MUshrooms in the forest floor

Expert Panel Discussion: Suzanne Simard, Tzeporah Berman, Paul Stamets

An expert panel discussion featuring Suzanne Simard, Tzepoarh Berman and Paul Stamets was one of the highlights of the Children’s Forest AGM on January 28. The topics ranged from finding an effective way to communicate with industry to a proposed research collaboration on Cortes Island. The podcast below is an abridged version of that segment, starting with the introduction Forest Berman-Hatch gave for his mother.

Related story: Dr Suzanne Simard: The Mother Tree Network & Cortes Island

Tzeporah Berman erupted onto the environmental stage during the Clayoquot Sound logging blockades in the early nineties, where she was eventually charged with 857 counts of criminal aiding and abetting. More recently, she was one of the protesters arrested at Fairy Creek. She was one of the negotiators in the discussion leading to the creation of the Great Bear Rainforest and is a co-founder of the environmental organization Stand.earth. Berman has been a resident of Cortes Island since 2003. One of her anecdotes revolved around conversations with Christine Robinson, Bruce Ellingsen and Carrie Saxefrage at Linnaea farm prior to the founding of the Forest Trust for the Children of Cortes Island Society.

“We’re still here, we’re still doing it, and the forest is still standing,” she said. 

In contrast to Berman, the two other experts were once employed by forestry companies. 

Before he set off to unversity, wrote six books and became ‘the arch druid of all human-fungi relations’ that Forest describes, Paul Stamets was a rigging slinger.

“I met people that, even though they were logging, loved the forest. They wanted to protect the steelhead streams. They got sold the bill of goods that the environmentalists were the enemy, but in fact, the logging companies often would break young men and women’s bodies by the time they’re 35 and then abandon them. There was a lot of unfortunate propaganda against environmentalists who were really looking at sustainability and also sustainability of the local economies. So I don’t think we should vilify loggers as being the enemy. I think the policies and the propaganda from these companies, demonizing environmentalists, has created a chasm that is unnecessary when that needs to be mended,” he said.

Simard also had a forestry background, “I came from rough and ready people that were just trying to make a living and feed their families but I wanted to be on the front lines with you Tzeporah. But I was doing research for forestry and very conflicted about all of it and wondering what’s my role in this? I could see both sides and I think that the idea of healing the people comes with healing the planet. Like Paul was saying, the loggers actually want the same thing. My grandfather wanted to protect the forest too, and my uncle. So how do you actually get there?”

Stamets pointed out, “The playing field is weighed against us by the economics of the timber industry.  The challenge that I think we collectively face, and we need to help create and communicate, is how we give ecological value beyond timber board, feet of lumber.”  

He argued for a vision of the “forest ecosystem that’s measurable and translatable and can be argued in economics, so that those who are wedded to the old system can be incentivized to come on board.” 

Simard added that actions like the children’s trust negotiating to buy the forest, is putting a value on that forest. 

“That’s a game changer. Instead of fighting to conserve and preserve,  to have the forest as part of our wellbeing economy so that people can all be part of this. It doesn’t have to be an ‘us versus them’ thing. It can be more or less, look at the balance of value here,” she said. “Let’s get on and put a value on these so that we can actually have  a meaningful debate and fight over what we prioritize.” 

Berman had heard these ideas before, “At first, I have to be frank, it made me cringe. I think it does for a lot of us because, I believe, there is inherent value. Our current economic system is a huge part of the problem. But what you’re saying is, in a lot of ways, that we also have to be pragmatic. It is the system that is threatening and if we don’t play in it at all, then we’re leaving the playing field to others.”

She looks to the next generation to make the changes that must happen, “They understand, they see an intersectionality of social justice, and economic justice, and racism, and environmental issues in a way that I think my generation didn’t, and we’re learning from them every day.  The systems that they’re going to be creating as adults I think are going to be different. In the meantime, I have a mantra whether I’m working on pipelines or forest conservations, and that delay is our friend right now.  There is so very little left.”

The conversation took an abrupt turn when Paul Stamets asked Suzanne Simard, “Do we have a biological species map of the entire island in terms of fungi, the plants and the amount of lichens.There was a lichenologist that came up to the island and apparently  in two days could not get more than 50 feet because there was so many species. That’s what I heard. I know it was maybe exaggerated, but not that exaggerated. As we know the abundance of the species of lichens that we have in mosses,  the bryophytes on the island is just astonishing. I’m just wondering is anyone spearheading that?”  

She was not aware of a full documentation being done anywhere.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Cortes became the first island in British Columbia to have a whole genomic sequence of the entire ecosystem? To express the wealth of biodiversity,” he proposed. “That context could help people understand how important it is to protect integrated systems that are mutually dependent upon each other, and humans living sustainably within that system. I think that type of messaging would be remarkable and in and of itself. It would be useful not only to the community, but  to show the world that all of you should protect genomic diversity.”

Simard agreed, “Yes, Cortes Island could be the pilot for doing that.  It’s only recently that we’ve had the tools where we’ve been able to do metagenomic analysis like that of the soil, the forest floor of all the creatures. We’re at the scientific forefront of that.”

Some of the other participants on the call suggested other sources that could help. A member of Simard’s team, Robin Hood, promised to send the contact information for a bio blitz on Galiano Island. Andy McKinnon from BC Big Tree suggested they reach out to the Institute for Multidisciplinary Ecological Research in the Salish Sea. Donna Collins,, pointed out they have compiled extensive lists of all kinds of species, whether its subtidal, intertidal or on land. 

“I’m one of the curators of Wild Cortes and currently we’re planning an exhibit on the Mother Tree. So anything anybody can send to me would be wonderful,” she said. 

Sadhu Johnston suggested that there seemed to be so many areas where their work overlapped, had Stamets and Simmard considered collaborating on a project. Johnston also wondered if students from the Cortes Island Academy could participate. 

“Well, I think we’re two peas in the same pod,” responded Stamets. 

He went on to discuss his non-profit, the Center for Ecological Consciousness (CEC), and the potential for it to collaborate with the Children’s Forest and the Mother Tree Network. 

“This is where  the vast majority of whatever assets I have is going to this nonprofit to get lichenologists, mycologists and ornithologists together, with their  graduate students. Then have an overlap of a week or two on Cortes where they see where their skillsets can create insights into ecosystem wisdom, that have escaped scientists because we’re in our silos of special realities. It’s only when we have these interfaces between our disciplines that we see crossover applications that may not have been apparent had we not gotten physically together, as well as intellectually. I’m excited about that.”

Simard embraced the idea, “It would be great to work together with Paul and I think we would, we would make a great collaboration. Let’s do it.” 

Forrest Berman-Hatch closed thais segment of the meeting, “You were here when it happened, folks,  the start of that collaboration.” 

Top image credit: Mushroom growing at the Myco-forestry Project – Photo by Daniel J Pierce

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