Finding the Mother Tree
Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest
By Suzanne Simard
Behind the scenes, underground, fungal networks are essential to the wellbeing of forests. Trees symbiotically associate with mycorrhizal fungi, exchanging plant-produced sugars for fungus-gathered soil nutrients and water (a topic previously covered on the blog by Elio, here). It's an intimate arrangement: the fungal cells thread between the tree root cells, like the lines of a biological Mondrian, and in some cases, slip inside of the root cells themselves (ectomycorrhizal versus endomycorrhizal).
These mycorrhizae were transformative to forest ecologist Suzanne Simard. Simard's memoir Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest is a braiding of her ecological research and personal life that traces her progression from her family's tree-logging background to her love for forest ecology to her groundbreaking discoveries in mycorrhizal networks.
The memoir is at first more meandering and lighthearted in depictions of her youth, while the second half – following her first landmark scientific discovery – tunnels down with a heavier urgency into her life as a researcher, wife, mother, professor, cancer survivor, science communicator. Initially, I read for the giddy thrill of her moments of scientific discovery, which are portrayed so convincingly on the page. In the first half of the book (which is also filled with gorgeous visuals of verdant subalpine British Columbia), I read in pursuit of more of these delicious moments of vicarious joy, the first of which was the beeping of a Geiger counter: 14C-labeled sugar ferried by mycorrhizae between birch and pine trees, her first piece of concrete evidence for inter-tree resource exchange. When Simard runs experiments for the British Columbia Forest Service to maximize cash-crop fir yield, she gathers evidence that runs against the grain of traditional industrial practices: wholesale eradication of non-fir species actually harms fir growth by stopping such exchanges. As her new findings accumulate, so does the number of vocal critics. In a bid for research freedom, she accepts a position as a university professor, and it's through this new work that she discovers "Mother Trees," older trees within a forest that serve as critical life-sustaining hubs, connected by mycorrhizal networks to younger trees. Like a neural network, forests internally transmit information via molecules.
The last third of the book percolates straight into the heart. For me, this was where the writing really struck a cadence between scientific and personal. On the personal side of things, Simard raises her two daughters amid family turmoil and a fight with breast cancer. On the research side, her work reveals a tight link between "mother" and "child" trees: an adult tree will preferentially send carbon via mycorrhizae to its own offspring, a phenomenon that increases when that Mother Tree is injured – as though "passing her life force straight to her offspring, helping them to prepare for changes ahead." Simard remarks that even dying mother trees have so much to give to their children, as she struggles against cancer, as she attends her daughter's thirteenth birthday party.
Her love for nature and discovery reads like reverence in these pages. From her yew-derived paclitaxel treatments, to a deepening respect for Aboriginal knowledge, to her own daughter pronouncing, "I think I want to be a forest ecologist, Mama," Simard finds that forests have saved and strengthened her life.
Finding the Mother Tree finds its own niche amid existing scientific memoirs. As a memoir intertwining a female scientist's origin story and the biology of trees, it's reminiscent of Hope Jahren's Lab Girl. As a memoir that finds quiet strength and unexpected mentorship within the resilience of living organisms, it's reminiscent of The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating and H is for Hawk. On top of that, it's LGBTQ+ representation in science and academia (here, the inclusion is quietly heartwarming; no need for fanfare beyond its simple and surefooted certitude that all people belong). At the pith of the book is an affirmation of life and the delicate balance of constituents that keep a whole running, whether that is an ecosystem or an individual person.
Sure, some scientists might find fault with the anthropomorphizing of trees as "mother" and "child" and dismiss this as misleadingly puerile and mawkish. To each their own. But the thing about the most unforgettable teachers and mentors is that, even years down the line, their students remember most how they made them feel – emboldened, excited, appreciated, confident, seen, listened to. (At least from firsthand experience.) I think this applies to science communication, too, in the hopes of staying afloat in not just public awareness but also memory.
Here's a book in which life science and life stories are as tightly intertwined as a tree and its mycelia, finding – alongside so many important scientific discoveries – that the stories lying beneath trees' bark and our own skin share mutually dependent threads of vulnerability and strength.