Fungi ๐Ÿ„: Finding the Mother Tree

On YouTube I follow Simon Baxter, a photographer who has recently begun to do something most YT photographers don’t do – he has focused on ecology and wildlife in the landscape he photographs. I enjoy watching some YT photographers but my unofficial inner-ecologist tells me that many spend too little time learning to understand the landscapes they photograph professionally, with little interest in the biological life that depends on those landscapes.

Simon has posted recent videos celebrating the role of fungi in woodland ecosystems, an oak one in Yorkshire from what I can work out. He has spoken about his passion for the book by Peter Wohlleben about the connectivity of trees, which is underpinned by fungi.

Peter Wohlleben seems to have taken a lot of the credit for this scientific discovery purely because he wrote a book about it (one which I really enjoyed as well), when that credit really belongs to Suzanne Simard. The phrase was used for the first time in the publication of Simard’s pioneering research in Nature.

Fungal mycelium (the web that connects mushrooms with trees)

Finding the Mother Tree

Simard has recently published Finding the Mother Tree an arboreal-memoir about how she worked to research the relationships and dependencies between fungi and plants in old growth woodlands that were being logged in epic fashion by the regional forestry services. It is a helpful real-world account of some of the things illuminated by Richard Powers in The Understory. There is some suggestion one of the main characters in The Understory is in fact based on Simard.

Finding the Mother Tree is an absolutely stonking read which describes the battles, bordering on persecution, that she faced for challenging the patriarchal systems that dominated woodland management and theory of the time. She is up against men in positions of power who did not want her to do her research and did everything they could to undermine her. It should not be that men now receive all the air-time or credit for the work that Simard did herself.

Simard doesn’t claim to be the first person to learn of these vital interconnections, however. She quotes Indigenous people in America who had stated this to be a fact long ago. It’s what makes her book so enjoyable – it is an exercise in truth-telling:

Bruce ‘Subiyay’ Miller of the Skokomish Nation, whose people live on the eastern Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, had told a story about the symbiotic nature and diversity of the forest, mentioning that under its floor ‘there is an intricate and vast system of roots and fungi that keeps the forest strong.’

Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree: p.283

It reminds me of a story from an ecologist I met in Romania. In spring, frogs were found by scientists to be travelling down to networks of ponds via melt-water streams in Bulgarian mountain areas. This was hailed scientifically as new research. However, local people had known about this and disclosed it as fact for decades before this research had been completed. Local knowledge is often an untapped resource in conservation.

A special book

I read Finding the Mother Tree while sitting in the waiting room of a hospital, reading chapters about Simard’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Her messages cut through more deeply and, dare I say, gave some comfort in knowing that sometimes people go through these awful ordeals and survive them. People sometimes even prosper in their wake.

Simard’s book is something special, for its ecological deep truth and knowledge, and for her willingness to share her own vulnerability as a woman, a mother, a partner and a scientist. The ecological/environmental/conservation movements are still undermined by the same patriarchal forces of Simard’s early years as a scientist.

The logging industries in Canada, to name but one nation, still log ancient, irreplaceable forests in times of climate and biodiversity crisis. Simard’s book must be read by more people to understand both the ecosystems we need to celebrate and conserve but also to understand what holds back the good work that needs to be done.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

September ‘shrooms in the misty hills of Strathyre Forest

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Strathyre Forest, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, Scotland, September 2019

I’m in Strathyre Forest, a Forestry Scotland plantation in the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. The view of Loch Lubnaig comes and goes as the mist travels between the hills with the cars, lorries and motorbikes along the road down below. I’m sitting on a lump of rock, surrounded by the dead trunks of spruce trees, their successors rising below at their rotting toes. Around old spruce stumps felled by foresters, heather grows and flowers. Birch saplings and rosebay willowherb enjoy this pause in the blanket of monolithic trees.

Looking up for a moment, I’m given a shock by the sudden appearance of the loch and the surrounding hills. The mist has cleared and the shape of the loch’s marshy edges, fringed by the Lego shapes of a caravan park, where the river winds its way in, has appeared. A single spruce stands broken and dead, a mast of decay over Strathyre. A bird flies up, gradually picking a spot to perch on. It sits on the top branch and calls out.

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On the slow and drizzly ascent up to this point, I’ve spent most time on ground level photographing mushrooms. Under the dark monoculture of spruce red russulas are fruiting in profusion. I take photos using the camera’s timer so need to be really still so as not to disturb the camera, otherwise the picture will blur.

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The details are very fine and sometimes the focus is on a very small thing. This means stillness for me.

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My stillness meant birds flocking nearby came very close: goldcrests in their tens, with one within reach of my hand, then a young robin in a half-youth, half-adult plumage.

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It flew right at me and swooped away to land on a branch. It followed me back out onto the track and, perhaps, led me to a the biggest Boletus edulis I have seen. ‘Stick with me,’ I said, ‘and you’ll see mushrooms.’ I didn’t see the robin again after that.

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Away from the dark stands of plantations mosses, lichens and smaller mushrooms flourished at the buttresses of huge spruce and pine trees. One of the largest fly agarics I have ever seen opened like an upturned umbrella amidst its little brothers and sisters. There was light and life here that the close stocking together of trees does not allow.

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There I found lots of small mushrooms like deceivers, webcaps and plenty of others like milkcaps and lots of boletes sodden by days of rain. They reflect the attitude of a woman I heard in the pub last night as she discussed the wet forecast over the coming days. She would still be going out and enjoying her holiday. ‘It’s just water,’ she said.

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