Nurture writing

I read an interview with Suzanne Simard in New Scientist and it brought tears to my eyes. Her description of the realities revealed in her career as an experimental scientist gave me such a sense of validation and hope that I immediately pre-ordered the book she was plugging, Finding the Mother Tree. In fact, it was more than validation and hope, it was a sense of revelation, of a profound realignment of the basic framework of our understanding, akin to that I have imagined feeling if we were ever to find direct evidence of extraterrestrial life. Her assertion is that we share the earth with powerful and active vegetable intelligences, interspecies networks that sense and respond to the world around them in ways that can be characterised as nurturing, co-operative, and strategic. This was not a strange idea to me, but it was something like a wish fulfilled—wouldn’t it be nice if the wisdom of indigenous peoples around the world could be validated by the puissant but frequently obtuse toolset of the scientific method? Such a finding would tend to confirm a whole set of philosophical and political inklings: things that seem obvious to many scientists—the separateness of the objects of their discourse, the linear relations between inputs and outputs, the competitive relations between elements in selective processes—would be thrown into doubt. With them a whole set of political assumptions would come to seem a lot less self-evident, perhaps opening new areas up to mainstream debate and policy-making. It is no coincidence that both evolutionary scientists and economists see their fields as theatres of conflict in which the strongest win out: they, like all thinkers, live in a world which has been shaped by the capture of societies by violent men, men to whom the winning of contests is the measure of right—men who are good at strategising for victory, but who come up short when confronted with nuance; men who, not to put to fine a point on it, are not very bright. If you can manage to punch through the millennia of ideology that has been accrued on the back of this takeover, it seems pretty clear that the predominant behaviour in both ecologies and human societies is co-operation. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the ideas of competition and co-operation are both radical simplifications, unequal to the task of describing complex emergent systems without resorting to teleological cop-outs, but the idea of co-operation is at least semantically aligned with the character of such systems: networks whose elements operate together. Simard has been at the forefront of work in forest ecology which discloses the material mechanisms by which such co-operation is achieved.

That work is what I wanted to read about. The startling discoveries made by Simard and other scientists, revealing the transport of water, nutrients, and neurotransmitters (yes, neurotransmitters!) from plant to plant via the webs of mycorrhizal fungi that are symbiotic with almost every plant species, in ways that are not only mutually beneficial, not only aligned with familial relationships, but which sometimes appear to be altruistic. That work is all in this book, if not at quite the level of close-up detail which I would have preferred, but Finding the Mother Tree is an autobiography, a life story in which one of the threads is that process of discovery. It’s the central thread, certainly, but I spent a lot of the time feeling that I was ploughing through extraneous family history to get to the juicy parts, that parts that I was actually there for. Basically, I don’t read biographies because I tend to find them fundamentally unsatisfying. It’s not that I’m not interested in other lives, it’s just that I don’t see any reason why the lives of people who are ‘notable’ are any more interesting than the lives of obscure people—in fact, to my thinking, notability tends to flatten out some of the terrain that makes ordinary lives worth recounting. Further to that, to be stories worth reading, biographies need to be written with all of the skills and devices that are available to prose narrative, and although they often are, the deployment of that toolset makes them into works of fiction: real lives are not coherent or comprehensible in the way that a published story needs to be, and making a biography into such a form makes its claims to verity, in my opinion, dishonest.

Having said all that, Simard’s story and background are quite interesting, and of some relevance to her professional career, given that she comes from a family of loggers, and worked for commercial forestry companies before she moved into academe. Clearly, as she tells it, much of her life experience is also directly relevant to the philosophical transformations that she has gone through as she’s learned more about the structures and processes of forest ecosystems. However, that set of insights, linking her relations to the people she has known to the relations found within her objects of study, is a story she has told to herself, a sense she has made of the experiences she has known, and I would have found it much more digestible had it been presented more discursively, rather than in a narrative form that implies it is ‘the true account’. Ultimately, even disregarding my reservations around biography, I think it would have made for a better book, because Simard’s handle on the prose narrative toolkit is a lot less secure than on her science and its associated philosophy. Much of her prose is lacking in fluidity, and her paragraphing is clumsily portentous, repeatedly setting the reader up for some huge revelation that never arrives. She often tells us what she feels about a particular experience, but those emotional responses rarely permeate the text—perhaps because she is telling a ‘true story’, she didn’t feel that she needed to do the work to build her narrative world or to immerse her readers in it. Or perhaps, she wasn’t really aware that such work needed doing. The whole text reads as though she’s been taught how to write memoir by someone who ‘knows how to write’, structured according to a formula, and lacking that spark of poetry that would enable the reader to feel that they’ve somehow shared in her subjectivity.

Clearly some of my dissatisfaction with the book stems from the fact that I wanted to read a popular science book about her work, and she wanted to tell her life story. Sadly, she hasn’t written a popular science book, so any lay-person like myself wanting to get some insights into her extraordinary scientific work has no choice but to extract them from this autobiography. However, they are well worth extracting, and whatever skills Simard may lack as a maker of prose narrative, she is a deep and intelligent thinker, whose work reconnects the long-sundered disciplines of science and philosophy in ways that most scientists have simply assumed to be unnecessary. She understood, almost instinctively, that the networks she was discovering cast profound epistemological doubt on the methodologies and conceptual frameworks of mainstream ecological science. They had been invisible to science, not simply because they hadn’t been discovered yet, but because science wasn’t looking for them, wasn’t interested in them, and ultimately couldn’t imagine that they existed. Simard understands that traditional wisdom has been onto something all along, all through the centuries in which zero-sum, linear thinking has enabled the tragic destruction of ecosystems of all kinds—including the human societies that have been a part of them. She understands that trees have nurturing social relationships, and that those relationships imply some form of cognition. She makes the kinds of assertion that have been dismissed out of hand for decades or centuries, that have been characterised as sentimental and unscientific, and she backs them up with hard data and rock solid methodology. To make a scientific career on this basis has not been easy, and some element of biography would have been an essential explanatory plank of whatever kind of book Simard might have chosen to write. What emerges from her story, less from the narrative itself than from the professional history that forms part of its fabula, is an individual of unusually dogged determination, great compassion, incisive intelligence, and startling modesty—given the almost casual matter-of-factness with which she relates her story. It may be that the human race does not undergo a paradigm shift in its thinking from the linear to the fractal, or the atomistic to the holistic, but thanks to the work of Suzanne Simard and other researchers like her, it is no longer going to be able to use science as a pretext.

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