Will we save the trees, or will the trees save us?
We are having a fiery, violent, difficult summer in Turkey and many other places around the world. According to the IPCC report published this week, even if we start taking measures to reduce carbon emissions now, we will continue to have summers like this for the next 30 years. In other words, this is our new reality. Of course, humans are not the only ones affected. Almost everything living and non-living affected by fires, floods, and epidemics are changing and transforming in this process. As it has always been until today. The main difference today is that many signs show people that salvation and peace will not and cannot be achieved alone.
For a very long time, especially since the 18th century, people have been thinking as if they are the only ones living on the earth, as if all living beings and substances other than themselves exist only for themselves, only to serve themselves. Based on this main idea, they have been trying to redesign the whole world. Roads, bridges, dams, and canals are part of this reshaping effort. Markets, factories, stock exchanges, laboratories, museums, parks, and gardens. We have always strived to live healthier, longer, more comfortable lives.
What we are experiencing today shows that this effort is futile. If it continues as it is and with the philosophy behind it, this effort makes the world no longer a livable place. The critical point here is to realize that we are not alone on earth and cannot maintain our relationships with others on a purely instrumental plane. In this understanding, it is crucial to recognize and acknowledge the agency of non-human beings.
With their trees, flowers, bees, worms, birds, rice, and mushrooms, all other living things do not live in a resigned acceptance of their passivity, so that we can do something, despite them. On the contrary, perhaps more quietly, perhaps more slowly, perhaps more subtly, all of them are active in this world in some way, within the framework of their own abilities. While they are changing and transforming themselves through all these experiences, they are also changing and transforming their surroundings.
As long as we define the existence of other living beings and our relationship with them only in terms of their passivity, as long as we do not see their agency, worries, fears, and disasters will not end. Today and tomorrow, the poorer, the blacker, the Southerners, and their children will experience more of this, and after tomorrow, everyone.
With the fires of the past weeks, we remembered forests and trees again. Of course, some people have never forgotten trees and forests. Among those who have not forgotten are the villagers in Akbelen who resist the plunder of forests, the beekeepers in Muğla, and the people of Dersim who have been watching their forests burn for years. The tourism, energy, and mining companies cut down forests and plan to replace them with thermal power plants, tourism facilities, and golf courses. In this article, I will talk about a book that has a high potential to influence how we know trees and forests and with whom we stand/will stand among those who have not forgotten them. I think what we discuss here will help us grasp the agency of non-human beings, just like my article on bees and hawthorn trees.
The author of the book I'm going to talk about is Suzanne Simard. It is called Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest (2021, Penguin). Suzanne Simard is a leading scientist in the field of forest ecology [professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia]. She has been thinking, researching, and writing about forests and trees for nearly 40 years. Her work has inspired many, trained many scientists around the world, and helped shape new perspectives in ecology. With his productions, he has exposed the misconceptions about forests and trees.
Finding the Mother Tree is a diverse and rich book worthy of Simard and forests. The book includes Simard's own story from his childhood in British Columbia, Canada, as well as the stories of his research and groundbreaking discoveries. On the other hand, thanks to the book, we learn about the debates, paradigm shifts, and scientific developments in the field of forest ecology. In other words, we have a tremendous narrative about the coexistence of trees and humans with all kinds of other creatures in the forest. It teaches, moves, and excites.
I heard about this book while listening to the podcast of the Fresh Air program on National Public Radio in the US. Simard comes from a family of foresters and worked for a lumber company before entering academia. In the late 1970s, she became one of the few women working in forestry companies. Then, in addition to her academic life, she also worked in public institutions related to forestry in Canada. She has always worked hard to transform industrial forestry and mainstream forest management, which she describes as "facile, authoritarian and monoculturalist". Because mono-culturalist industrial approaches [we cut down firs and plant spruce instead; its timber pays more, it grows faster!] produce a lot of unreasonable, earth-damaging results in forestry, just like everywhere else.
The most important finding of Simard's work that has transformed the field of forest ecology is that trees are "social creatures." According to Simard, firs, spruces, birches, pines, and yew trees communicate, relate and solidarize among themselves in different ways. In the process, they largely use underground fungal networks close to their roots to communicate with each other. Simard likens these fungal networks to neural networks in the brain: They allow them to send each other chemical signals ("signals generated by ions arranged along the fungal membranes"). There is a symbiotic relationship between mushrooms and trees: fungi provide food to trees in exchange for carbohydrates.
Suzanne Simard and her trees
Forests stay healthy thanks to the flow of information between trees. At the same time, with the help of fungal networks, different tree species support each other through carbon transfer rather than competing for sunlight.
I understand that until Simard, the main starting point in forest ecology was the idea of competition between trees. Trees were always thought to compete with each other: for sunlight, nutrients, and space. However, Simard shows through his research that the fundamental principle that guides the behavior of trees is not competition, but mutualism. The end of reciprocity, communication, and solidarity (or the end of it by human hands) means the end of the forest.
The main trees that give Simard's book its title are not only so old. They are also "majestic centers of forest communication, protection, and sensitivity." The mother trees are also biodiversity areas that embrace and shelter non-wood creatures such as squirrels, birds, and insects.
