Note: This is a long post. If you’re not a big reader, all four of the scientists I write about below can be found in numerous great videos on YouTube. Go forth and watch and listen to learn more about their work than I could describe here. Also, please note that, by necessity, I have attempted to summarize the life’s work of four amazing people. Omissions and inaccurate details are likely.
Last week was a rough, even disastrous, weather week in North America. Brutal cold covered most of the continent; precipitation in frozen and unfrozen forms created challenging holidays for many. Wonder Spouse and I were fortunate. With no travel plans, we hunkered down at home, watching the outdoor thermometers drop to single digits and appreciating the beauty of sun sparkling on the adjacent frozen beaver-built wetland.
We were without power for only two hours, so we were always warm and safe. However, we did lose access to internet/cable/cell service for over three days. The isolation from social media — and the bitter cold — allowed me to indulge in a luxury usually reserved for vacations away from home – I read all day and through the night until time for bed.
First, I read Dr. Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s To Speak for the Trees: My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest. I’m not sure how, but I did not know of this author and her life’s work until my friend and irreplaceable garden helper, Beth, put a copy of this book into my hands and urged me to read it. Thank you, Beth.
Reading To Speak for the Trees reminded me of related work by Dr. Suzanne Simard, so I acquired and read her book, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest.
By the time I was done, my brain was bubbling over the similarities and differences in their approaches to saving our planet. Comparisons between these works and the work of Dr. Douglas Tallamy (Bringing Nature Home, Nature’s Best Hope, The Nature of Oaks) and Dr. Edward O. Wilson’s Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life kept me awake as I pondered how to combine what each author offers into a message for this new year.
What commonalities do these authors share? They are all scientists with Ph.D.s. Dr. Beresford-Kroeger, now 78, has two doctorates – one in biochemistry and the other in biology, which allows her brilliant mind to approach botanical puzzles from two different angles and then synthesize her results in ways unachievable without her dual perspectives.
Dr. Simard’s Ph.D. is in Forest Sciences. Now 60, her ground-breaking research on mycorrhizal networks in forests is mind-blowing. I can only assume that the timber/forestry industry is mostly ignoring her work because, in the short term, applying her research to their methods would be less profitable. No matter that, in the longer term, by ignoring her work they doom themselves and the planet to a climate-change nightmare from which we cannot recover.
Tallamy and Wilson
Dr. Tallamy’s Ph.D. is in Entomology. Now 70, his research centers on insect-plant interactions and how those interactions affect species diversity in animal communities. Judging by his popular nonfiction titles, his research has led him to conclude that planet-wide increasingly rapid loss in species diversity of animals and plants is largely due to human destruction of insects and their habitats, because he views insects as the foundation upon which ecosystems rely.
Dr. Edward O. Wilson died on December 26, 2021 at the age of 92. Often referred to as the “father of biodiversity,” among his many achievements were two Pulitzer prizes for general nonfiction. His Ph.D. was in biology. His last book, Half-Earth, pulled no punches. He laid out a strong case for how much trouble Earth is in due to catastrophic world-wide species loss, and he proposed a solution, which he explained in that book. My understanding of the book is that his proposed solution was to preserve the 50% of our planet’s ecosystems that are still mostly intact and functioning. The E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation continues his work. Its stated mission is to “reimagine the way we care for our planet.”
Dr. Tallamy’s proposed solution for saving biodiversity in the United States is a concept he introduced in Nature’s Best Hope: Homegrown National Parks. His organization’s Web site offers concrete steps every landowner in the US can take to reverse, or at least slow, biodiversity loss, one yard and one neighborhood at a time.
Both Tallamy and Wilson provide hard data on species loss, the implications of that loss, and offer ways to reverse that loss. They both point to man-created climate change and native habitat destruction as key factors responsible for our biodiversity nosedive. These men are/were passionate about their life’s work, but as men of science, their approach is highly intellectual and reason-based. I am sure they love/loved the natural world just as much as I do, but as men, as Scientists, I suspect it either never occurred to them that they might be leaving out a key part of the equation, or if they did, they deem/deemed it imprudent to acknowledge factors that must be integrated into any truly effective solution for saving our planet from human-created climate-change-driven devastation.
