A review of Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest by Suzanne Simard
I have previously mentioned The Overstory as a novel that made a big impression on me. While its literary merits can no doubt be debated, it was its content – the message, if you like – that changed how I see the world. Thanks to it, trees became sentient beings for me, due in no small part to the sections charting the life of a female scientist who discovers that trees can connect, not to say communicate with one another. Though The Overstory belongs firmly in the realm of fiction, Richard Powers was inspired to write this part of the novel by a very real woman: one Suzanne Simard, a Canadian professor of forest ecology who is considered a pioneer in her field. And so, when the opportunity arose to read her autobiography, I leapt at the chance to find out more about her life and world-changing research.
In Finding the Mother Tree, Simard has written a book that can only be described as important. Truly important: the kind of book each of us should be reading and passing on to as many other people as possible. Not necessarily for its stylistic qualities – though well crafted and broadly accessible, I found myself a little frustrated at times, particularly in the early chapters, by a certain stiffness in her narration – but, as with The Overstory, for the overall message it imparts. As she charts her life’s work for us, Simard gradually homes in on an attitude she urges us to adopt, showing all the while exactly why it is imperative that we do so. It is, she explains quite simply, ‘a philosophy of treating the world’s creatures, its gifts, as of equal importance to us. This begins by recognizing that trees and plants have agency.’ It’s an idea that may sound far-fetched to the uninitiated, but which by the end of this book seems so right it is almost astonishing that we haven’t all been thinking this way for years.
How very differently the vast majority of the world (with some notable exceptions) has regarded trees and plants throughout human history is made painfully clear in the professional ups and downs to which Simard has been subjected. Beginning her career working for the forest ministry in her native British Columbia, a young Simard designed and conducted experiments that often – and painfully, for her – proved how current forestry policies were in fact thwarting tree growth and destroying vast tracts of land through monoculture planting, clear-cutting and intense use of chemicals. As well as coming under immense pressure to retain her job and the grant money on which her research depended, her results were often ignored or derided because she not only told the forestry ministry things they didn’t want to hear, but also was a woman in a predominantly male world.
The determination that saw her continue her work against the odds was down to a few loyal supporters, as well as to her deep and unwavering belief in the interaction of forests, the unseen communication that takes place in networks of roots and fungi hidden deep underground. Her unfailing sense of wonder and immense love for the natural world radiates from her writing in a manner that can’t fail to infect the reader – at times, as she neared a new discovery or explained her thoughts while they gradually settled into place for her, I found myself absorbed and breathless, filled with eager anticipation despite knowing roughly where her research was leading. And as she warms to her theme, so too does the book seem to ease into itself, the uncertainty of the earlier chapters giving way to a distinct charm.
‘There’s grace in complexity,’ writes Simard, referring to the forest, but Finding the Mother Tree contains plenty of examples on a literary level. The science explored within this book is fairly complex, and I initially had concerns that it might go over my head in places. Yet Simard proves herself to be a patient and engaging teacher, detailing her experiments and the significance of their results in terms that are simple enough for even a committed non-scientist to grasp. And while some passages do require careful attention, or perhaps even a second reading, she is adept at using vivid imagery to explain the complex mycorrhizal networks that lie at the heart of her work: a mushroom growing in the woods thus becomes ‘the visible tip of something deep and elaborate, like a thick lace tablecloth knitted into the forest floor’. Transferring water, carbon, nutrients and much more between trees, particularly from the towering ‘mother trees’ to the younger ones growing around them, these networks are presented to us in all their multifacetedness, ultimately coming across as nothing short of a miracle. When taken in the context of the planet as a whole, on which Simard sees everything as interconnected, it is suddenly easy to understand how the forest is so ‘much more than a collection of fast-growing trees’.
Though Finding the Mother Tree is firmly geared towards Simard’s astonishing career, she has done an excellent job of weaving her personal history into her professional life, giving a strong sense of where she comes from and who she is. The granddaughter of loggers, old photos and descriptions of her grandfather’s work give fascinating insights into a long-vanished way of life, while serious illness, bereavement and her own experience of motherhood offer a moving counterpoint to the notion of a mother tree engaging with her family. Anyone expecting straight-up science will not find that here – Simard is too much of an all-rounder not to include her more spiritual connection with the forests she works in – but the overall effect is well balanced and pleasing, allowing each reader to take from the book the aspects she finds most personally appealing.
As much as she tries to convey a sense of herself as an ordinary woman leading an ordinary life – and her tone is certainly down to earth, without any kind of literary affect – there is something quite extraordinary about Finding the Mother Tree and its author. One woman she may be, and her work late to be acknowledged, but Simard has conducted scientific research that truly has the potential to change life on this planet and how we engage with the natural world. It takes more than one tree to make a forest, and more than one voice to effect lasting change, but this book, in its own quiet way, seems to contain the seeds of a revolution. After all, in the words of the author: ‘There is no moment too small in the world. Nothing should be lost.’ And without any doubt, Suzanne Simard’s voice is one that should not be allowed to go under.
Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest by Suzanne Simard is published in the UK by Allen Lane in digital and hardback. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a review copy.