Tree talk – joining the dots.

Lovely mature beech – photographed in the grounds of Muncaster Castle, Cumbria in 2017

I’ve just finished reading Suzanne Simard’s newly published book “Finding the Mother Tree” and I’m a bit – well, breathless! – and I’m also slightly ashamed of myself for never having heard about her work before; except that by her own account she’s been regarded with some suspicion by both the forestry industry and the academics too, because her painstaking scientific work was overturning their received wisdom – oh and, of course she’s a woman in an overwhelmingly masculine world. You can get an 18 minute summary of her work on YouTube in her Ted Talk but the book is far fuller and more detailed.

OK so I found parts of it troublingly anthropomorphic – but that turned out to be my problem because in the light of her researches over thirty plus years she has discovered not only that trees communicate with one another (you can read that one once a month in a glossy magazine somewhere), but much more thrillingly that they cooperate; that over time they build huge supportive networks through symbiotic relationships with mycorrhiza which transport so much more than carbon; that the old forests function almost like a biological internet, and that the oldest – mother trees – recognise and nurture their own offspring selectively and strike up mutually beneficial relationships with other species of tree. The forest – she argues – is a perfectly functioning cooperative where mutuality rather than competition rules. Describing all this complexity in human metaphorical terms is entirely justified so long as we understand that it just helps us to embrace the central point she’s making: that just as we have mutually supportive and complex relationships, so too do forests and so to think of them as commodities is to become part of the problem.

Turning a reified version of Nature into a secular object of worship has its millions of followers, but the point here is that our methods of harvesting forests for profit is misguided on many more than aesthetic grounds, or for their capacity to cheer us up in stressful times. The practice of clear cutting forests at once destroys invisible and underground mycorrhizal networks which also embody untold amounts of carbon that is then released into the atmosphere. Clear cutting frequently uses vast amounts of herbicide to kill the weeds and finish off any remaining fungal networks, with the result that newly planted seedlings die because their support network has been destroyed. That’s not to mention the hydrological damage and the incredible damage to wildlife. Depriving humans of a walk in nature comes way down the list of harms.

OK so review (lecture) over I’d urge you to read the book because you really won’t ever feel the same again when you walk through an ancient woodland and feel the decaying sticks crackling underfoot or stoop to pick a fungus: – and when you read that the government wants to drive a railway line through ancient woodland you might see it as a crime against humanity rather than swallow the old economic necessity lie.

As I put the book down, a picture of my grandfather’s smallholding in the Chilterns came to mind. Beyond the house he built for himself, the land shaded into beech woodland and there was a favourite place that my mother would take my sister and me to, beneath a mature beech straddling a mossy bank, exactly like the one I photographed in Cumbria a couple of years ago where I was forced into silence by its beauty and my memories. The beech was nothing in comparison with the enormous mother trees of British Colombia; and nothing at all now, because when my sister and me thought we would scatter our mother’s ashes in the woods there, I discovered that the entire area has become an industrial estate. I also have a memory that our father had carved his and my mother’s initials in the tree. They became engaged during the war without ever having met, after a courtship by letter, and although nothing was ever said, my father’s black depressions and unpredictable moods affected all our lives.

But I need to round this off by saying that for me the takeaway points from the book weren’t just about being abstractly angry at environmental destruction. There are lessons that affect our understanding and management of the allotment that need to be embraced. Something that became clear as the book progressed through her research was that many of the pieces of this vast jigsaw existed previously in their separate compartments and she was able to draw together lab and field research from which she could formulate her own enquiries. For allotmenteers, it’s all too easy to compartmentalize the things we know into the well worn categories – no dig, organic, composting, companion plants and so-on. But as I put the book down I think I understood better than ever before the relatedness of all these ideas. The soil isn’t separate from the crop, the plant nutrition, the pests, the harvesting and eating – they’re one single complex system with us as participants. I began to think my understanding of the three sisters combination; growing beans, squashes and corn together, was hopelessly narrow. The corn isn’t just there to provide a physical support for the beans and neither is the sole function of the squash the suppression of weeds. Many generations of First Nation experience suggest that there is something far more significant going on.

The ancestral understanding was of a symbiotic relationship between the sisters. We ‘know’ (in separated mental compartments) that legumes have nitrogen fixing nodules. Is there – in their patch of earth, teeming with microorganisms, worms and insects, yeasts, and fungi – a similar collaborative and mutually beneficial relationship going on? Are almost invisible mycelia, dependent upon the organic health of the soil, transporting carbon in the form of sugars from species to species? Are they messaging one another, assisting in the repulsion of insect and fungal pests, firing up defence mechanisms? Our whole atomised and compartmentalising scientific logic encourages us to step back dispassionately and regard each phenomenon in its own right. But what if they’re communicating with one another and it’s us who are the dummies, unable to comprehend their language. Companion planting must have a biological mechanism that we could investigate; and suddenly talking to trees makes more sense.

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