NEW YORK TIMES BEST SELLER * From the world's leading forest ecologist who forever changed how people view trees and their connections to one another and to other living things in the forest--a moving, deeply personal journey of discovery Suzanne Simard is a pioneer on the frontier of plant communication and intelligence; she's been compared to Rachel Carson, hailed as a scientist who conveys complex, technical ideas in a way that is dazzling and profound. Her work has influenced filmmakers (the Tree of Souls of James Cameron's Avatar) and her TED talks have been viewed by more than 10 million people worldwide. Now, in her first book, Simard brings us into her world, the intimate world of the trees, in which she brilliantly illuminates the fascinating and vital truths--that trees are not simply the source of timber or pulp, but are a complicated, interdependent circle of life; that forests are social, cooperative creatures connected through underground networks by which trees communicate their vitality and vulnerabilities with communal lives not that different from our own. Simard writes--in inspiring, illuminating, and accessible ways--how trees, living side by side for hundreds of years, have evolved, how they perceive one another, learn and adapt their behaviors, recognize neighbors, and remember the past; how they have agency about the future; elicit warnings and mount defenses, compete and cooperate with one another with sophistication, characteristics ascribed to human intelligence, traits that are the essence of civil societies--and at the center of it all, the Mother Trees: the mysterious, powerful forces that connect and sustain the others that surround them. Simard writes of her own life, born and raised into a logging world in the rainforests of British Columbia, of her days as a child spent cataloging the trees from the forest and how she came to love and respect them--embarking on a journey of discovery, and struggle. And as she writes of her scientific quest, she writes of her own journey--of love and loss, of observation and change, of risk and reward, making us understand how deeply human scientific inquiry exists beyond data and technology, that it is about understanding who we are and our place in the world, and, in writing of her own life, we come to see the true connectedness of the Mother Tree that nurtures the forest in the profound ways that families and human societies do, and how these inseparable bonds enable all our survival.… (more)
It is also partly a biography, telling the story of the author's life and
The book's most obvious theme is cooperation as a paradigm for forest growth and health. Simard communicates this idea very effectively. Despite her decades of efforts to get this perspective to inform policy and industrial practices, she still struggles for it to have traction in forestry management. She has been more successful among academics and the general public. It's clear that there are actual elements of competition in natural ecology, but the conceptual exclusion of cooperative mechanisms is a debilitating fault that Simard's work has consistently sought to address. (She doesn't much bother to explain, but it is hideously obvious, that this feature in her field is derived from industrial capitalism and entrenched in neoliberal outlooks that create analogous damage on many other levels as well.)
On the philosophical level--again, inextricable from the memoirist content--I was reminded of Haraway's Staying with the Trouble, although the emphasis here on unrecognized complexity and interdependence strikes me as more sophisticated than Haraway's slogan of "Make kin, not babies." Simard's trees seem to understand that they need to make kin (in Haraway's sense) in order for their babies to thrive, and to make babies in order to perpetuate their constructive relationships with their kin.
The key (but far from only) scientific takeaway of the common mycorrhizal network as the material stratum of a forest's collective intelligence is pretty thrilling. In other venues, she has referred to this collaborative vegetable-fungal matrix as an "underworld." It is easy for me to imagine cultural evolution of local humans to appreciate this reality without the benefit of the sort of alienating experimental science that Simard has needed to use in validating and justifying her hypotheses. She claims that First Nations lore tallies with her discoveries.
After reading the book, I watched one of Simard's successful TED Talks on YouTube, where I saw her rehearse some of the powerful anecdotes included in this book. She's an adequate public speaker, although she confides in writing that she finds it an unpleasant ordeal. What holds the attention is the awareness she has to impart, and for me, the book medium was more effective. Not only did it supply a fuller explanation of the scientific ideas, but it also put her personal stories into the context of a life arc of professional challenges, intimate relationships, personal survival, and family affections.
I also wasn’t really expecting it to be as autobiographical as it is, but that delighted me as well — I think the frame and context of Simard’s life adds a lot to Simard’s work — as of course it must, and the moments in the wild forest that she shares are deeply evocative.
Why isn’t the whole world talking about this research? Why aren’t the debates over saving ancient trees over? I hope that more will learn and more will change, so that both our beautiful planet and our rapacious species survives.
I applaud Suzanne Simard for conducting her research despite stiff opposition. However, it's important to read till the end. This is when you realize she has rediscovered ancient wisdom but not discovered the
The book itself flows between personal and scientific stories, and it is crucial to realize she presents both stories from her perspective.
It was good to understand where the term "Wood-Wide Web" came from!
As a reader, I really enjoy books about science, but I am not a fan of memoirs, so I found this book to be pretty frustrating. I did find it interesting how the events of Simard's life inspired her research and vice versa, but ultimately I picked up this book because I wanted to learn about trees and forests, not because I wanted to learn about her. I wanted to skim the memoir parts, but she tends to have long sections where she's ruminating about her life and her science together, so skipping the memoir wasn't really an option.
Having said all of that, the research she is going about trees is utterly fascinating. She has discovered that trees not only communicate with each other through mycorrhizal networks, they also share nutrients and can respond to events and stressors surprisingly quickly. Trees can recognize their own kin, and provide more nutrients to their relatives than to other neighbors. This information, and how she discovered it, is fascinating and worth the effort of slogging through the memoir.