How to LINK & BUILD like a FOREST
Blessed-GORP visionary Suzanne Simard comes thru w/ profound tree wisdom
Here at Blackbird Spyplane, the no. 1 newsletter for “unbeatable non-hierarchical thinking,” there are the beautiful homies we call the SpyFriends and then — floating above them and yet also, somehow, non-hierarchically, beside them — there are the SPYGODS. We’re talking about Zeus-tier legends we’ve interviewed such as Jerry Seinfeld… André 3000… and today’s guest, visionary Canadian forest ecologist Suzanne Simard.
You may know Suzanne’s name from her fantastic new book, Finding the Mother Tree, which is 2021’s runaway BLESSED-GORP literary sensation (it debuted at #4 on the New York Times bestseller list)… You may also know her from the 2016 documentary Intelligent Trees… Or because James Cameron cited her work as an inspiration for Avatar… Or because at BBSP we’ve been vocal about our love of “the wood-wide web” — a forest phenomenon of interspecies collaboration, communication and connectivity that Suzanne theorized and then rigorously proved on some “tree-detective” s**t back in 1997…
“The wood-wide web” refers to Suzanne’s landmark discovery that plants across different species actually “speak” to each other, sharing nutrients, sending distress signals, etc., via subterranean fungal pathways known as mycorrhizae… For example an alder might slurp up more water than a nearby pine, but it generously blesses the pine with nitrogen… or a birch might soak up more sunshine than a fir sapling, but will make up for this by sending boo koo carbon over to the fir… (she proved this by researching on land that once belonged to indigenous people who, she acknowledges, intimately understood nature’s interconnections.)
In other words, nature loves to “LINK AND BUILD” on an inspiring level !!
Suzanne kindly agreed to donate some “mind carbon” (wisdom) to us in an instant-classic Blackbird Spyplane interview… We asked her about the power of SOLIDARITY… the dopeness of birch trees and ARC’TERYX… the mystery of MAGIC MUSHIES … and more.
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Blackbird Spyplane: Suzanne, your book is a beautiful banger and it’s an honor to talk to you! Reading about your experiments into how plants share ‘possessions’ like nitrogen, sugar, water, and carbon in the name of fostering a healthier overall community — whose success ultimately benefits them — I wondered whether trees have a more sophisticated “conception” of their self-interest than humans do…
Suzanne Simard: “Plants’ ultimate goal, if we can use that word, is to exist, survive, and spread their DNA, and scientists have shown over and over that, in diverse communities — whether it’s grasslands or forests — the health of individual species increases when you have biological diversity. That demonstrates that the best survival strategy is cooperation, and yet people have gotten away with telling us about this capitalist notion of ‘survival of the fittest’ — that in nature dominance reigns supreme. But there’s no such thing as a ‘self-made’ person who deserves to dominate all others. That’s nonsense.”
Blackbird Spyplane: I saw a meme the other day (above) that used the wood-wide web to make a point about how “the establishment truly fears” people looking out for each other…
Suzanne Simard: “Oh yeah. I was just watching American news last night, and saw a story about Republicans in Wisconsin defeating a bill for medicaid, or another social program. I’m going, God, they don’t get that when you lift everyone up, everyone’s stronger, and when people are oppressed and kept down, it weakens the entire system.”
Blackbird Spyplane: You write in Finding the Mother Tree about how the logging industry, focused on short-term profits, sees flowers, shrubs and trees like birch as “weeds” that simply steal resources from cash crops. Your experiments revealed a much more interesting story — what does this birch vase you sent over mean to you?
Suzanne Simard: “Early on, I had a supervisor at the Forest Service named Alan Vyse, who was a brilliant mentor — he had me do an investigation of the status of birch and what we’re doing when we eradicate it, what the impact is on the ecosystem, and that launched all my subsequent investigations into plant networks and soil pathogens and mycorrhizae interacting with them. Ultimately there was a backlash against my work, because there was this whole industry aligned toward getting rid of birch as though they were weeds: policies were in place, Monsanto was all geared up to spray herbicides, so much money was involved…
“I wound up leaving the Ministry of Forests, and when I left, Alan gave me this vase as a parting gift. A friend of his made it — a craftsman near Kamloops, this older guy, turning wood on his lathe. It’s solid birch wood and he took birch bark and wrapped it around the turned vase.”
