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I heard about Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest by Dr. Suzanne Simard in April when folks from different parts of my life recommended it within a short time. I always take that as a sign I should read something, when I get multiple recommendations! I’d heard that Richard Powers based his tree scientist character in The Overstory on Simard and her work, and that intrigued me as well. Simard is a forest ecology professor at University of British Columbia, and she is a world renowned researcher, as described on her website:

“Suzanne is known for her work on how trees interact and communicate using below-ground fungal networks, which has led to the recognition that forests have hub trees, or Mother Trees, which are large, highly connected trees that play an important role in the flow of information and resources in a forest. Her current research investigates how these complex relationships contribute to forest resiliency, adaptability and recovery and has far-reaching implications for how to manage and heal forests from human impacts, including climate change.”

What I enjoyed about Finding the Mother Tree is that Simard doesn’t dumb down the science — there are what seem to me to be fairly detailed explanations of the discoveries she made and the experimental designs she devised to carry out that work. At the same time, she also tells stories, about her family’s history as small scale loggers, about growing up loving the forests and mountains of Western Canada and exploring them with her siblings, parents, and grandparents, about working in the forest service and realizing that what was happening — clear cuts and then monoculture plantings — was not beneficial either to the forest or to the timber industry, and about the coworkers and mentors who encouraged her to follow her instincts, learn to be a scientist, and conduct her research.

Many of the stories are about the disrespect and misogyny Simard experienced, as Powers depicts in his novel. Simard described these parts of her life without bitterness; if anything she’s a bit hard on herself for not speaking up more firmly. Considering the imbalance of power, it’s understandable, and her work speaks for itself. Despite people reviewing her already peer-reviewed work and sniping at her rather ungraciously because what she proposed was mind boggling and also a threat to the establishment, her research has not only held up but become more and more widely accepted. And she also writes about the many people, in the timber industry as well as in forest ecology and just the general public, who have thanked her and appreciated her work as well.

Simard really captures the excitement, as well as the hard work, of doing science. She also captures the challenges of trying to lead the life of a researcher and professor and still be the mother she wants to be to her daughters. She writes with great vulnerability about the pain of strained relationships and the struggle to manage the many aspects of her life, to be whole. And about what it was like to undergo treatment for cancer at the height of her career as well as at a formative time in her daughters’ lives.

Like many of the other books about ecology I’ve enjoyed (Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, Braiding Sweetgrass, The Hidden Life of Trees, to name a few), it’s SImard’s philosophy that really drew me in and that makes this book, in my view, a crucial addition to the popular science literature of our time. She writes:

“It is a philosophy of treating the world’s creatures, its gifts, as of equal importance to us. This begins by recognizing that trees and plants have agency . . . . By noting how trees, animals, and even fungi — any and all nonhuman species — have this agency, we can acknowledge that they deserve as much regard as we accord ourselves.”

Simard doesn’t say we shouldn’t farm, fish, or use wood products; she is calling for us to shift our mindset from one of seeing the world’s resources “as objects for exploitation” to seeing those resources in terms of “taking only what gifts we need, and giving back.” This more sustainable way of seeing nature, “Of showing humility toward and tolerance for all we are connected to” is similar to what Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about in Braiding Sweetgrass, and to what Ellen Davies suggests in her book Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture is at the root of both Hebrew scripture’s teachings about land stewardship and agrarian literature. Gratitude, humility, a willingness to share, and a sense of wonder and responsibility towards all of creation, are found in many cultures and traditions, and are key to caring for humankind as well. That Simard brings these sensibilities to forest science is a real gift to the world.

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I started the new year off with some heavy duty nonfiction. My dad sent me a copy of The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here by Hope Jahren, and our elder offspring gave me Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism by Kathryn Tanner for Christmas. Both were tough in their way, but good reads.

Let’s begin with what everything in America (and most of the world) begins and ends with: capitalism. Tanner’s book examines the idea of the “protestant work ethic” and also looks at capitalism’s morphing into an entirely finance driven enterprise that causes both private and public sectors to cut costs (working fewer employees harder, outsourcing, etc.) in order to please investors by producing greater profit or yielding higher interest rates on bonds. If you’ve wondered why your taxes go up but your city isn’t really providing any more services — and in some cases is cutting them — this little book explains it pretty handily.

She gets into detailed explanations of the crazy financial investment products that led to the Great Recession (if you liked The Big Short, you’ll enjoy her lucid overview) and explains why workers, especially those with few resources, get caught in cycles of debt and employment insecurity. Basically, why most of us are the chaff in the financial elite’s fat harvest. I especially enjoyed the places in the book where she noted that this system actually undermines the long term sustainability of companies that are “succeeding” according to financial capitalism’s rules, because there is only so long they can squeeze out lower costs and higher profits before companies or governments reach unsustainably low staffing levels or simply can’t force suppliers or vendors to price materials and services any lower. And there reaches a point when monitoring and measuring employees limits rather than enhances their productivity.

I was with Tanner as she explained all this, and I understood, to a point, the ways that our relationship to time — our perceptions of past, present and future — are impacted by capitalism’s relentless push for financial gain at all cost. And I followed her lines of thought as she described why Christianity is not aligned with these theories of profit over people, and why God’s creation, including humans, is not enhanced by these systems.

