‘I have cut down my fair share of trees,’ Suzanne Simard confesses. Having grown up in a family that, for generations, ‘made its living cutting down forests’ – a way of life to which the born-and-bred Canadian remains sympathetic – in the 1970s she became one of the first of a new generation of women in the logging industry.
‘Loggers once stopped and carefully gauged and evaluated the character of individual trees to be cut,’ she writes, but what she found – the clear-cutting of great areas; a ‘war’ on any flora or fauna seen as competing with the great pine cash-crops – was, she realised, misguided. In an industry ‘focused on meeting the basic regeneration regulations at minimal cost,’ it became clear that while some replanting obviously went on, it was failing to replenish, let alone heal the landscape, and that this would have lasting consequences.
In response, Simard became a ‘forest detective’ and began to challenge the short-sighted ‘tree farm’ management practices that threaten the long-term survival of forests (an approach that was not, by and large, enthusiastically received in her profession). One very hot British Columbian summer, she began to discover types of fungal network – ‘mycorrhiza’ or, literally, ‘fungus root’ – that trade ‘water and nutrients from the soil in exchange for sugars... from their plant partners’. Hundreds of them, all doing different tasks.
Anything that incidentally kills these fungi, including clear-cutting, overuse of fertilisers, monocultured, serried planting, weakens the trees and also disrupts the local climate. Clear-cutting, in particular, releases CO2 into the atmosphere at unprecedented rates, changes watersheds and kills off animals and other plants.
Moreover, ‘interactions over resources isn’t a winner-take-all thing’ (a belief that she fears comes from our established notions of natural selection). While individual plants were already known to ‘understand’ their circumstances, Simard finds that they also directly support one another, regardless of species, in a kind of neural network, up to and including sacrificing their resources at the point of death. In short, the forest is much more than the sum of its parts.
Expecting, or hoping, to find links among the trees, she discovered ‘a tapestry’ (one tree was revealed to be linked to 47 others, some 20 metres away), revealing that trees are involved in ‘a more sophisticated tango than just a competition for light’. The hubs of these networks, what she calls the Mother Trees, can be hundreds of years old. Having ‘persisted through climatic upheavals, suffocating competition, and ravaging fire, insect or wind disruptions’, they have the most sophisticated evolutionary advantages to pass on.
This all has implications for Simard’s original industry. Long and detailed story short, not only are mixed forests more sustainable, they produce about 25 per cent more wood than monocultures. Trees isolated by species struggle in anything except the shortest term. Removing the much-detested birch from pine areas, for instance, can increase growth by 150 per cent; but it also increases the infection rate by 700 per cent. For the logging industry, and maybe the rest of us, to survive, the lesson is obvious: diversity and complexity are better.
Finding the Mother Tree is a passionate and instructive ecological memoir with much good honest dirt under its fingernails. Simard can look at soil the way an art historian looks at an Old Master, but thankfully there’s only the mildest tendency towards the spiritual and/or poetic. Her vocabulary is pleasingly non-Attenborough and often bluntly French.
The strands of her own complicated family background are generally a welcome change of pace from talk of isotopes and hyphae, although her long heritage of outdoorswomanship does occasionally lean a little heavily on maternal metaphors. A mid-life illness, too, leads her, somewhat inevitably, to ask if trees might not have something to teach us humans and while her conclusions regarding ecological interconnectedness seem inescapable, some readers may shy away slightly from her use of terms such as ‘wisdom’ and ‘sentience’ with regard to our arboreal elders.
Nevertheless, humanity certainly needs to be more careful in its efforts to dominate nature. Simard is particularly concerned about ‘reductionist science’ that ‘lead[s] us to mistakenly simplify our societies and ecosystems’, the effects of which have become ‘too devastating to ignore’. Logging will no doubt continue, so Simard is focusing her attentions on the healing power of trees and their ‘extraordinary generosity’. All in all, she’s optimistic. Much like the forests in which she has spent her life, ‘We are built for recovery.’
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