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Good Reads  Botany  Vascular Plants  Trees & Shrubs

Finding the Mother Tree Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest

Popular Science
By: Suzanne Simard(Author)
364 pages, 16 plates with colour photos; b/w photos
Publisher: Penguin Books
This book will transform your understanding of trees.
Finding the Mother Tree
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  • Finding the Mother Tree ISBN: 9780141990286 Paperback Mar 2022 In stock
  • Finding the Mother Tree ISBN: 9780241389348 Hardback May 2021 Out of Print #252269
Selected version: £12.99
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About this book

No one has done more to transform our understanding of trees than the world-renowned scientist Suzanne Simard. Now she shares the secrets of a lifetime spent uncovering startling truths about trees: their cooperation, healing capacity, memory, wisdom and sentience.

Raised in the forests of British Columbia, where her family has lived for generations, Professor Simard did not set out to be a scientist. She was working in the forest service when she first discovered how trees communicate underground through an immense web of fungi, at the centre of which lie the Mother Trees: the mysterious, powerful entities that nurture their kin and sustain the forest.

Though her ground-breaking findings were initially dismissed and even ridiculed, they are now firmly supported by the data. As her remarkable journey shows us, science is not a realm apart from ordinary life, but deeply connected with our humanity.

In Finding the Mother Tree, she reveals how the complex cycle of forest life – on which we rely for our existence – offers profound lessons about resilience and kinship, and must be preserved before it's too late.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • A fascinating memoir, but are its emotive metaphors justified?
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 25 Feb 2022 Written for Paperback

    The idea that trees communicate and exchange nutrients with each other via underground networks of fungi has captured the popular imagination, helped along by the incredibly catchy metaphor of a "wood-wide web". Suzanne Simard has developed this idea more than anyone else and happily talks of mother trees nurturing their offspring. This idea has not been without controversy in scientific circles, if only for its anthropomorphic language. I was both sceptical and curious about her ideas.

    Fungi can form symbioses with plant roots known as mycorrhiza and form sprawling underground networks. By the 1980s, researchers such as David Read had shown that chemicals can pass between plants via these fungal pathways. Simard would pick up on this discovery and run with it. Interestingly, she was born in a family of loggers and, before entering academia, worked for a logging company and later the Forest Service of British Columbia. She thus experienced up close the government's standard forestry practice, their free-to-grow policy. This means that plantations are actively cleared of native plant species using herbicides and mechanical means so that Douglas fir and other lucrative trees are "free to grow" without competition. Why, then, were so many seedlings failing?

    Easily the strongest suit of Finding the Mother Tree is the story of the uphill struggle of a young woman in the masculine world of Canadian forestry to try and convince them that their approach is misguided. Simard excels at describing her experiments and the rationale behind them in an understandable way. Some of her main findings are that removing native trees such as birch only provides short-term benefits to fir but leaves them more vulnerable in the long run. Starting from her suspicion that fungi have something to do with this, she discovers how birch and fir exchange carbon and nitrogen via mycorrhizal networks and can swap roles as source and sink over the seasons. Allowing fir and birch to grow together results in richer fungal communities and protects fir from pathogenic fungi. Digging deeper into fundamental aspects of mycorrhizal fungi, she notices that older and younger firs are connected underground, and hits on the idea of mother trees nurturing their offspring. Further work shows how fungal networks allow for warning signals to be communicated, kin to be recognized, and how dying trees might even off-load nutrients to younger trees. In an industry that sees trees as a commodity and focuses on short-term benefits and maximizing profit, her findings are not particularly welcomed and heavily scrutinized. She has faced plenty of abuse in the process.

    The other, perhaps less expected part, is that Finding the Mother Tree is also a memoir in which Simard writes openly of her personal life. It is not until chapter 5 that you get to the first research, the preceding chapters telling of her family and childhood. In later chapters, the science sometimes takes a backseat to her life story.

    My beef with this book is three-fold. First is its tone. Though she does not go as far as Peter Wohlleben in The Hidden Life of Trees some of Simard's language and metaphors are emotive and value-laden. The introduction is full of words such as "ancient", "wisdom", and "healing". No doubt her message will resonate with readers of Braiding Sweetgrass, but when she concludes that "the forest is wired for wisdom, sentience, and healing" (p. 6), I cringed. Admittedly, I am not fond of overt spirituality. But take the phrase "mother tree". She admits that they are "mother and father trees, since each Douglas-fir tree has male pollen cones and female seed cones. But... it felt like mothering to me" (p. 228). Beyond masking a biology quite unlike our own, in her scientific publications she instead talks of "hub trees" which evokes network topology. Quite the difference, no? But it is not a word you will find in this book. It contributes to my impression that this is Simard's platform to share her beliefs and speculate to her heart's content, unhindered by peer review.

    Second, I have no issue with her experiments and results, but I question some of her interpretations. For example, having explained concepts such as turgor pressure, source-sink gradients, and pressure-flow in chapter 8, she then mentions how birch transfers carbon to fir, and transfers more when shading the fir and hindering its photosynthesis. Can we really conclude from this that "birch was detecting and staying attuned to the needs of fir" (p. 160), or is this just simple physics? What she does insufficiently, in my opinion, is discuss how her ideas have been received by the wider scientific community, how she has defended them, and what other interpretations are possible. Not does she sufficiently signpost where her ideas become speculative. My concern is that lay readers will unquestioningly accept them as established facts. Simard's track record as a publishing scientist gives them an air of legitimacy. One of the best critiques I have read is the chapter on the wood-wide web in Sheldrake's Entangled Life. He points out how this plant-centric metaphor downplays the role of fungi and mentions David Johnson, who cautions against extrapolating from laboratory findings on potted seedlings to whole forests. Unfortunately, Finding the Mother Tree left me with the impression of a scientist so enamoured with how her findings align with her values and beliefs that she cannot take sufficient distance to critically interrogate them.

