Review “Find the mother tree”: see the forest

For over a decade I have been running Google Alerts for ‘fungi’ and ‘fungi’ and until recently most of the articles were about athlete’s foot remedies or recipes like stuffed mushrooms. There were annual notices of incursions and festivals, and sometimes poisoning, usually a curious puppy, sometimes an unhappy family. But lately interest in mushrooms has increased. Mushrooms seem to be the latest trend in health and wellness, and judging from my Instagram feed, there’s a whole new crowd of gorgeous youngsters interested in mycology. These days, I’m drowning in alerts about mushroom hunting, medicinal mushrooms, psychedelic mushrooms, trendy mushrooms, and mushrooms as a metaphor for the common good.

The latter notion stems mainly from 21st century research showing that the forest is not just a collection of trees but a community linked by fungi. The idea captured the imagination of the public, through films such as “Avatar”, books like “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben and the TED talk by mycologist Paul Stamets, “Six Ways That Mushrooms Can Save the World ”, which has been viewed nearly 10 million times. What all of these ideas have in common is the research conducted by a shy Canadian forest ecologist named Suzanne Simard, whose doctoral thesis changed the way we understand the woods.

Find the mother tree

By Suzanne Simard

Knopf, 348 pages, $ 28.95

It has long been established that plants exchange some of the sugar they make for micronutrients sought after in the soil by fungi, and research had already been carried out that showed the link between fungi and trees. Simard’s study found that fungi actually attach themselves to the roots of several trees of different species, creating pipelines through which a forest community could share nutrients and other molecules and thus “challenge the dominant theory that cooperation is less important than competition in evolution and ecology.

Simard and her colleagues proved their theory with a simple, well-designed field experiment: She labeled tree sugars with radioactive isotopes, then followed them as they passed through fungal tubes and into the root tips of the trees. ‘other trees. His article was published in the journal Nature in 1997 and made the cover, beating the discovery of the fruit fly genome (bigger than it looks). The editors of Nature called it “the canvas at the wood scale” and today it is a shortcut for more than the communication networks of trees and their fungi in a given ecosystem: it has become this. what Richard Powers calls “the gospel of the character of Patricia Westerford in his novel“ The Overstory ”is based on Mrs. Simard) and a metaphor for cooperation as a means of success and happiness.

What to read this week

Secrets of the Forest, the Last Confession of a Double Agent, Paul Theroux’s Surfing Tale, a Friendly Pack of Dog Tales and more.

Mrs. Simard tells this story and the story of her many other surprising discoveries (I stopped counting her scholarly articles to 150) in a new living and inspiring memoir, “Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest” . Introducing herself here as a serious, hardworking and gentle corn scoop, Ms. Simard recounts how she began her career as a researcher at the British Columbia Ministry of Forests. The ministry implemented a free-growth policy for its pine plantations that eliminated plants that rivaled saplings for sun and water, such as forest-scale weeding. Still, pine seedlings failed to thrive. Ms. Simard’s intuition was that “weed” plants were somehow necessary for the well-being of seedlings. Exploring this intuition has been her life’s work.

Over the years, Ms. Simard has not lacked perspective. Government bureaucrats were reluctant to spend money on his recommendations. Her managers resisted changing their forestry models and perhaps “couldn’t listen to the women”, calling her a “troublemaker”. Scientific colleagues have questioned his research methods. The latter may have sprung from envy, but ultimately forms an important part of the scientific process. After all, without rigorous verification, we could still believe that Vulcan is, indeed, a planet. Today, Ms. Simard’s research is widely accepted. We now know that through fungal networks, trees share resources, that mature trees (what she calls “pivot trees” in her research and “mother trees” when addressing a popular audience. ) support seedlings, favor their parents and distribute resources, even in the event of death. . It’s a radical new understanding of plants.

Today, Simard is a professor of forestry at the University of British Columbia, where she is undoubtedly influencing a generation of environmentalists. In her TED talks, her documentaries and now this book, she shows her prowess as a communicator, something she also teaches. Even an English student like me can understand the biology described here.


Florian Gaertner / Photothek / Getty Images

“Finding the Mother Tree” is a combination of personal anecdote and scientific article. For each of Ms. Simard’s findings, we get the hypothesis, experience, and methods, a discussion of the results, and a conclusion suggesting where it all might lead. But the author makes things easier by replacing the scientific language purified by emotions with something more lyrical, enriching and subjective. There are beautiful paragraphs listing the species and their niches: “A collection of longhaired ferns, with their delicate black stems, grew from a patch of humus at the base of a rock wall covered with a cascade of licorice ferns. . . and tiny oak ferns covered the elevations in the shade of the trees. And there are some surprising (and surprisingly appropriate) analogies, such as when she compares the node and node system of old and young trees interconnected by mycorrhizal fungi to neural cells and pathways.

She describes the exhilaration when new ideas strike, the deliberate boredom of the experiments, and the rush when the results take a peek under the skirt of nature, often expressed in italics and French from her Canadian family: My God ! Of course! Saint talkative! Summarizing her findings, she compares the secret life of trees to her own. Motherhood inspires her to wonder if trees favor their related seedlings in allocating carbon. Her frustration with gender stereotypes leads her to question whether competition really trumps cooperation as a driver of evolution. And his battle with cancer leads him to speculate whether dead trees leave carbon to loved ones before other trees in their fungal network, such as leaving money for children first, whatever is left given to the family. local public radio station. For Ms. Simard, personal experience leads to revelation, and scientific revelation leads to personal insight.

It is therefore not surprising that it endows trees with human characteristics: mother trees nourish their young, pass on their wisdom and help each other in distress and disease. Its representations provide the layman reader with an anthropomorphic compass to better navigate biology. But it’s a slippery slope. I get annoyed when genetic adaptation is called wisdom, or feedback loops are described as intelligence, when it is perhaps more accurate to say that feedback loops are a model of intelligence. . I feel a little cranky to complain about it, but that’s the conundrum of anthropomorphism: on the one hand, it helps people appreciate nature and get excited about its preservation; on the other, it keeps us stuck in an anthropocentric point of view.

In the end, I think that the affixing of human traits on plants is justified because “Finding the mother tree” makes it possible to give meaning to a forest of mysteries. It might even persuade you that organisms other than ourselves, even fungi, have power. Ms. Simard hasn’t written a book “How I Found a Great Idea” so much as she has a book on what makes an idea great.

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