Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard
Reviewed by Hon. Eliot D. Prescott
Lovers of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy undoubtedly will recall the "Ents": sentient tree-like creatures who communicate and protect each other in the forests of Middle Earth. The stuff of fantasy, right? Well, no. Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, has spent her life demonstrating through vigorous and peer-reviewed scientific studies that the trees of our North American forests are sentient, much like Tolkien's ents. They communicate and cooperate with each other through a vast underground network of mycorrhizal fungi.
Professor Simard's research has demonstrated that trees use chemicals to relay information across synaptic gaps between the fungi and the root cells of the tree that are identical to the neurotransmitters used in human brains. Her colleagues have likened this discovered network to the internet, or more aptly, the "wood wide web."
Her book is a highly readable, well-woven tale of autobiography and science. She recounts her childhood living in remote areas of British Columbia, and her family who for generations had lived and died working for the timber industry. As a young girl, she developed an early fascination for trees, and more generally, Nature. As a young adult, she found work with a large timber company, one of the first women to be employed and assigned field work by the company. There, and again later in academia, she faced rampant sexism, particularly after she began to challenge the methods by which companies attempted to grow seedlings in areas decimated by the clear-cutting of tens of thousands of acres of old-growth forest.
As Simard's scientific understanding of trees blossomed, she undermined old beliefs that trees simply compete with each other for resources; light, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and water. Instead, she proved that the trees of the forest share and trade these resources through cooperation and communication, even between different species of trees. These discoveries have started to change timber companies' practices as they plant new trees in clear-cut forests.
Her research has also led to the revelation that the oldest trees of the forest (the ones she dubs "mother trees") recognize, protect, and provide sustenance to her offspring, (her kin seedlings). In death, such trees funnel valuable resources back to their kin to ensure their children's health and viability.
Ultimately, by debunking old perceptions about our forests as simply a collection of trees and a mere commodity, Simard hopes to cultivate a "fuller understanding of the intelligence of the forest... and an explanation of how we regain our respect for this wisdom and heal our relationship with nature."
As I walk through our Connecticut forests on my regular hikes, I have accepted Simard's invitation to "[g]o find a tree—your tree. Imagine linking into her network, connecting to other trees nearby. Open your senses." I do so, in no small measure, because of this book.
Hon. Eliot D. Prescott is a Sierra Club Connecticut volunteer.