Blackbird Spyplane: It’s cool! I’ve always thought birch bark looks pretty tight…
Suzanne Simard: “Policymakers would tell us, ‘There’s no money to be made from birch 2’ x 4’s,’ because that’s all they’d think about.
“Alan said, ‘We can make beautiful objects like this vase,’ objects that have spiritual and cultural value along with ecological value — they’re all interwoven.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Among other things, your discoveries help us see clearly how people with a vested interest in capitalism put Darwin to their own uses, turning his theories into supposedly “natural” justifications for their preferred economic ideology…
Suzanne Simard: “I think about that stuff all the time — it’s not why I did my research and it’s not why I found these patterns and processes, but when you learn about them, you just can’t ignore the parallels with society. Forests are societies, and whether you’re a tree, a frog, a bear, or a human, your world is about your relationships. We all have these patterns in how we relate: We cooperate, we have networks, we socialize. Ideas of natural selection and capitalism both grew around the same time — when Darwin was writing Origin of the Species, capitalism was developing, and he was influenced by that, and vice versa.
“Darwin knew that collaboration was important in nature, but that part of Darwin was basically ignored — with all the fervor around developing the capitalist economic system, his work got interpreted in this narrow way, and in forestry and in business it still gets translated in that narrow way.
“The consequences of that misunderstanding are that we make mistakes: In forestry we clear-cut too much, and spray plants with herbicides, and as a result diversity is going down and carbon is going up: in the mid-2000s, Canada’s forests actually went from being a net sink of carbon to a net source of carbon. That’s because of climate change, but it’s compounded by our disturbance of forests. In the span of 10 years, thanks to urban development, forestry, and oil and gas development, we disturbed forests at a rate of 14%, which exceeded the rate that was sustainable — and the result of all these cumulative effects is our forests being net sources of CO2. That’s scary. It can be remedied, but we’ve got to be way smarter about forests — not just focused narrowly on our economic exploitation of them.”
Blackbird Spyplane: As earth’s no. 1 pro-magic-mushroom style-and-culture newsletter, we were wondering, have you had a profound experience on psilocybin?
Suzanne Simard: “I’ve thought about it, and I wouldn’t mind trying it, but I haven’t. I will say, I once attended what I eventually realized was an ayahuasca conference, with all these ayahuasca people. There was a shaman there, drumming and asking us to relate to our favorite plant, so I started thinking about Douglas fir, and I realized I didn’t need to be high to get there — my heart was in the hardwood of the tree immediately.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Do you have a theory as to why magic mushrooms might “want” human brains to experience trippy transportive visions?
Suzanne Simard: “If we can assign intent to them, I think it might be to increase our awareness of them — it’s probably some defense chemical to protect against a squirrel eating them, but perhaps it’s also there to help us understand fungi’s incredible role in our highly collaborative, connected world.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Let’s talk GORP real quick… Since you are a legend in these British Columbia woodlands, does Arc’teryx send you free gear? I’ve seen you Arc’-ed up in a few pictures…
Suzanne Simard: “No, but they should! I love Arc’teryx stuff because I’m a mountain person, and I need good gear and they make great gear. But yes, you’re right, they should send me some for free.”
Blackbird Spyplane: Some Arc’ people subscribe, so hopefully they’ll come to their senses and put you on flow. Speaking of forest jawns, when we were emailing, you mentioned that people who do forest work wear multi-pocketed “cruiser vests” where they carry tools and extra layers and sandwiches, and that people will personalize the vests with patches and doodads and just wear them to shreds…
Suzanne Simard: “For sure. Everyone covets the really old faded cruiser vests, especially the youngsters, because the vests used to be made from this canvas-cotton fabric that would get really faded and get holes, and now it’s changed where the fabric is nylon, so the colors don’t really fade. Youngsters in the field will say, ‘I wish I had an old cruiser vest’ — I’ll be sporting this coveted thing.
“Over time the vests become very personalized, and all your tools are hanging off them — compasses, calipers — it becomes a signal, kind of like a general with four stars.”
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