As Tanner writes, “The materials upon which we work have value prior to our activity insofar as they form non-purposive ‘products’ of God’s creative activity. God created them for no purpose or end other than to be reflections of God’s glory. We are similarly not responsible for creating the value of what we are and will be through productive activities, whether on ourselves or other things. . . . With an anthropology of production in which human work is the source of value fundamentally undermined, the heightened work ethic of finance-dominated capitalism collapses. One can no longer expect personal fulfillment through work in any ordinary sense of that.”

Which is more or less the view I came to (without the analysis of finance-dominated capitalism Tanner engages in) last spring, when I had a kind of ah-ha realization that my satisfaction in life comes from my relationship with God and with my fellow members of creation (human and non) and that my satisfaction in life decidedly did not and would never come from work. Which a few months later was a factor in my decision to leave my job (more on that over at Nocturnal Librarian), albeit for another one.

But as I read Tanner’s book I was hoping for a clearer explanation of the ways Christianity can not only discredit the theory of work upheld by finance-dominated capitalism, but also help people unshackle themselves. Barring that — which after all is impractical when every good and service we need to live a healthy life is produced by the system we’re shackled to — I was hoping at least for more practical advice for how ordinary Christians can take heart in the face of a system so tirelessly devoted to grinding up workers and spitting out profit.

In fairness, Tanner was not out to write a how-to or self-help book. She’s an academic, and she wrote Christianity and the New Spirit of Capitalism to respond to the work of previous academics and to develop her own theories in a way that allows her to reach not only the students in her classroom but those beyond, including this ex-library director now hourly hospital worker. It is a challenging read, not to be undertaken at bedtime or after your evening glass or two of wine. And definitely one that required re-reading in places. But I appreciated wrestling with the information Tanner presented and I felt validated. I’d had a sense that my “ah ha” was a sign of spiritual/ethical growth and not just being fed up at work, and Tanner helped me understand that better.

Now on to the easier to read but no less challenging to think about book about climate change.

The Story of More takes a systematic approach to examining all of the changes in the world that led to climate change since author Hope Jahren was a child. She’s about my age so I found her data interesting since she’s talking about my lifetime, too. The data is staggering, and she uses a lot of imagery to bring it to life. One example I read aloud to the Computer Scientist that he actually asked me to send him the next morning because he couldn’t stop pondering it (to set the scene is, Jahren is flying from Newark to Minneapolis):

“If instead of flying, all two hundred of us escaped from the plane into two hundred separate cars and drove, individually, from New Jersey to Minnesota, we would have collectively burned 40 percent less fuel than we ended up using for that one plane by flying together. If instead of using separate cars we had boarded a single passenger train, the total journey would have required only half as much fuel as was required for the gas-guzzling airplane that saved each one of us fourteen hours of travel time.”

Vivid, right? The whole books is studded with these kinds of examples. Jahren is a scientist, so she is methodical and thorough. She covers all the things humans use and consume, like food and energy, as well as the impacts we’re having on what’s around us, including, air, water, weather, and our fellow inhabitants of earth (human, plant, and animal). The Story of More is very much connected to the story of capitalism, so reading them both at the same time was a lot.

My dad told me he liked the book because it’s hopeful. Jahren is hopeful, and is clear that the future is in all of our hands. She explains why individual actions to reduce our consumption — to get from more to less — are important, because they add up, especially if those who consume the most cut back. And she lays out a step by step plan for prioritizing, reviewing, taking steps, journaling, etc. so that readers can act on what they’ve learned.

The reasons I find it hard to wrap my head around this as a solution are:

  1. if people can’t be persuaded that their personal actions can help end a pandemic, say by wearing masks, or getting vaccinated, why on earth should we expect that people will voluntarily choose to consume less? And,
  2. see above. Finance-dominated capitalism is pervasive, overwhelms everything in its sight, and is the driving force behind the “more” in The Story of More.

Still, as The Sum of Us so beautifully explains (I still find hope in that book, months after reading it), there’s power in solidarity. Consuming less, like overcoming the most dehumanizing aspects of finance-dominated capitalism, requires working together. Jahren knows this too, and suggests starting a dialogue with others. I agree that talking about this is a place to start. And The Story of More may be a catalyst for those kinds of conversations that can lead to action. It’s definitely a good choice for book clubs, which is why my dad read it.

So what to do with all of this? I’m still processing, but here’s how I spent my day today. I have Wednesdays off at my new job. I chose work that only takes up 36 hours a week, where I can still get health insurance for my family but have a whole extra day for the things that DO bring me satisfaction. I caught up with an old friend on the phone. Got some COVID rapid tests so I can continue to test at the end of each workweek ahead of visiting with our older offspring and his rescue pup. Had a couple of Zoom meetings with new friends in an organization I’ve become involved with, NH Healthcare Workers for Climate Action. Attended a noonday prayer service with friends I’ve met from all over the country over the past two years who are my Companions in the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, where we caught up (I’ve missed seeing them for a couple of weeks because I was covering Wednesdays for a sick coworker), brought our gratitude and concerns to God, and laughed together. Took a walk with our younger offspring. Was amused by our two cats. Used up some leftovers to make a delicious dinner. Researched funds where I could invest my rollover of retirement funds from my previous job without supporting the prison industrial complex or fossil fuel extraction. And wrote.

Will any of this break the chains of capitalism or end climate change? No, not these small actions by themselves. But I spent my time on the relationships that do bring me satisfaction, and my small steps will add up with every other person’s small steps. So I guess Dad’s right, that’s hopeful.

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