I refer to factors that, until they were quantified by Dr. Simard and Dr. Beresford-Kroeger, were ignored because, I think, brilliant heart-focused minds were needed to see beyond the parameters of traditional biology/botany-based scientific inquiry. Outside-the-box maverick minds were needed, minds that intuitively understood that their deep love and knowledge of the natural world was as much tied to their hearts as their brains.
Beresford-Kroeger and Simard
Dr. Beresford-Kroeger had the great good fortune to be trained in ancient Celtic knowledge of the natural world by residents of a rural hamlet in her mother’s native Ireland. Orphaned at a young age, this community where some of her mother’s kin lived, recognized in Diana a hunger for knowledge, a brilliant mind, and a willingness to respect intuitive knowing, which she always backs up with scientific experiment in her traditional university-based studies, to explain the truth behind the Celtic folklore knowledge of her ancestors.
After relocating to Canada, she has worked with the indigenous peoples of her adopted country, the First Nations. Using her knowledge of biochemistry, she has isolated many compounds in plants with medicinal properties that explain their valued use by indigenous groups. Living among the forests of her adopted country, Diana’s intuitive respect for its magnificent forests continues to drive her work. She long ago did the math regarding the key factor producing climate change: world-wide deforestation. Her research has led her to believe that the only way to slow and reverse the runaway freight train of climate change with all its consequent destruction of ecosystems on land and in the ocean is to return forests to our landscape as quickly as possible. By her calculations, if every person on the planet plants one tree for the next six years, we might be able to save ourselves. Visit her Web site for more information.
Dr. Simard had the great good fortune of growing up in a multi-generational family of Canadian loggers, who worked the north woods with respect and great effort. The forest was always her home. She got her doctorate in Forest Studies because she wanted to continue her family’s legacy, their connection to the forests that fed them and all life around them. Her intimate knowledge of her native forests, keen observation skills, and a brilliant, curious mind led her to identify the critical importance of the forest’s fungal communities. Her scientific work continues to demonstrate how these fungal networks – ubiquitous in a healthy forest – serve as communication and nutrient highways for the trees whose roots are embraced by fungal filaments, called mycorrhizae. Revelations from her work are mind-blowing on many levels, but what got me most excited is how Dr. Simard’s work dovetails with Dr. Beresford-Kroeger’s work.
Both of these brilliant women have come to the same conclusion: trees are sentient. On some level, most, if not all, plants are sentient. Their conclusions are based on science. Beresford-Kroeger identified compounds in trees that are biochemically identical to neurotransmitters in human brains. Her forest studies repeatedly demonstrate how trees work together to nurture and protect themselves in ways that the traditional ecological paradigms I learned cannot fully explain. I think traditional ecology practitioners have noticed some of this coordinated intentional dancing between forest species, and they knew it was important, but mechanisms have not been well delineated, I suspect, because Traditional Science still believes humans are the only intelligent species on our planet.
Dr. Beresford-Kroeger identifies what she calls Mother Trees, pivotal large trees of certain species that communicate with and nurture all that grows around them. This reminded me of Tallamy’s identification of keystone species, which he identifies as specific native plant species – especially trees – that are critical to the health of the ecosystems in which they reside. He assigns keystone status to a plant according to how many different species of insects rely on it to complete their life cycles.
Dr. Beresford-Kroeger’s Mother Tree designation is based on her knowledge of biochemistry. She writes:
“Mother trees are dominant trees within any forest system. They are the trees that, when mature, serve up the twenty-two essential amino acids, the three essential fatty acids, the vegetable proteins and the complex sugars, be they singular or in polymeric form of complexity, that feed the natural world. This menu protects the ability for all of nature to propagate, from the world of insects to the pollinators, to birds, to the small and larger mammals.”
She describes how Mother Trees exude their arsenal of biochemicals to protect and nurture the surrounding plants:
“Mother trees can feed and protect other trees within the expanse of their canopy. They are the leaders of the community we call forests. And across the globe, forests represent life.”
Simard also uses the term Mother Tree. In her work, they are the large, old trees in a forest. They are the sources of complex fungal communities that pervade the forest humus layer. They are the lynch pins of forest ecosystems. The mycorrhizal network ties together all forest residents. When Mother Trees are cut down, their roots dug out to create flattened earth, those nurturing connections are brutally severed. The forest cannot regenerate successfully, because its heart – Mother Trees – have been removed. Simard’s Mother Tree Project offers more details.
