We have marveled at Susan Simard since we realized she was the model for the fearless, hermetic tree botanist in Richard Power’s wondrous tree-centric novel The Overstory. She opened our eyes to the intricate underground communication network trees create and depend upon and to the existence of Mother Trees, the huge ancient trees that nourish and teach the younger trees around them. They are “the glue that holds the forest together”.
She has written about them, and her life of listening to and decrypting the secret life of trees in Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Ancient Wisdom of the Forest.
Here is an excerpt from the book’s introduction that has unique resonance for Mother’s Day:
The older trees are able to discern which seedlings are their own kin.
The old trees nurture the young ones and provide them food and water just as we do with our own children. It is enough to make one pause, take a deep breath, and contemplate the social nature of the forest and how this is critical for evolution. The fungal network appears to wire the trees for fitness. And more. These old trees are mothering their children.
The Mother Trees.
When Mother Trees—the majestic hubs at the center of forest communication, protection, and sentience—die, they pass their wisdom to their kin, generation after generation, sharing the knowledge of what helps and what harms, who is friend or foe, and how to adapt and survive in an ever-changing landscape.
It is a description of what all true mothers do. We find it deeply comforting to think of these great trees’ presence around us.
Asked in an NPR interview if she got discouraged over the great threat that climate change and destructive forestry practices pose, she said:
I don’t have time to be discouraged. As I started studying these forest systems, I realized that the way they are organized, they can recover really quickly. You can push them to the point of collapse, but they have a huge buffering capacity. I mean, nature is brilliant, right?
But the difference right now is that with climate change, we’re going to need to help nature along a bit. We’re going to have to make sure the mother trees are there to help the next generation come forward…
… we have changed climate so rapidly that forests will need help to survive and reproduce.
Simard has spearheaded the Mother Tree Project to research and design forest regeneration practices that protect the mother trees and the health of the forest.
What can we do? We’re thinking that the best possible gift to give these days is trees, and there are all sorts of ways to do that, from buying a tree in a nursery to plant yourself to donating to charities that will plant trees for you in someone’s honor. We like One Tree Planted that has planting projects all over the world. One dollar will plant one tree, which seems like the bargain of the century.
For a Mother’s Day gift, you can “purchase” trees that will be planted in Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota which helps the Ojibwe community and habitats of the American Bald Eagle. You can give your mama a “present certificate”.
All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning
— W.S. Merwin, from The Shadow of Sirius
With heartfelt thanks to Susan Dworski.