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  • Writer's pictureTom Cavan

Family Tree

I recently read a great book by Dr. Suzanne Simard* called "Finding the Mother Tree" Her story begins with her family tree of foresters and as a child growing up in the wilderness of British Columbia reiterating the struggles of pioneers of the logging industry and their common sense approach to extracting trees as a sustainable business. Long before big money revolutionized with the industrial advances of equipment and clear-cutting a deadly swath across the landscape. Her lessons in life in the forest grounded her and gave her true perspective. After her formal education employed under government contracts to study the misgivings and failures of re-forestation by and for the continuing rape and pillage of the forests she came across many revelations of how the forestry industry should be applying sustainable practices. She was met with skepticism at every turn by a critical male-dominated judge and jury of both governing peoples and of course the industry's bottom line. After a great deal of time and strife, she did manage to make her mark and plant the seeds of change. I wish Suzanne wrote this book 200 years ago!!

Among her many discoveries that will hopefully bring necessary change to not just the forest industry but climate change as well, she discovered something truly amazing, she discovered that the plant kingdom communicates within its own underground world. Dubbed the Wood-wide-web. Connectivity is so intricate and immense she compares it to www. yes the internet!!

When I was a child our family had a fruit market then a garden centre, our ancestors were fruit farmers, the main crop was Montmorency Sour Cherries (canning). They also grew Strawberries. My father would take me to Niagra to pick up seasonal fruit ie. peaches, pears, and grapes, and what impressed me were these huge swaths of one type of tree, shrub, vine all lined up in an orderly fashion, an enormous family of plants glistening with life as far as the eye could see. My real passion was going to White Oaks Park climbing trees and walking the trails stunned by the size of the grand Red Oaks and the diverse thick understory of plants (tree seedlings, shrubs, and ferns) I had no idea at the time this would be instilled in me as I would become a vulture for horticulture. One thing I was curious about, all of this natural beauty happened without any human intervention, yet every house on every street had lawns and gardens that looked artificial and for the most part not lush and flourishing like the wooded areas in our surroundings. They smelt funny (herbicides were all the rage) and the foundation shrubs were either sheared into geometrical shapes, one of every type, and made no sense even to this young unknowing passer-by. Most of the less manicured properties looked more inviting, especially the ones that had a huge canopy of trees and minimalist plantings and groundcovers.

I see evidence of trees communicating through mycelium networks all the time, here dying trees sending messages to the kin warning of their stress, and probably the healthy trees sending nutrients to the struggling neighbours. Scratching the ground at intervals and witnessing the white mycelium connection. We need to learn how to communicate with the natural world in order to restore balance with nature. We have to start immediately!!, we need to plant more trees!!

Long before I read this book and others relating to the underworld of microbial connectivity I unknowingly always gravitated to designing gardens with plants lumped together (families you might say), in drifts of the same species and along with companions witnessed of the natural world combined with signature species that not only worked visually but also sustainably in groupings(families) with great success now I feel justified in knowing plants do communicate with not only their own kind but with other species as well, trading essential nutrients, warnings of stress and changes to their habitat. They just do it on a level we need to understand better. Let's put things right, let's plant families!!

A lonely birch and hemlock get surrounded by family and friends

Large groupings of both native species and improved varieties to create a diversified sustainable forest

The sod was composted, additional high-grade compost and root rescue were applied along with a heavy layer of mulch. All were planted in the fall so after initial watering no irrigation is required. If we put trust in these families the future will be a better place.

* Suzanne Simard was born in the Monashee Mountains of British Columbia and was educated at the University of British Columbia and Oregon State University. She is a professor of forest ecology in the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Forestry.

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