    Finally, Simard freely uses anthropomorphic metaphors and assigns agency to trees. The reason I object to this is not that I think animals and plants are automatons devoid of agency. If anything, I am convinced that we routinely underestimate them. But comparing them to us introduces a new straitjacket. Sheldrake, I think, captures it best: "Are we able to stand back, look at the system, and let the polyphonic swarms of plants and fungi and bacteria [...] be themselves, and quite unlike anything else? What would that do to our minds?" (p. 193).

    Above criticism is not intended to pooh-pooh Simard's work. What she has uncovered about plant-fungi interactions is truly amazing and shows there is so much more happening below-ground than we ever realised. Her book successfully shows how aggressive forestry policies do not produce the desired results and she points the way toward better practices. Indeed, understanding mycorrhizal networks can have many applications. Whether or not her concept of mother trees resonates with you, I recommend this book simply because it is a first-hand account from the woman who pioneered this research. I would, however, recommend you read it in tandem with Entangled Life for a fuller picture.
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Dr Suzanne Simard was raised in the Monashee Mountains of British Columbia. She is Professor of Forest Ecology in the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Forestry, and has earned a global reputation for her research on tree connectivity and communication and its impact on the health and biodiversity of forests.

Popular Science
By: Suzanne Simard(Author)
364 pages, 16 plates with colour photos; b/w photos
Publisher: Penguin Books
This book will transform your understanding of trees.
Media reviews

"A scientific memoir as gripping as any HBO drama series [...] The beauty of her book is in the grafting of events from her life [...] on to her experience of the forest [...] Just as she disinters earthy mushrooms and the finest of filaments, so she lays bare the human heart with moving simplicity [...] It is her gallant mission in the book and in her life – and one essential to combating the climate crisis – to make science more humanly engaged"
– Kate Kellaway, Observer

"Few scientists make much impact with their PhD thesis, but, in 1997, Suzanne Simard did just that [...] What was then a challenge to orthodox ideas is today widely accepted"
New Scientist

"Suzanne Simard is a total legend – someone who transformed the world in the way of James Lovelock, or Lynn Margulis"
– Rowan Hooper

"This book is a testament to Simard's skill as a science communicator. Her research is clearly defined, the steps of her experiments articulated, her astonishing results explained and the implications laid bare: We ignore the complexity of forests at our peril [...] For Simard, revitalizing synergies in the forest while meeting the needs of humans is more than a job. It is a calling as grand as the subjects of her book: to be a Mother Tree herself"
– Jonathan C. Slaght, The New York Times

"Finding the Mother Tree reminds us that the world is a web of stories, connecting us to one another. [...] The interplay of personal narrative, scientific insights and the amazing revelations about the life of the forest make a compelling story [...] These are stories that the world needs to hear"
– Robin Wall Kimmerer, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor of Environmental Biology, founder and director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, and author of Braiding Sweetgrass and Gathering Moss

"Suzanne Simard has a completely beguiling way of writing. I love how she combines brilliant scientific explanation with emotion and feeling"
– Patrick Barkham, author of Wild Child and The Butterfly Isles

"The moving and remarkable story of one of the greatest ecological discoveries of our time. Writing with humility and passion, Suzanne Simard's unravelling of the secret life of trees is changing the scientific mindset. Finding the Mother Tree is a crucial step towards healing our planet"
– Isabella Tree, author of Wilding and The Living Goddess

"Finding the Mother Tree is a rare and moving book – part charming memoir, part crash course in forest ecology. And yet, it manages to be about the things that matter most: the ways we care for each other, fail each other and listen to each other. After the last year and a half, its lessons about motherhood, connection and the natural world are more timely than ever"
– Jake Gyllenhaal

"[Suzanne Simard] forever transformed our views of the world and the interconnectivity of our environment. Finding the Mother Tree is not only a deeply beautiful memoir about one woman's impactful life, it's also a call to action to protect, understand and connect with the natural world"
– Amy Adams

"Few researchers have had the pop culture impact of Suzanne Simard"
Scientific American

"In [Finding the Mother Tree], [Simard] invites us into her world, which is the world of trees. What she has discovered there is revolutionary on both the scientific and the spiritual level. It is so extraordinary that it is, frankly, hard to believe – until you see the data, the science, the rigour, and the many independent affirmations of her findings [...] The future of this planet depends on our ability to understand Nature and integrate what she is telling us; Simard is one of her most insightful and eloquent translators"
– John Vaillant, bestselling author and winner of the Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction (Canada) for The Golden Spruce, The Tiger, and Jaguar's Children

"This book promises to change our understanding about what is really going on in the forest, and other pressing mysteries about the real world"
– Michael Pollan

"A vivid and compelling memoir of [Simard's] lifelong quest to prove that the forest is more than just a collection of trees"
The New York Times

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