Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard reviewed

Finding the Mother Tree Book Cover Finding the Mother Tree
Suzanne Simard
Penguin Press UK – Allen Lane, Particular, Pelican, Penguin Classics
May 04, 2021

From the world's leading forest ecologist who forever changed how people view trees and their connections to one another and to other living things in the forest--a moving, deeply personal journey of discovery.

Suzanne Simard is a pioneer on the frontier of plant communication and intelligence; she's been compared to Rachel Carson, hailed as a scientist who conveys complex, technical ideas in a way that is dazzling and profound. Her work has influenced filmmakers (the Tree of Souls of James Cameron's Avatar) and her TED talks have been viewed by more than 10 million people worldwide.

Now, in her first book, Simard brings us into her world, the intimate world of the trees, in which she brilliantly illuminates the fascinating and vital truths--that trees are not simply the source of timber or pulp, but are a complex, interdependent circle of life; that forests are social, cooperative creatures connected through underground networks by which trees communicate their vitality and vulnerabilities with communal lives not that different from our own.

Simard writes--in inspiring, illuminating, and accessible ways--how trees, living side by side for hundreds of years, have evolved, how they perceive one another, learn and adapt their behaviors, recognize neighbors, and remember the past; how they have agency about the future; elicit warnings and mount defenses, compete and cooperate with one another with sophistication, characteristics ascribed to human intelligence, traits that are the essence of civil societies--and at the center of it all, the Mother Trees: the mysterious, powerful forces that connect and sustain the others that surround them.

Simard writes of her own life, born and raised into a logging world in the rainforests of British Columbia, of her days as a child spent cataloging the trees from the forest and how she came to love and respect them--embarking on a journey of discovery, and struggle. And as she writes of her scientific quest, she writes of her own journey--of love and loss, of observation and change, of risk and reward, making us understand how deeply human scientific inquiry exists beyond data and technology, that it is about understanding who we are and our place in the world, and, in writing of her own life, we come to see the true connectedness of the Mother Tree that nurtures the forest in the profound ways that families and human societies do, and how these inseparable bonds enable all our survival.

Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard

Finding the Mother Tree opens with Suzanne (the author) as a young forestry worker (seasonal) understanding that recently planted seedlings in a clear felled area of forestry were not doing well. The question in her mind is why. Nearby naturally developing seedlings are doing just fine. The book then goes back to her childhood and her family’s long involvement in forestry in Canada. The scene is well set for this book.

While this is the author’s first book she has had many academic papers published. She has devoted a large part of her life to the study of trees particularly those in Canada. The initial puzzlement about the fact that seedlings are not thriving leads to a number of issues with the approach to forestry management in Canada. While Suzanne’s work has largely involved Canada her idea have spread. She is the person responsible for the idea of the “wood wide web”. When I heard about this – some years back – the idea interested me. However I hadn’t found the time to find out more until now.

Suzanne’s devotion to understanding trees and their wellbeing is remarkable. From her initial questioning of why seedlings don’t thrive she follows “threads” both literal and metaphorical in the course of this book. From this we find out about Mycorrhizal fungi and the interactions between trees and fungi in the soil. Each “answer” to her studies tends to lead to further questions and discoveries. These discoveries really are remarkable to me and so important.

I do have some small reservations about this book. For me personally I would have loved to have seen some maps showing where her work took place. I would have also liked more photos of trees, plants and wildlife too I guess. My brain would have found seeing some of the data relating to her experiments easier to understand in the form of tables rather than narratives.

Ultimately Finding the Mother Tree is both a personal biography and the results of a number of an academic studies. This combination may not suit everyone. As far as I am concerned this is a very important book. It shows just how little we really understand about our planet. It also shows our resistance to change particularly when it involves big business. From the tiniest parts of fungi on tree roots to the survival of our world – if that is not important I’m not sure what is.

Note – I received an advance digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review