Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest

Knopf. May 2021. 368p. ISBN 9780525656098. $28.95. NAT HIST
Simard (forest ecology, Univ. of British Columbia) tells the story of her pioneering research on trees’ use of fungal networks to nourish and communicate with one other: the so-called “wood-wide web.” There should be strong interest in Simard’s memoir, as she is something of a star among tree lovers and was the inspiration for the character Patricia Westerford in Richard Powers’s Pulitzer Prize–winner The Overstory. Here, readers follow along as Simard’s research develops, and as she discovers that plant communities are driven by not only competition but cooperation as well: different tree species share resources with trees in need, “mother” trees send carbon to seedlings, and dying trees donate nutrients to neighbors. Simard celebrates pivotal moments, navigates personal crises, and admits to professional doubts; all told in a smoothly written narrative. The risks and rigors of her field work—conducting experiments with radioactive materials, navigating salmon runs while being aware of wild animals within and around the forest—are keenly felt, as are the challenges facing a reticent woman working for change in the way we manage forests. There are photographs of trees throughout.
VERDICT Simard’s science fascinates, and so too does her life. This is an engaging memoir of scientific discovery.
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