According to Simard, old trees have the ability to distinguish their descendants from saplings and young trees. So as the mother trees die (which can take decades), "they pass on their wisdom to their relatives from generation to generation, sharing knowledge of what helps them, what hurts them, who is a friend and who is foe, and how to adapt and survive in an ever-changing environment." This flow of information dramatically increases the forest's capacity to survive. Simard points to this finding and criticizes the premature salvage logging of old trees in forests. I think it is impossible not to realize how vital this issue is in Turkey these days. Because in an environment where people talk about new nurseries and planting saplings immediately after fires, it is so clear that one end of this business is the felling of fire-damaged trees.
Simard shares an image of a 1,000-year-old grandmother red cedar
Simard had breast cancer in the early 2000s, and during this period she focused her work on the ability of trees to recognize and help their younger descendants as they age and approach death. In the same period, Simard became more interested in the compounds that trees produce to protect themselves and other trees that share the same forest with them. Because he realized that "taxol," one of the key drugs in chemotherapy today, was a defense compound produced by yew trees. Nowadays, he and a Ph.D. student are studying whether the yew trees' ability to produce high-quality taxol is related to their neighboring ancient cedars and maples. In other words, Simard's emphasis on the "sociality" of trees is never-ending, and the more he learns (and teaches), the more he brings up new dimensions of this subject.
In the introduction to the book, Simard underlines the scientific nature of his arguments. They are not "fairy tales, fantasy, flight, magic or a Hollywood movie story." They have been proven through rigorous scientific processes, published in peer-reviewed journals, and widely read by the scientific community. It is important to hear Simard's words:
It is impossible to ignore the scientific evidence: the forest was created for wisdom, sensitivity, and healing.
It is not a book about how to save trees.
It is a book about how trees can save us.
If you are interested in Finding the Mother Tree, I strongly encourage you to visit the website of the "Mother Tree Project". As Simard states in the afterword of his book, the guiding principle of the website is "to keep mother trees alive and thus contribute to the survival of forests by maintaining connections between forests as the climate changes." (p. 331) This website is about Simard and his colleagues' ongoing research in forests with different characteristics in 9 separate locations in British Columbia with different climates. This research aims to find the optimal planting and harvesting combinations for trees under environmental stresses.
Simard hopes that the "Mother Tree Project" will ultimately serve the philosophy of what he calls "the science of complexity". According to Simard, for too long forestry practices have been influenced by "overly simplistic and authoritarian" tendencies. Approaching forests in all their complexity could lead to "harmonious and holistic" forestry practices.
Finding the Mother Tree is fluent, gripping, and written in a language, everyone can understand. Until then, if you want to know more about current approaches to forest ecology, mainly Simard's (and of course trees and their neighbors!), you can read Peter Wohlleben's The Secret Life of Trees: What Do They Feel, How Do They Communicate? Explorations in a World Full of Secrets (2016). As I'm sure some of you already know, there is also a wonderful 2018 documentary Wohlleben made with Simard. Maybe you can take a look at the promotional video sometime.
Wohlleben also comes from the forestry profession. For years, he has made it his mission to communicate scientific studies on forests and trees to those outside academia in a language that everyone can understand. And he has succeeded: The Secret Life of Trees is a bestseller in many parts of the world. The following paragraph from this book may make you more eager to read the book:
Why is the tree such a social being? Why does it feed its competitors by sharing food? The reason is the same as for human communities because there are benefits to working together. A tree alone cannot create a stable climate, just as a tree alone is not a forest. It is vulnerable to wind and weather. But many trees, together, can create an ecosystem that mitigates extreme heat and cold, stores plenty of water, and produces plenty of moisture. Trees can live for a long time in this protected environment. To achieve this goal, the community spirit must be maintained at all costs. If every tree took care of itself, many would not live to old age. Constant deaths would create large gaps in the upper canopy, making it easier for storms to penetrate the forest and topple more trees. The summer heat would reach the forest floor and dry it out. In the end, all the trees would pay the price. (17)
Who knows, Trees are perhaps more aware than humans of the benefits of being social, of diversity, and interacting with others? Likewise the harm of competition, monogamy, and selfishness. After all, they have known this world for much longer than humans, and most of them have a much longer lifespan (if humans allow it), a much longer experience. Both recognizing the agency of trees and listening to what they have to say are among the most crucial steps towards the salvation of the world.
As I was preparing this article, Gazete Duvar published an interview with İpek Oskay, pursuing her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Alberta. İpek Oskay is also the coordinator of sesol.org, an open archive sound mapping platform that brings together sound ecology, social sciences, and artistic methods. In this interview, İpek Oskay emphasizes that the life of the trees continues despite the fire and explains how she records the sounds of burnt trees as they try to hold on to life. I strongly recommend you to read the interview and listen to the sounds Oskay recorded. We can also start listening to what the trees tell us here.
[I discussed the unextinguishable fires in the Southeast in "Fire Place: Unquenchable Fire, Unseeing Eye" in which I discussed the unextinguishable fires in the Southeast, I came across a summarizing, enlightening, well-researched article on the subject. Published in the journal Human Ecology last July, this article, co-authored by Pınar Dinç, discusses the ecological and political dimensions of the forest fires in Dersim. You can access the article from this link].
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Will we save the trees, or will the trees save us?
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“So many books so little time...” Inspired by Frank Zappa, Zappa Times writes about literature, nature, food, and economics.