Books & Culture

Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard: Book Review

If you’re reading this on paper, a tree had to die. If you’re reading this online, on a phone, or on another device, oil, the likely fuel source that ultimately powers your device, was once an ancient tree. Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard is a fascinating story about one scientist’s exploration of the secret life of trees. Simard’s area of research, to understand the interconnected web of communication between trees and how this web sustains a forest, is not one that is easily tested using the scientific method. Yet, with ingenuity and grit, Simard manages to reach robust and sound conclusions, building upon indigenous knowledge and prior research. In Finding the Mother Tree we learn that forests and natural systems are intimately connected.

The scientific method, when performed properly, hardly offers up the kind of drama that makes for compelling storytelling. In fact, the proper performance of the scientific method is at best a tedious crawl toward discovery, and at worst, a long wait after which nothing happens. Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree does an excellent job of showing the painstaking work that goes into designing a successful scientific experiment, and her memoir would be boring were it not for the careful way she interweaves her personal story with the slower story about how good science unfolds. After all, Darwin’s discovery of evolution can be summed up in one sentence romantically enough today, but I imagine five years on the Beagle involved more sea sickness than thrill.

Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree offers a feminist reading of nature and natural selection. Through careful research, Simard has discovered that ancient forests are populated by elder trees, or “mother trees,” who send nutrients and water to younger trees, helping them survive and thrive when they are most vulnerable. Her research even suggests that these elder trees, when facing their imminent deaths, will dump their nitrogen and nutrients into their offspring through fungal root networks beneath the ground, giving their last resources to the next generation in their dying gasps.

Simard’s work is wide-ranging, and honors the voices of indigenous elders who have been telling colonialists for decades that nature is not a zero sum game, and that cooperation, not raw competition is how we need to manage our farms, our ecosystems, our conservation projects, and yes, our lives. Darwin’s interpretation of natural selection was a story of war, capital, and competition. Simard offers an alternative. Hers is a science that suggests that natural selection has another side, one involving cooperation and nurturing. Her research shows that “mother trees” provide nutrients to their offspring seeds nearby through root and fungal networks. 

Simard’s work draws from other researchers and from native knowledge about the interrelationships between trees and plants. Native agriculturalists have been planting the “three sisters,” corn, legumes, and squash, together for centuries knowing that these three plants help one another thrive. Elders in the Pacific Northwest have long seen the forest as connected, and have long spoken about elder trees. Unfortunately, policy and practice hardly follow from wisdom, and it often takes sound science to change the most misguided of policies that called for clear-cutting forests and planting only “profitable” trees, viewing all others as weeds. Simard’s work does just that. Over decades of research, Simard soundly revealed how trees in the forest communicate with one another, sharing not only nutrients and resources, but also sending signals to communicate impending threats so neighboring trees can raise their defenses.

Simard’s discoveries have been written about widely, but like a game of telephone, journalistic interpretation can sometimes distort the more cautious, and less sexy, scientific conclusions. The New York Times notes that Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees covers many concepts Simard presents in Finding the Mother Tree, but the Times notes that “Wohlleben was met with considerable criticism from the scientific community for drawing conclusions beyond what the data showed.”

Simard is more careful. The problem with the careful conclusion is that it isn’t always as likely to go viral. In reading Finding the Mother Tree, we are asked to be patient, to discover the connections the forest soil hides within, the way Simard does: slowly, painstakingly, achingly slow and with great uncertainty.

Part of the joy of reading Finding the Mother Tree is the marvel of watching Simard’s brilliant mind at work. Her questions are far more compelling than the unfolding of the experimental design (though her experimental designs are also themselves brilliant). After all, the experiments involve the mind-numbing tedium of putting plants in plastic bags, filling the bags with radioactive air, and then using a Geiger counter to see if the plants nearby are radioactive. The description and unfolding of this process fills up about a chapter of the book. Other experiments involve the slow process of pruning back trees, painting pesticides on pruned stumps, and carefully labeling tree plots, another whole chapter not for the faint of heart or easily bored. And then there’s the process of grinding up roots and plant matter to be sent off to a mass spectrometer for testing… 

Simard’s questions are far more sexy than her conclusions, but her conclusions are always backed by rigorous science and experimentation. Finding the Mother Tree should be required reading for any student with an interest in experimental design, if only to offer a warning to aspiring scientists about the importance of sound design, especially when results face scrutiny from the establishment. Simard’s experiments were not flawed, but they faced incredible scrutiny from policymakers and other scientists, and it appears Simard spent about as much time defending her conclusions as she did finding them.

