Richard Powers Posts

“Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest” by Suzanne Simard

One of the first clues came while I was tapping into the messages that the trees were relaying back and forth through a cryptic underground fungal network. WhenI followed the clandestine path of the conversations, I learned that this networkis pervasive through the entire forest floor, connecting all the trees in a constellation of tree hubs and fungal links. A crude map revealed, stunningly, that the biggest, oldest timbers are the sources of fungal connections to regenerating seedlings. Not only that, they connect to all neighbors, young and old, serving as the linchpins for a jungle of threads and synapses and nodes. I’ll take you through the journey that revealed the most shocking aspect of this pattern — that it has similarities with our own human brains. In it, the old and young are perceiving, communicating, and responding to one another by emitting chemcial signals. Chemicals identical to our own neurotransmitters. Signals createdby ions cascading across fungal membranes.

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 howthis 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 cener of forest communiation, protection, and sentience — die, they pass their wisdom to their kind, 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’s what all parents do.

After a lifetime as a forest detective, my perception of the woods has been turned upside down. With each new revelation, I am more deeply embedded in the forest. The scientific evidence is impossible to ignore: the forest is wired for wisdom, sentience, and healing.

This is not a book about how we can heal the trees.

This is a book about how the trees might save us.


Academic and “forest detective” Suzanne Simard’s Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest is a blend of memoir and deeply scientific investigation on how forests are nurtured, regenerate and sustain themselves. Her curiousity was piqued when she began working as a commercial logger. At the company, she was tasked with clearing sections of a forest for harvest. As per the law, tree saplings had to be transplaned onto the site that had been cleared. But as per the strategy of the firm, monoculture was advocated, especially of those trees that were commercially viable and quick to grow. Anything else that grew in the location was stripped. This experience was completely at odds with what she had learned while watching her grandfather and rest of the clan work as loggers. They would carefully identify the tree to be felled and leave everything else around it undisturbed. She realised that there was some merit in the old-fashioned system of logging but it was not going to be appreciated by commercial firms as it was too tedious and time consuming. She was further intrigued by the fact that when she was entrusted with the chore of planting and supervising the growth of the saplings, they would be weak and wither. When she uprooted the fledgling plants, she noticed that the roots were pale and struggling to survive. It was inexplicable as these saplings had been planted in the middle of forests, rich in minerals and other essential nutrients. So there had to be some other reason for the saplings dying.

Simard resaerched this aspect of forest regeneration extensively. During the course of her work, she faced a number of hurdles including gender discrimination and disbelief at her preposterous theory of gendering trees in such a manner. She faced resistance. Her instinct told her that there was more to the commonly accepted narrative. She had a band of faithful friends and some relatives who assisted her in carrying out experiments. It was arduous work as it required trekking through mountainous terrains and camping at night in bear infested country. But she persevered. So much so that she has become an iconic figure. Filmmaker James Cameron’s “Tree of Souls” and “Avatar” acknowledge her as does novelist Richard Powers whose Pulitzer winning Overstory has a character based on Simard. Scholar Merlin Sheldrake in his fabulous book Entangled Life discusses at great length the fascinating networks created by fungi/lichens. Sheldrake’s research overlaps with what Simard has spent decades trying to explain that the mycorrhizal fungi form a symbiotic relationship between the fungi and the plant root system. It is over 450 million years old. But this mutually benefical system helps the fungi and plants to grow and survive. It is critical. This is precisely the reason why the trees logged by Simard’s ancestors helped in regenerating the forest but those propogated by the commercial loggers and their emphasis on monoculture, were the death knell for the forest.

In today’s day and age, this narrative of recognising the existence of a Mother Tree and the many functions it serves within a forest are easy to accept. The zeitgest is such that womens perspectives are given a patient hearing and even acknowledged. But this was not necessarily the case when Suzanne Simard began her research. The time period of this book, the research it documents and Suzanne Simard’s own evolution as a woman/logger/forester/academic/mother/scientist more or less coincide with the growth of womens movements around the world. Feminists have existed ever since Mary Wollstonecraft publication of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman ( 1792) but the change in patriarchal systems and ways of thinking is far from over. This is exactly the resistance Simard faced in her work. It is minutely documented in her book except that she is keener to focus on her scientific research and share it with her readers than dwell for too long on personal matters. So while the book is fascinating to read for her unique research, it becomes a little tedious to read as it is unequal in its treatment of issues. The author lacks the sharp awareness that she has about her discipline vis-a-vis debates surrounding feminist/womens issues. A smattering of knowledge, the right vocabulary and insight would have sharpened the storytelling. Instead it plods. It lacks the lightness of touch as in say Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl or even Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life. Both the books are very technical and yet they do a fine job of balancing the personal/memoir with the science.

