Learning About How Trees Talk to Each Other (Another Book Report)

Whenever I make the 90 minute drive from my house to my sister’s, I turn on NPR and thus convert what might be a stressful trip into one of enlightenment. The trick is to leave earlier than I need to or to never have a fixed arrival time. Having removed that stressor, I’m usually not bothered by stop-and-go traffic, which, let’s face it, through Boston and down to “The Split” is pretty much a given. I’m a fan of “Hidden Brain” hosted by the honey-voiced Shankar Vedantam and “Fresh Air” with the endearing Terry Gross.

On New Year’s Eve Day I was delighted to find myself with Ira Flatow and his “Science Friday” program. (For years I thought his name was Ira Plato — it was only in looking up the correct spelling for this post that I made the discovery that I’d had it wrong all these years.) His guests were two science editors, and the three of them had a congenial share session, rhapsodizing over their favorite books released in 2021. (That’s one of the things I love about Ira — he always conducts such cozy and benign interviews, never the “gotcha” kind. One imagines a coffee-house setting, with everyone ranging around a low table, sipping craft coffee while burrowed into deep, pillowy sofas.)

Of the twelve “favorites” being reviewed, I was most intrigued by Suzanne Simard’s memoir, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. Buying the book was a bold move for me, as I was acutely aware that three science minds were recommending it. I feared I would quickly become adrift in the technicalities. Well, yes, I did get rather lost in the weeds — no pun intended. But I congratulate myself that, for once, I persevered despite my ignorance in all things dendrological. I just finished the book this week and FedExed it across the country to my daughter, who lives in the Pacific Northwest, therefore ticking the relevancy box (as will quickly become apparent), and being further reassured that I was gifting it in the right direction because she’s someone who casually throws around words like ecosystem and nitrogen in the same way that I invoke terms associated with ice cream flavors and toppings.

Suzanne Simard grew up in the forests of British Colombia, descending from a family of loggers. Her close physical ties to the land inspired her educational and career choices, ultimately earning her a PhD in forest sciences from Oregon State University. Throughout her story we have a sense that, as convincing as the findings from her field studies were, she was forever seeking the blessing of the logging industry policy-makers, who for the longest time remained obtusely resistant to her peer-reviewed studies and her prescriptive solutions to the sickening forests that they were sanctioning. To her enduring frustration, she also was repeatedly and unfairly challenged simply because she was a woman doing serious work in a male-dominated industry. Despite the specious denials by the old guard, her work was meticulous and groundbreaking, flowing naturally from her own curiosity about the underground interactions between trees, both same species and different species. From the beginning, she suspected that trees communicated with each other through a network of mycorrhizal fungi, and that these conduits provided mutual aid when trees underwent stress. I must pause here to reassure you that “mycorrhizal” is as science-y as I dare to get, and I only use it because it is so essential to her work (and because I read that word about 5,000 times in the course of reading her memoir.)

As her story wended its way through decades-long studies and efforts to stimulate sustainable practices, I began to understand her sense of alarm over the fate of North America’s forests. Even though she shuns the spotlight, she has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to inform not just the science community, but the shapers of policy as well as the general public. Central to her mission is educating about the harm inflicted when clear cutting is followed by single-species restock protocols. I now understand, for example, how the “free to grow” practices that the logging industry swore by were failing to produce healthy forests; the strategy of single species cultivation, whereby any and all “competitors” are systematically removed, is an (expensive) exercise in wasteful depletion. Backed up by her own and others’ experiments, Simard has proven that diversity is essential. (Mineral exchanges, for instance, of nitrogen and carbon through the underground mycorrhizal network assure the health of “the neighborhood.”) I can’t help but think of her discoveries as magical. That there’s this whole underground world of tree communication — a mutual aid society, if you will — just blows my mind. It makes me want to dig around some of my trees to examine the mycorrhiza! (But I don’t want to hurt them.)

Later in the book, Simard turns her attention to the predatory crises posed by bark beetles (the mountain pine beetle and the Douglas fir beetle, in particular.) As forests are weakened by both logging practices (directly) and climate change (generally), the beetles have gained the upper hand. The scale of the invasions should have us worried.

Simard’s life’s work has been an effort to encourage conservation. She’s not a combative, in-your-face contrarian. Rather, she takes a nuanced approach, understanding that there’s a workable solution that acknowledges the goals of the logging industry, but remains sensitive to the critical needs of the environment. Her heart is so fully in the fight to get her message out there and, ultimately, to save the forests.

The book has given me a lot to reflect on, and I’ve been looking at my surroundings differently. The most visible evidence of this is that, more than once, someone on the rail trail, in trying to move around me, has had to interrupt my tree gazing as I stand still in the middle of the path with one dog sniffing on one side of the trail and the other (of course) stretching his leash to the other side while I study the crowns and understories of interesting trees (that I’ve made a mental note to learn the names of.)

I highly recommend this memoir, going so far as to say it is an “important” one. That it is relevant and the conclusions credible is a certainty. Don’t be deterred by its scientific bent — I wasn’t, and I’m a baby when it comes to technical reading. I’m much more mindful now (but maybe only slightly more knowledgeable) about ideas such as energy transfer (energy can neither be created nor destroyed) and the whole notion of ecological balance. It forces one to look more carefully at larger contexts when faced with natural (as well as man-induced) events, and to wonder — in the end — about how everything connects.

As my final reward I followed up with the author’s TED Talk, “How Trees Talk to Each Other“. It does a great job of synthesizing her work.