Suzanne Simard Creates a Bridge to the Future

It interests me that September 30th was declared Truth and Reconciliation Day in Canada because this is the day I was born and this is where we need to begin! Truth and Reconciliation is about acknowledging the wound and healing the split between the Indigenous ways of being in the world and the rest of western civilization. First we become fully accountable for the blood that was shed in this country by immigrants (knowingly or unknowingly). Healing the bloody root that is still caught underground. And then we need to begin to listen to those who are still in direct relationship with the earth…If there was ever a time for humans to surrender one perspective for another it is now. We need to reject the values of patriarchy – domination, war, hatred and division – and embrace what Carol Christ calls an egalitarian matriarchy  – a communal way of living that values relationships and compassion and thrives upon equality between the sexes – one that also celebrates diversity. Turning to Nature and Indigenous peoples to learn how to make this shift is an avenue to genuine hope…

All summer I have been engaged with mushrooming in the forest, a practice that has deepened my relationship with the forest as a whole as well as making it even more real to me that I am walking on hallowed ground with Forest Scientist Suzanne Simard, who also learned about mycorrhizal and other underground networks by examining mushrooms. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of some of the millions of gold, silver, red and orange threads that lie just beneath the forest floor. Thanks to the work of this feminist, the word is never used in her book Finding the Mother Tree…, but she is a prime example of a woman who has lived her life as a feminist who does not find men a threat.

 

Suzanne grew up in the forest as the daughter of a logging family, feeling that she was a part of a great web of forest interconnection.  She says the trees were in her DNA and of course, we know today that they were (each of us shares about 53 percent of our DNA with trees). The men in her family logged old growth forest in BC sustainably, “never taking more than they needed” and the very dangerous work of logging was all done by hand. 

Suzanne was the first woman to enter the field of Forestry as a young undergraduate in the late seventies where she discovered to her dismay that everything she was learning was increasingly focused on separating the parts of the forest from the whole.  She believed that clear cutting whole mountains and replanting ‘plantations’ composed of one species of fir was detrimental to the trees, inviting insect infestation while destroying the underground mycelial networks that she intuited connected all the trees and plants of the forest in a ‘wood wide web’. She sensed that entire forests were communicating not just above ground (they also communicate threats of insects invasion and other information by way of air) but underground through thousands and thousands of miles of  mycorrhizae composed of roots and fungus. She believed that when these root and fungal nets were destroyed during logging, young seedlings had difficulty generating. She also sensed that separating one tree species from another would have negative long – term consequences for clear cutting and plantations alike ( plantations are one species of tree planted in rows after clear cutting). “Mother trees” are the oldest trees in the forest, the trees with the most complex underground networks that support the rest of the trees and plants. She believed that leaving these trees and their young helped the forest regenerate as well as encouraging wildlife diversity She later proved all the above. 

 After Suzanne’s values collided with those of the forest service and funding dried up she left the forest industry. When she obtained her PhD. Suzanne became a Forest scientist/ecologist. In her first field experiment she proved that fir and birch exchanged carbon through mycelia and that these two species cooperated with each other supporting and enhancing the growth and health of both (birch also protected fir from devastating root disease). Through extensive research over a period of thirty plus years she demonstrated how many trees communicated and exchanged carbon and other nutrients, nourished and favored their kin but also helped their neighbors, and when dying, offered precious carbon and other elements to the forests they left behind as well as sequestering the former in the ground.

 Initially she hoped that this research would demonstrate that each forest acted like one living organism. And that this new understanding would help change existing destructive forestry practices. Sadly, after thirty plus years, and hundreds of field experiments by Suzanne and her graduate students that continued to prove her theses, not one forestry practice has changed. In Canada 80 percent of the forests continue to be clear-cut. In the US where we have fewer trees 40 percent are still strip logged. In both countries enormous amounts of carbon are being released into the atmosphere as a result.

Today, Suzanne, who has closed an ancient circle when she discovered that her values mirrored those who lived here for millennia, is working directly with Indigenous Peoples. She has begun an ambitious one hundred year research program called “The Mother Tree Project” which is designed around learning how to help forests survive during climate change. Many trees throughout the country are already sick and some are dying. As the climate continues to warm some new species will replace those that cannot adapt fast enough, and thanks to Suzanne’s research we already know that trees will pass on nutrients to NEW species giving them the necessary carbon etc. they need to survive. This program is open to existing and future graduate students, citizen scientists and anyone who is interested in participating. Central to the program are the values of relationship and partnership, which we desperately need to embrace if the human species is to survive…

 Regardless of outcome, Suzanne has created a bridge into the future with her groundbreaking work that I hope will reach the ears of people soon enough to make a difference.

A Walk Through the Forest

A Walk through the Forest

A walk through my absolutely favorite woodland seems reminiscent of walking through a primary forest that has never been logged. Of course this one has been, but it was probably before logging was taken out of the hands of the men who once cared for trees they cut – so it has recovered. Hunting and motorized four-wheel vehicles are not allowed here. A narrow pine strewn path follows a meandering river. Sweet, rich moist soil and decaying detritus sprout all kinds of plants; orchids and other wildflowers, ferns, partridgeberry, wintergreen, princess pine, ground cedar and hobble bush to mention just a few. A myriad of ground covers and young deciduous and conifer saplings all work together to create a healthy understory. Towering white pines, hemlock, balsam, hardwoods, including very old birches, shade the ground beneath my feet. The scent of the forest is intoxicating.

Spying so many mushrooms reminds me of Forest Scientist Suzanne Simard’s words in “Finding the Mother Tree” about how the “mushroom is the visible tip of something deep and elaborate like a thick lace tablecloth knit into the forest floor”. 

