Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest – Suzanne Simard, 2021

Read for Nature and Environment. While the research was fascinating, ultimately I didn’t think it was a great book. We loved how she treated Indigenous knowledge respectfully, and used the tribe names.

In this book I learned about

  • enchytraeids (common name is potworms)
  • pauropods – I think I’ve seen these. Excellent quote by Lord Avebury in Wikipedia: “a bustling, active, neat and cleanly creature. It has, too, a look of cheerful intelligence, which forms a great contrast to the dull stupidity of the Diplopods [millipedes], or the melancholy ferocity of most Chilopods [centipedes].”
  • genet – “one fungal individual …, of singular genetic identity, like an individual person”

Short quotes

  • “My instinct has always been to listen to what living things are saying. We think that most important clues are large, but the world loves to remind us that they can be beautifully small.”
  • One of the clunkiest sentences ever (and it ends a paragraph): “‘Mon chou,’ Wilfred exclaimed while knocking the wedge of sapwood out with the back of his axe-head, leaving a yawning grin that resembled their own mouths, since they’d lost most of their teeth to cavities in their teens, now replaced with dentures.”
  • “I understood the pride of claiming what was grandest, the temptation—green-gold fever. The handsomest trees captured top prices. They meant jobs for the locals, mills staying open. I checked out this one’s immense bole, seeing the cut through Ray’s eyes. Once you start hunting, it’s easy to get addicted. Like always wanting to snag the tallest peaks. After a while, your appetite can never be sated.”
  • “I loved the generous rhythm of the way the land and the forest and the rivers came together to refresh the winds at the close of each day. Helped settle us all down for the night. Air purified by the ancient forests hovered, and I let the downdraft cleanse me.”
  • “The lichens and mosses and algae and fungi were also steady as could be, gradually building up the soil, quietly in tandem. Things—and people—working together so that something noticeable could occur.”
  • “Interactions over resources isn’t a winner-take-all thing; it’s about give-and-take, building more from a little and finding balance over the long term.”
  • Her father tells her to “imagine an audience as a bunch of cabbages,” so throughout the book she references “nodding cabbages” or says “the cabbages tilted forward.”
  • “We emphasize domination and competition in the management of trees in forests. And crops in agricultural fields. And stock animals on farms. We emphasize factions instead of coalitions.”
  • “[I] stopped at a sapling shedding its parka of snow. After I swept the last crust of melded crystals away, its supple stem slowly straightened. We are built for recovery, I thought.”
  • “Maybe the fast-cycling fungi could provide a way for the trees to adjust swiftly to cope with change and uncertainty. Instead of waiting for the next generation of trees to reproduce with more adaptive ways of coping with the soils warming and drying as climate changes, the mycorrhizal fungi with which the trees are in symbiosis could evolve much faster to acquire increasingly tightly bound resources.”
  • “The eagle suddenly lifted, caught an updraft, and vanished past the peaks. There is no moment too small in the world. Nothing should be lost. Everything has a purpose, and everything is in need of care. This is my creed. Let us embrace it. We can watch it rise. Just like that, at any time—all the time—wealth and grace will soar.”

Longer quote

Ecosystems are so similar to human societies—they’re built on relationships. The stronger those are, the more resilient the system. And since our world’s systems are composed of individual organisms, they have the capacity to change. We creatures adapt, our genes evolve, and we can learn from experience. A system is ever changing because its parts—the trees and fungi and people—are constantly responding to one another and to the environment. Our success in coevolution—our success as a productive society—is only as good as the strength of these bonds with other individuals and species. Out of the resulting adaptation and evolution emerge behaviors that help us survive, grow, and thrive.

We can think of an ecosystem of wolves, caribou, trees, and fungi creating biodiversity just as an orchestra of woodwind, brass, percussion, and string musicians assemble into a symphony. Or our brains, composed of neurons, axons, and neurotransmitters, produce thought and compassion. Or the way brothers and sisters join to overcome a trauma like illness or death, the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The cohesion of biodiversity in a forest, the musicians in an orchestra, the members of a family growing through conversation and feedback, through memories and learning from the past, even if chaotic and unpredictable, leveraging scarce resources to thrive. Through this cohesion, our systems develop into something whole and resilient. They are complex. Self-organizing. They have the hallmarks of intelligence. Recognizing that forest ecosystems, like societies, have these elements of intelligence helps us leave behind old notions that they are inert, simple, linear, and predictable. Notions that have helped fuel the justification for rapid exploitation that has risked the future existence of creatures in the forest systems.

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