Simard and the Mother Tree by Mary Odden

The first time I read Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, she—or the editor I imagined leaning over her shoulder—made me uncomfortable. In the first 40 pages, where she tells us she belongs to a fourth generation of British Columbia hand loggers and describes her childhood thoughts, she is also folding in revelations about soils and roots that I still question could come from a child mind—never mind how unusual the child. As the older members of her multi-generational household dig the family dog out of the outhouse pit, she chews on a piece of humus and wonders about fungal threads.

Okay, I thought. I know where this is going. I could imagine an editor considering a thick scientific tome, a tome not just announcing but proving, by rigorous observation and experiments, that tree species not only communicate with each other but cooperate through the organisms at their roots for the well-being of the forest—not just for the individuals or even individual species. Important stuff, maybe crucial. But the editor would know these revelations (already presented in scientific papers, at conferences, and through media gradually becoming aware of the message) had power to shift policy and practice in North American forests, but would further raise opposition from policy makers and scientists steeped in the paradigm of “competition for survival.” Simard doesn’t upend Darwin, but she reframes some of his questions. In doing this, she is up against an immense inertia of entrenched assumption. And this editor, I surmised, might have said to the writer, Simard, “You gotta make this science a compelling story with your life stuck into it if you want it spread outside the hard science universe.”

I have a different idea about Simard’s book now. Because I believe independent science can show us how to sustain our own and other lives on the planet, I eagerly read physics and biology interpreted for me by graceful writers. David George Haskell’s book, The Songs of Trees, is a stunning example of this grace, a sweeping tour of individual trees from the Amazon to New York City streets to a bonzai that survived Hiroshima. Haskell imparts deep and surprising scientific revelation, shifts our view of what trees mean to climate, to culture, to sweltering cities. What Haskell doesn’t do is talk much about himself. And the science he conveys so well is well-formed, ready to consider.

Simard’s portrayal of her science, by contrast, is a mess. Reading her book the first time around, after deciding to accept that this was a writer whose stray thoughts and phone calls and sandwich ingredients were going to be stuck into the science, I wanted to fall into the arms of her story. I knew it was important for me to know that she comes from a family of loggers. She knows people who lost their hands to dynamite while blasting log jams apart, people drowned when they lost their balance in the great rivers of felled timber. She comes to the forest from inside it, and when she challenges the assumptions of the forest industry, she does so with a deep understanding of how people have made their lives and livings with trees. The story of herself in her family is not separate from her struggle to get policy makers to stop killing the forest.

I still got whiplash, though, reading a description walking through strands of creamy lichen hanging from old growth branches and then finding myself, at the end of the same sentence, in Simard’s dead brother’s closet, looking at his white shirts. But really, this is how a mind can work, isn’t it? And I had to stop myself from cringing when Simard told us the story of how her breast milk soaked through her shirt at the podium, distracting an already hostile audience.

Simard feels shame in the rejection of her work, and she does not pry it loose from the shame people wanted her to feel for showing up in this profession at all, and then having the nerve and skill to revise it. Women recognize this shame; probably some men react to unfair criticism in this wrongheaded way, too. I’ll ask around. But being told we don’t belong was a common experience for women of Simard’s generation, and mine—in the forest, on the fire line, boarding the ship to do oceanography. We can feel the sting when she is wondering maybe if she should have spoken more carefully, not said that thing about the use of defoliating chemicals being as useless as painting rocks. We lie awake with her, suffering, as she considers withdrawing from the conflicts, then calls on the strength of a feisty grandmother to get her back into the fight. She’ll take a new job, design another experiment, learn to ask a different question again and again. She calls on the skills of her family and others to collect the data, project the forest of the future in a way that will change minds, change policies. And along the way she lets us into the house where she lives, where there are family wounds, the tearing conflicts of researching, writing and teaching while caring for children and maintaining a marriage.

That was my first time through the book, where I eventually allowed it to be the true memoir of a remarkable scientist, a female scientist. I allowed myself to be drawn along by the events of Simard’s long career. She teaches her readers bravery, as she changes ways we see forests, suffers then succeeds in her profession. And in her life, with cancer and with loss. Perseverance and honesty, the book suggests, may even change the shapes of families and our places in them.

The second time through the book is a different ride, one I am thankful to be taking. This time, Simard is teaching me to be a scientist, one flaky spongey mycorrhizae on root tip at a time. This time, I am prepared to be led into questions Simard is asking about forest cooperation as she designs the experiments. I am as breathless as she is to see what is clinging to the ends of roots after months of waiting, or to hear the click of a Geiger counter announcing that a radioactive carbon has been exchanged between species of trees through their fungal connections. Simard is teaching me the difference between the hundreds of fungi that kill trees, or help them decay, and the ones that help them think about each other and exchange life-giving nutrients and water at the right time of a season or of their lives. Mother Tree is solid, factual revelation, as well as uber useful metaphor.

I’m not going to jump into a career as a forest ecologist. I think by now I’ve let go of being an astronaut, too. But geez, if I’d known how possible it was to feel this fascination for how the forest works, how human a career this could be, how important to the world these questions are, I could have seen, earlier, what it is that science can accomplish. And because Simard has provided this entwined personal narrative, I can see how deeply women belong in this work.

 

Mary Odden will be teaching the 49 Writers workshop Anthropomorphia: Writers Giving Voice to Earth on May 6th in Anchorage, Alaska. You can register for her workshop HERE. Odden’s creative work has appeared in Cirque, the Georgia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Northwest Review, Nimrod, and in Under Northern Lights, an anthology of contemporary Alaska art and writing. In 2020, she received an Alaska Literary Award from the Alaska Arts and Culture Foundation. In 2015, she received a Rasmuson Foundation Individual Artist Award that supported her work on the essays gathered in Mostly Water, published in June 2020 by Boreal Books, an imprint of Red Hen Press.  

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