My fascination grows – what are these mushrooms telling me about underground networking? Who is helping whom? In this place there are many hub or mother trees (male and female) who weave the whole forest together above and below ground along with the fungi that live at their roots, transferring water, carbon, phosphorus etc. to all the other older trees, tender young saplings, understory plants and ground covers. Here I find the first signs of fall color – rose tinted hobble bush and blushing swamp maples – creeping partridge berry in three stages – leaves, lime green berries, and those who have turned crimson. Brilliant emerald green mosses cover windblown tree stumps, decomposing trees that died naturally. Every rotting trunk has become a new micro – forest. 

The complexity of the underground network of a forest left alone to care for itself becomes so real to me as I walk through trying to identify individual mushrooms, and hopefully to discover which are in a beneficial (symbiotic) mycorrhizal or saprophytic (decaying) relationship with some or all the trees.

Sounds easy? Not so! This untouched forest is so healthy and so full of such a multitude of species that it’s often impossible to tell what relationship these fruiting fungi might have with their neighbors!

I spy an edible Purple Russula.  I learned from my research that this mushroom has a mycorrhizal relationship with hardwood trees. I peer overhead. The swaying leaves of beech, oak, ash, and maple trees surround me. Is there one tree in particular that is favored? Underground these fungi are exchanging water, carbon, sugar, phosphorous, and other nutrients with some or all of these trees.

  Such mystery surrounds me!  I spy some bright yellow fingers – Golden spindles (a coral fungus) attached to rotting wood. These are saprophytic; they help wood to decay creating rich new soil in the process. They also apparently have a penchant for oaks

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 A bit further on I see more. After digging under a thick mossy carpet to find the decaying wood I am baffled. No wood. Just moss. Golden spindles also love moss and moist earth. I notice the same thing with the small brillant orange mushrooms. Some of the Vermillion waxy caps seem to be growing out of decaying wood, some spring out of the moss. Later, researching these fruiting bodies to clear up my confusion, I learn that both are saprophytic and can also have a mycorrhizal relationship with moss.

All of the Amanita’s I saw like Yellow Patches, Amanita Muscaria, and the Death Angel seemed to be growing independently. I expose the bulb that is hidden underground, noting the veil of one of the Death angels, wondering why people are poisoned by this mushroom – it is so easy to identify them. All have veils. Even the little ‘puffballs’ when sliced, expose a hidden stalk that identifies the species as deadly. Most of the mushrooms in this family are mycorrhizal; they are in partnership with the trees under which they grow.

 In areas where the sun gets in, blow – downs have created space for new growth. Young hemlocks are thriving in the late afternoon sun. Further on, in the darker dappled thick woods, I see bear sign everywhere, thankful that here at least, the animals cannot be shot. On days like this I make it a habit to stop at some point on the trail and return by exactly the same route so I don’t miss any mushrooms. When we reverse directions I am thrilled to see that a bear has followed the dogs and me on our walk. After we had moved on this animal dug up more of the ground in the places where I had been poking around looking for mycelial networking. We never actually saw the bear but s/he certainly saw us! It is a wonderful feeling to know that the bear felt no fear. Apparently, Ursine curiosity matches my own! 

The most surprising find is a cluster of mushrooms growing out of a dead maple. I recognize them from my research on forest pathogens. In some instances, Armillaria mellea can also act as a saprophytic mushroom. I suspected that this might be the case here since no surrounding trees or plants seem to be negatively affected. The Armillaria also fruits as the honey mushroom that appears around the base of some trees in September or October. It too can act as a saprophyte, or it can behave aggressively, using its thick black rhizomorphs to gird and strangle roots killing any tree in its path. 

 I had also learned from Suzanne that birch trees – alive or decaying – offer some natural protection against this pathogen. Live birches act as a neutralizing factor slowing the spread of this root disease. I had already noted that this particular forest had very old birch trees that seemed to be thriving. The presence of Armillaria is a natural occurrence throughout the forests of the world. 

This is where we see that nature does a wonderful job keeping her forests in balance as long as they are left alone. Today, we know that creating plantations comprised of a single species of tree guarantees that the trees will be weaker and more prone to disease, because the forest is out of balance. Suzanne Simard’s 30 plus years of impeccable field research (which include hundreds of studies) proves that forests collaborate more than they compete, forests are whole, behaving as one living organism. Her studies demonstrate that although birches may shade firs during the summer months they also send nutrients to the firs, and in the fall these underground mycelial exchanges are reversed! Yet birches along with all other trees/plants are routinely sprayed with herbicides to rid a plantation of its competitors in the ‘free to grow’ forestry program. Simard’s research and that of so many others continues to be ignored by foresters and some land trusts,  alike. It is frightening to recognize that in this time of climate chaos when we so desperately need to change our industrial logging practices that forestry practices remain exactly the same as they did 40 years ago… 

I am captivated by what’s under my feet and can imagine something of the complexity of these underground networks that connect every plant sapling and tree to its neighbor, but seeing the actual mushrooms anchors me to the reality of this complexity in a way that my imagination or my research cannot … the sense of wholeness that I experience spurs me on to take the deepest pleasure from every forest walk, to give thanks for, and to advocate for every forest everywhere – above and below.

 Forests can literally save our lives in this time of Climate Change providing us with clean water and air, storing carbon both above and below ground, but first we must save them from “the logging machine,” that greed driven corporate structure that has taken logging away from those who once cut trees in the forests they loved sustainably, turning this industry into the massive killing machine it has become.

 Forests like this one could also teach us so much about how to live if we acknowledged their sentience, and took the time to learn a little about forest complexity. Nature is amazingly fluid and adaptable, reflecting what happens when all organisms have learned to cooperate for the good of all. A walk through this forest also mirrors back to me that these complex relationships are reflections of the earth’s wholeness – the Ground of Our Being, and hopefully my own.