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"Finding the Mother Tree," | Reviewed by Bill Schwab

Melding science and memoir, one of the world's leading forest ecologists shares her remarkable research into mycorrhizal networks and hub trees that work together to maintain healthy forests.

Author Suzanne Simard contends that in a vigorous forest there stands an old-growth mother tree that acts as the hub of nutrients for trees of various ages and species that are connected by an underground network of fungi. The mycological network and the trees nourish one another by cooperating and reciprocating chemicals.

Simard devoted years of innovative field experiments to the study of the complicated symbiosis between the canopy of the forest and the saplings and shrubs which make up the understory. When she began this research in the 1980s, the possibility of plant communication and intelligence was a revolutionary idea. Her hypothesis was ridiculed and promptly dismissed by the scientific community. But, because she was raised in the craggy mountains and verdant rainforests of British Columbia, Simard refused to listen to her detractors. She had watched timber companies clear-cut healthy forests and reseed the bare terrain with a single species of trees and then watched as the monocultural seedlings struggled to survive or even died.

The concerned forester developed a hunch that far more was going on with trees than was commonly known and that there is an unidentified nutritive power that monocultural reseeding of the mountainsides is missing.

After extensive experimentation, Simard proved there is a relationship between trees, saplings, and shrubs. In her illuminating and accessible writing, she argues that a birch tree can supply a fir tree with enough carbon to make seeds reproduce and that the amount of carbon transferred depends upon the need determined by access to light.

The more shade a birch makes over a fir, the more carbon is transferred to the fir to help it survive. Once the fir outgrows the birch and shades it, the energy flow is reversed. This cooperation and reciprocity occur through an underground, thread-like fungal network. She suggests that, just as her family and community come together in times of joy and tragedy to help one another, forest communities do the same.

The author's description of her research into this supportive process reads like a scientific detective story: “Plants use their neural-like physiology to perceive their environment,” she writes. “Their leaves, stems and roots sense and comprehend their surroundings, then alter their physiology-- their growth, ability to forage for nutrients, photosynthetic rates, and closure rates of stomata for saving water.”

Simard’s narrative is smattered with humorous, colorful anecdotes. When dabbling with radioactivity Simard writes: “My wrist lifted slightly in an upbeat, and my Geiger counter wand crackled faintly. ...Strings and woodwinds, brass and percussion, exploding as one, flooding my ears, the movement allegro and intense... the breeze shifting the crowns of my little birches and firs and cedars seem to lift me clear up. ...We were listening to birch communicate with fir.”

Her family stories include depictions of the family beagle who created a crisis (and a mess) by becoming trapped in the outhouse, her grandmother who leaped from one floating log to the next in order to cross the Shuswap River, and her cowboy brother who was thrown by a bull at a rodeo.

Simard’s research on plant communication and intelligence is now considered solid by the academy. Her thesis that trees do not just stand there but cooperate and reciprocate with one another continues to grow in acceptance. Her overarching theme of stewardship provides readers with a refreshing and much-needed balance to the disposable and wasteful culture of this time.

“Finding the Mother Tree” is the botany course most have never had. It will be a widely discussed book and change the way many people think about trees.

About the Author:

Suzanne Simard was educated at the University of British Columbia and Oregon State University. She is a professor of forest ecology in the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Forestry.

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