Our relationship with the natural world is balanced on a knife-edge, which means our own lives, too, are facing an uncertain future. For the first time in history, we can draw from a compendium of scientific research that not only warns us to take better care of the Earth, but shows us how to do so. Yet still we place obstacles in our path, and the eco-apocalyptic countdown continues. What is it that stops us from taking action? Einstein once suggested that imagination is more important than knowledge, claiming that knowledge is limited while “imagination encircles the world”, and perhaps this is where the answer lies. In order to bridge the emotional chasm between the science and our ability to act, we must take what we know and reshape it into something more palatable. We must tell ourselves a story.
In Finding the Mother Tree, Suzanne Simard demonstrates how storytelling can ignite something science alone cannot. Her research in underground tree communication through a “wood wide web” of mycorrhizal fungi will be familiar to readers of Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees and Robert Macfarlane’s Underland, while one of the characters in Richard Powers’s The Overstory was heavily inspired by Simard’s life and work in forest ecology. The author takes us through her career in the forests of North America, working on plantations to identify links between crop yields, herbicide use and species diversity. In carrying out these initial studies, she goes on to discover that trees communicate underground through a complex web of fungi, and at the centre of this web, an individual known as the “mother tree” helps to coordinate a powerful network that heals, feeds and sustains the other members of the forest.
The strength of this story isn’t only in the discoveries she makes, although they are so fascinating it would be easy to dismiss them as fantasy. In fact, she recalls how some members of her profession almost laughed her out of the room on first hearing her findings, not helped by the fact that she was a woman in a male-dominated field, trying to convince a room full of foresters that their age-old methods were flawed. Throw in a theory about interconnected roots and spores in the soil, and you can’t help but be impressed by her courage – but therein lies the magic of this book. This is science in action, from beginning to end, and so much more than a study published in a journal.
We learn not only how her ideas first formed, but how they were shaped by her own life events. In the same way Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass weaves together ecology and the human spirit, Simard shows us that scientific study is not just statistics and conferences, but a journey of passion and introspection that relies on the organic nature of the human mind just as much as the meticulousness of experimentation. We learn, too, that it is possible to shake off the ingrained beliefs with which we grow up. Simard’s ancestry is rooted in the outdoors, yet she recognises that the old ways of working with the land must evolve and change, not allowing cultural biases to influence her, and listening instead to what the forest tells her.
At times, her honesty is painful to recollect. One chapter recalls her early days in the field, when she was asked to test how different solutions of herbicide impacted crop yields. Her beautiful description of how she sprays glyphosate over the native plant life, knowingly poisoning the land in order to prove something she already knows, reminds us of the complexities of conservation, even today. In order to change the game, she must first play by the rules, and it is this determination that makes her story so compelling. Time after time, she is blocked by other foresters and ecologists, bureaucracy and red tape, yet with quiet perseverance she continues her research and builds resilience.
Alongside her forestry work, we gain insights into Simard’s friendships, relationships, marriage, motherhood and her recent breast cancer. Her talent as a writer enables her to draw these events into her story, so that seemingly disconnected experiences become woven seamlessly into her working life. In studying the relationships between the trees, air, earth and everything in between, she reflects on her own relationships, not only with other people but with the trees themselves. This interconnectivity is at the core of her writing.
Finding the Mother Tree is the kind of story we need to be telling, a new way of communicating that the world desperately needs to hear. The idea of spirituality in science may seem paradoxical to some, but as we have learned from ecologists like Simard and Kimmerer, there is something missing in our study of nature. We have forgotten that we are part of the subjects we study, part of the forests that produce the air we breathe and the water we drink. We rely on nature’s rhythms and cycles far more than we rely on profit and technology. Simard’s book invites us to embrace this connection with the Earth when she writes: “I can’t tell if my blood is in the trees or if the trees are in my blood.” This book has, at its centre, a simple tale of a woman who follows her intuition, views compassion as a strength, and dares to see the world differently. It is also a reminder to listen to our wilder selves, and to remember, with humility, how little we know of the complexities of the natural world.
Tiffany Francis-Baker has been a writer in residence at Forestry England. Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard is published by Allen Lane (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.