I’m a big advocate of science. So are the four researchers whose work I’ve briefly described here. But the two brilliant women – Beresford-Kroeger and Simard – have my greatest respect. They have devoted their lives to outmaneuvering male-dominated Traditional Science by incorporating the tools of that discipline into a broader perspective – a perspective that native peoples around the world always knew: all the residents of our planet are alive with sentient spirits that are not like ours but are nevertheless demonstrably real and therefore deserve our respect.
Failing to respect our fellow residents on the planet, whether tree, butterfly, or fungus, is why humanity is up against a climate-change crisis that it’s almost too late to reverse. All four of the researchers I’ve described have trained numerous younger folks, and that training continues. But will these new young minds be able to save Earth? I worry that the forces of greed responsible for erasing forests and over-fishing oceans will continue to ignore the consequences of their actions until it is too late to reverse them, and before younger generations can reprioritize humanity’s relationship with Earth’s other occupants.
It seems to me that the best hope for this ailing planet is regular folks like me and you. We all may not understand the science, and we don’t like being told what we should and should not do, including what plants we should grow. But I am hoping that if more people learn about the work of Simard and Beresford-Kroeger, they will realize that, above all, this is about love. This is about nurturing – a concept most of us know personally. We know how critical nurturing is to human development – how much difference a good mother – or an absent mother – can make to the life of a child. Now that we know – via scientifically published and validated studies – that the absence of nurturing – love – is the reason our world is melting, drowning, burning all around us, perhaps now we can view our landscapes from a fresh perspective. Perhaps more folks will recognize their critical role as nurturers of their landscapes, working with Mother Trees – and planting more of them – to save our beautiful planet for future generations.
Simard concludes her book thusly:
“It’s our disconnectedness – and lost understanding about the amazing capacities of nature – that’s driving a lot of our despair, and plants in particular are objects of our abuse. By understanding their sentient qualities, our empathy and love for trees, plants, and forests will naturally deepen and find innovative solutions. Turning to the intelligence of nature itself is the key.”
For this new year, I invite my readers to go forth and deepen your connection to the natural world. If you live in an apartment, start with a house plant or a potted plant on a balcony. Take frequent long walks in parks and forests. If you own a piece of land but you don’t know its residents, get outside and learn the names of the plants and animals that share your space with you. Acknowledge your critical role as a co-nurturer of this planet we all share. The experts all agree that we are running out of time to avert full-scale climate disaster. But if enough people of every age and economic status reconnect to Mother Earth, perhaps we can save her.
#1 by basilcamu on January 2, 2023 - 12:13 pm
Thank you for this wonderful post! I enjoyed it very much and I LOVE your concluding message. I could not agree more. It made me think of two books I read recently: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and Climate: A New Story by Charles Eisenstein. Have you read either of these?
#2 by piedmontgardener on January 2, 2023 - 12:17 pm
Thank you, Basil. I cried through most of Braiding Sweetgrass — what a beautiful book. I have not read the other title to which you refer and will add it to my list of books to read. Thanks again!
#3 by Marcia E. Herman-Giddens on January 2, 2023 - 9:06 pm
This is a wonderful post. And beautiful photographs. Thank you for your wisdom and telling us about these scientists.
#4 by piedmontgardener on January 2, 2023 - 9:37 pm
Thank you, Marcia. I wish you and yours a very happy new year.
#5 by Sam Cannon on January 3, 2023 - 1:04 pm
Excellent post. E.O. Wilson is one of my favorite authors within conservation literature, and I had not encountered the book you mentioned, Half Earth. Thank you for the post!
#6 by piedmontgardener on January 3, 2023 - 1:16 pm
Thanks, Sam! Half Earth is well worth your time. Happy New Year!
#7 by Cathy Peterson on January 8, 2023 - 12:28 am
Finally got to read this. Very interesting and thought-provoking. I’ve always deeply connected with trees, plants, flowers, etc. — not so much with spiders and insects, even though Peg has spent her life trying to get me to embrace them.
#8 by piedmontgardener on January 8, 2023 - 8:26 am
I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Cathy. Many folks have a hard time appreciating insects and arachnids. I think it helps when we encounter them among the flowers and trees that are easier for many of us to appreciate. When insects and spiders are where they belong, we can see how important they are to the natural world. Of course, some of these creatures have adapted to live among us in our houses — that’s a bit more problematic for many of us. 😉