Finding the Mother Tree - Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Suzanne Simard (2021 hardback 368 pp Penguin Radom House $35.40)

There’s going to be a movie! Canadian ecologist Suzanne Simard has revolutionized the way we think about the plant kingdom, with her findings of how life in the forest is not one of competition, but of co-operation. This, her first book, is a memoir that starts with being raised in the forests of British Columbia, continues through her work as a commercial forester, and carries on to her years as an academic in the outdoor laboratory of the forest, meticulously researching her theories about why tree seedlings planted with no “competing” vegetation fail to thrive, and how trees communicate, exchange and share nutrients and resources.

Along the way, much heartbreak, both personal and for the forests she loves, and much marginalization. “Are you an environmentalist?” a colleague asks suspiciously early in her career as they went out to mark a clear-cut. “On this day, I was to play the role of executioner,” she writes sadly, describing the “dead-forest-standing,” the eldest and largest trees in the deepest hollows, young trees clustered nearby “like chicks clustered around a mother ptarmigan. The grooves of their bark housed tufts of wolf lichen, easy for the deer to nibble in winter. Buffaloberry and soapberry shrubs grew between rocks. Bright-red Indian paintbrushes, purple silky lupines, pale-pink Calypso fairy slippers and candy-striped coralroot traced the roots fanning out from the tree boles. None of these herbs would thrive after a clear-cut. What the hell was I doing here?”

A decade or more later, in 1997, Nature magazine published her work on the subterranean mycorrhizal fungal connections that support a forest and the term wood-wide web was coined. Within the forestry industry, she was ridiculed. She persisted. Further research zeroed in on the crucial role played by the Mother Trees - the ones with memory of surviving good times and bad, with capacity to provide food for an entire soil web of life, and with high quality genetics in their seed. Now, she’s a cultural icon: a movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams is in the works, and references to her work inspire or pop up in contemporary film, tv and literature.  

But still, if we look at the forestry industry in Canada today, our precious rain and boreal forests continue to be clear-cut, chemically sprayed and controlled against competition - despite evidence that this makes no sense, environmentally or economically. And here in Springwater Township, Simcoe County, looking for a place for a waste facility, argues that planting genetically unrelated trees in a non-contiguous site can make up for the clearing, fragmentation and degrading of a forest. It can’t. Just as the plants are the gardeners, so the trees are the foresters and we cannot do what they do - over decades and centuries - to make a community above and below ground that far exceeds our comprehension.