Despite Simard’s rigorous methods, and the fact that her work built upon indigenous knowledge and earlier research, her findings were not immediately accepted. Not only did her findings throw into doubt the Darwinian idea that competition is the drive of evolution, but her findings also showed that the Canadian forest policy to regard trees that were not profitable as weeds, was misguided. Not only were Simard’s findings scrutinized for these revolutionary conclusions, but she also struggled with misogyny in forestry, a field that was male-dominated when she began.

Perhaps the most remarkable story of all is the way Simard weaves her personal story into the tale. Finding the Mother Tree is as much a story of scientific discovery as it is a story of what it means to live the life of a scientist. Simard unflinchingly shows how her marriage fell apart, her husband unable and unwilling to play the role of “Mr. Mom.” She writes about the exhaustion of raising children while also “buried in teaching courses, applying for research grants, building a research program, enlisting graduate students, being a journal editor, writing papers.” Her husband, “Don did the rest: picking the girls up from daycare, buying groceries, making dinner, working in between.” But in this role that many women will find familiar, Don was unhappy.

Throughout the book, Simard is asked to choose between ambition and family. She chooses ambition, driven in her mission to change misguided Canadian forestry policies through research, but at a high personal cost. This is a personal cost that will feel familiar to many women, myself included, who have often struggled with the tough decisions of pursuing personal ambitions or saving a marriage or relationship. (After my MFA in creative writing at Columbia University, I had to make the choice to either stay in New York and commit to the life of a writer in the city or move to Canada and get married. I chose to get married… It didn’t go well for me, or for my writing.)

And then for many women, the decision to have children isn’t trivial. It often means choosing between career and family. Simard tries to juggle it all, but she openly writes about the exhaustion it entails. She hits a deer while driving to visit her family late one night after a long week at the university.

The metaphorical juxtapositions between a scarred Douglas fir mother tree and the author preparing for her mastectomy land with pitch-perfect precision. In many ways, Simard is as precise a writer as she is a scientist. The writing may not always be thrilling or imbued with mystery, but it transmits her story with exactitude. The life cycle of a tree and the world of the forest offer many metaphors for the course of a life. Simard’s life is fascinating and not without deep tragedy. The link between the natural world, the inner world, and the course of a single life are the engines that drive this book.

Part of the challenge of doing scientist in a complex world is the fact that the scientific method requires a simplification of the very systems the scientist wants to study. Simard argues for another path, something she calls “complex science.” Slices of a human brain hardly explain human consciousness. Science that limits itself to reductionistic pursuits will fail to grasp at the larger questions we want to answer. Simard writes: “complexity science can transform forestry practices into what is adaptive and holistic and away from what has been overly authoritarian and simplistic.”

Hamlet. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Hamlet. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Simard wonders whether the mycorrhizal networks that link trees together in the soil could be comparable to a neural network. “Is it possible that trees are as perceptive of their neighbors as we are of our own thoughts and moods? Even more, are the social interactions between trees as influential on their shared reality as that of two people engaged in conversation… Could information be transmitted across synapses in mycorrhizal networks, the same way it happens in our brains?”

Simard’s work offers great hope that we have only begun to explore the web of interconnections in the natural world. If the trees are so connected to one another, what about the trees and us? Simard urges her readers to befriend a local tree. I think I’ll take her up on that. As Hamlet once said in the middle of a play, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard at Amazon.com (affiliate link)

Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard at Bookshop.org (affiliate link)

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University.

She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed.