TCV Book Review - Finding the Mother Tree

A book review of Suzanne Simard's 2021 book.

First, I have been a big fan of Dr. Simard's for many years. I became aware of her research about 10 or so years ago. I was especially impacted by her 2016 TED talk called How trees talk to each other. Her latest book, Finding the Mother Tree, is a combination of a refreshingly honest and personal memoir, plus, the science of mycorrhizal networks. Personally, I got the most out of the science part of the book. But I did appreciate understanding the person behind the science. Dr. Simard is an original, brave, and tenacious soul.

The science is super interesting. It is explained at a "popular" level, so the only requirement to appreciate the science is a curious-minded reader. Certainly, there is a little scientific jargon. (Dr. Simard gently teaches us the difference between ectomycorrhizal and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.) This is all done in the spirit of helpful building blocks to assist the curious reader. I appreciate the ingenious design and application of randomized control trials utilizing carbon isotopes. Her insistence of field (not lab) based experiments are key to advancing the science.

My big takeaway is the incredible interconnectivity of our planet. Dr. Simard helps us understand the challenges of how we typically think about trees. People often see trees as individuals. This is probably because of our biases associated with anthropomorphism (the application of human traits to non-humans). As I gathered from Dr. Simard's book, the forest is the closest comparison to a human individual. The forest is connected by fungal networks that share information among individual trees. Think of the trees more as neurons, the fungal networks as synapses, and the sharing of carbon and nitrogen as neurotransmitters. We need many neurons and synapses to make the human brain function well. In the spirit of the human brain metaphor and as applied to the forest:

  • Removing a single (non-mother) tree is not a big deal, (the human will be fine, a single neuron will be replaced rapidly by a typically neuroplastic brain);

  • Removing a mother tree is like removing the amygdala. (the human will likely live, but will be forever different without a key brain center);

  • Clear-cutting a forest is like a lobotomy. (the human may or may not live and they will forever be impaired.)

My only (very mild) complaint is Dr. Simard is fighting anthropomorphic "fire with fire." That is, the term "Mother Tree" is a human contrivance, not quite right as trees are not human. The connectivity of trees, in my view, is more related to symbiotic genetic relationships as Richard Dawkins so elegantly describes in his book The Selfish Gene. As trees act as "survival machines," they will likely find "source and sink" symbiotic relationships to maximize genetic survival.

Finding the Mother Tree is a powerful reminder of the life-sustaining connectivity of our trees and forests. It is a clarion wake-up call to implement global policies to protect the great carbon scrubbers in a way that recognizes their need to connect widely.

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