy, does not shy away from discussing the tremendous challenges to her career, her family, her marriage, and her personal health that she has faced in those thirty years. Stripped of those details, Finding the Mother Tree would be a much briefer book but would more closely resemble the journal articles that the author has published.
Dr. Simard also is the model for the character Patricia Westerford in Richard Powers’s The Overstory. (Hat tip to poet Sandra Duguid Gerstman, author of Pails Scrubbed Silver, for giving me a copy of that book). Her work is said to have influenced the development of the “Tree of Souls” in James Cameron’s Avatar. She gave her TED Talk: “How Trees Talk to Each Other,” in June 2016. She was Krista Tippett’s guest for the On Being interview, “The Forests are Wired for Wisdom,” in September 2021. I can see a connection from the sentient bamboo, Stevland, in Sue Burke’s Semiosis to the trees of Suzanne Simard’s research. (Hat tip to Andy Walsh, author of Faith Across the Multiverse: Parables from Modern Science, for introducing me to Semiosis.) Finally, a hat tip to a good friend and fellow church elder, Jean, for recommending Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Dr. Simard draws on the indigenous wisdom about plant life that Dr. Kimmerer discusses at length in her book, including the “Three Sisters” concept of planting corn, beans, and squash together in a garden (p. 122) and the concept of asking permission of trees, plants, animals, and other creatures before interacting with them.
Spoiler Alert: Readers who prefer an element of surprise and discovery in their reading may want to stop here and investigate the books on their own.
Suzanne Kimard is a teacher, and she wants to use this book to teach her readers about what is at stake in our forests and other ecosystems. She bears witness to the damage that ignorance and greed have done and are doing to forests in particular and the environment in general. She ends, though, with hope and with calls to action. Pointing to evidence of recovery from decades of damage from mining operations, she writes, “These are signs that the earth can be forgiving.” (p. 297). Later, she writes,
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. (p. 305)
One challenge jumped off the page. Wendell Berry and Robin Wall Kimmerer and probably others issue challenges similar to this one from Suzanne Simard:
It’s up to each and every one of us. Connect with plants you can call your own. If you’re in a city, set a pot on your balcony. If you have a yard, start a garden or join a community plot. Here’s a simple and profound action you can take right now: Go find a tree — your tree. Imagine linking into her network, connecting to other trees nearby. Open your senses.” (p. 305)
Most relevant to our moment in space-time is this comment on what we can do to move forward:
Ecosystems are so similar to human societies — they’re built on relationships. The stronger those are, the more resilient the system. And since our world’s systems are composed of individual organisms, they have the capacity to change. We creatures adapt, our genes evolve, and we can learn from experience. A system is ever changing because its parts — the trees and fungi and people — are constantly responding to one another and to the environment. Our success in coevolution — our success as a productive society — is only as good as the strength of these bonds with other individuals and species. Out of the resulting adaptation and evolution emerge behaviors that help us survive, grow, and thrive. (p. 189)
In about two months from this writing spring will arrive in the northern hemisphere and the trees and other plant life around us will display the life that has been hidden since last fall. While we wait, reading Finding the Mother Tree is an excellent investment of time and attention, and it may just improve the way we regard the flora in our communities.
Thanks for stopping by!