Nevertheless, I am glad I read Finding the Mother Tree. It is an excellent book and the dissatifaction in the uneveness of telling stems from the high expectations the scientific explanations created in the reader.

Read it.

22 July 2021

“The Overstory” by Richard Powers

They read about myrrh-tree transplanting expeditions depicted in the reliefs at Karnak, three thousand five hundred years ago. They read about trees that migrate. Trees that remember the past and predict the future. Trees that harmonize their fruiting and nutting into sprawling choruses. Trees that bomb the ground so only their own can grow. Trees that summon air forces of insects that come to save them. Trees with hollowed trunks wide enough to hold the population of small hamlets. Leaves with fur on the undersides. Thinned petioles that solve the wind. The rim of life around a pillar of dead history, each new coat as thick as the maker season is generous. 

Richard Powers The Overstory is a novel weaves through it stories of various families/individuals spanning more than a century. It is a fine example of eco-fiction that is preoccupied with discussing the perennial Man vs Nature argument. It is a vast novel not only for the subject it tackles but the vastness of the landscape Powers creates. It flits from an immigrant family to that of environmental activist to an Indian software entrepreneur who amasses a fortune by creating games to the most mesmerising character, dendrologist, Patricia Westerford. While all these lives are being described it is impossible not to draw comparisons with the peaceful and vibrant descriptions of Nature that Thoreau wrote about in the nineteenth century or even perhaps with the truly talented writer Nell Zink. But now we are at the brink of a possible ecological disaster, possibly manmade due to the wilful damage done upon the environment by man. The LitHub describes it perfectly as “Henry David Thoreau meet Georgia-Pacific“.

The genesis of this novel Powers describes in an interview to The Chicago Review of Books:

I was teaching at Stanford and living in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley. Just to one side of me was one of the greatest concentrations of wealth and technological might in history: the corporate HQs of Google, Apple, Intel, HP, Facebook, eBay, Cisco, Tesla, Oracle, Netflix, and so many more. To the other side were the Santa Cruz mountains, covered in redwoods. When the scramble for the future down in the valley was too much for me, I would head up to walk in the woods. These were the forests that had been clear-cut to build San Francisco, and it seemed to me that they had grown back wonderfully. But one day, I came across a single tree that had, for whatever reason, escaped the loggers. It was the width of a house, the length of a football field, and as old as Jesus or Caesar. Compared to the trees that had so impressed me, it was like Jupiter is to the Earth.

I began to imagine what they must have looked like, those forests that would not return for centuries, if ever. It seemed to me that we had been at war for a long time, trees and people, and I wondered if it might be possible for things ever to go any other way. Within a few months, I quit my job at Stanford and devoted myself full time to writing The Overstory.

Yet the gloomy moments of the book are more than compensated for by the hope written on the last page of this stunningly magnificent book.

His friends begin to chant in a very old language. It strikes Nick as strange, how few languages he understands. One and a half human ones. Not a single word of all the other living, speaking things. But what these men chant Nick half grasps, and when the songs are finished, he adds, Amen, if only because it may be the single oldest word he knows. The older the word, the more likely it is to be both useful and true. In fact, he read once, … that the word tree and the word truth came from the same root. 

The best compliment he could ever have received was from fellow novelist Barbara Kingsolver who reviewed his book for the New York Times. Upon reading her review he was ‘beside himself with gratitude to Kingsolver. “I just feel so lucky,” he says. “She makes a case for a broader way of reading me.” Taking issue with Powers’ reputation for cold, science-y novels, Kingsolver writes The Overstory “accomplishes what few living writers from either camp, art or science, could attempt. Using the tools of story, he pulls readers heart-first into a perspective so much longer-lived and more subtly developed than the human purview that we gain glimpses of a vast, primordial sensibility, while watching our own kind get whittled down to size.” ‘

The Overstory is a powerful testimony to the decades of environmental activism and the damage man can cause. Yet it is not a novel meant for all readers. It is not an easy book to read and requires intense engagement. Even Powers has had to admit that it was a life-changing experience for him writing The Overstory, akin to a “religious conversion“. Award-winning novelist Powers is known to combine his passion for philosophy with science. In his 12th novel he has done much the same opting to talk about the environment, a subject that is not only dear to his heart but extremely relevant now. No wonder it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018.

To buy on Amazon India: 




26 October 2018 

Book Post 9: 2 – 8 September 2018

Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. Embedded in the book covers and post will also be links to buy the books on Amazon India. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter.

In today’s Book Post 9 I have included some titles that I received in the past few weeks and are worth mentioning and not necessarily confined to parcels received last week.
Enjoy reading!

10 September 2018

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