How Suzanne Simard changed our relationship to trees

In ‘Finding the Mother Tree,’ a maverick forest ecologist relates her scientific journey — one that follows in the footsteps of traditional Indigenous knowledge.

 

A healthy forest hums with aboveground stimuli: deer shuffling through dead leaves, breezes ruffling conifer needles, squirrels dropping seeds. The trees, while they appear to stand still, play an important role in this synergy, which can feel almost sentient. Below the surface, fungi connect with tree roots and with each other, facilitating a flow of communication and allowing the trees to share energy, nutrients and intelligence.

“We have always known that plants and animals have their own councils, and a common language,” Robin Wall Kimmerer, a renowned biologist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, wrote in her seminal text Braiding Sweetgrass, in 2013. “In the old times, our elders say, the trees talked to each other.”

It took centuries, but Western science has finally begun to recognize this traditional knowledge, thanks in large part to the work of Suzanne Simard, a forest ecologist and professor at the University of British Columbia. In her new memoir, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, Simard details her quest to prove that trees share resources like carbon, nitrogen and water via underground networks of mycorrhizal fungi, a give-and-take that boosts the health of the whole forest. In emphasizing the importance of biodiversity and interdependence in forest ecosystems, Simard’s findings threatened common logging-industry techniques like aggressive brush removal and clear-cutting — what she and a colleague called the “fast-food approach to forestry.”

The idea that trees, instead of simply competing for light, might actually communicate and even cooperate was easy to dismiss as junk science, especially coming from a young female researcher. 

The idea that trees, instead of simply competing for light, might actually communicate and even cooperate was easy to dismiss as junk science, especially coming from a young female researcher. Other foresters tried to intimidate her and suppress her work. Simard’s candid and relatable account shows how difficult it is for an outsider to push the boundaries and retain credibility in an insular and unforgiving field. Her studies have attracted criticism, and her story, in more ways than one, suggests that science and industry have a long way to go when it comes to recognizing other forms of knowledge.  

A descendant of French Canadian homesteaders in British Columbia’s interior, Simard was one of few women in the logging industry in the early 1980s. She wondered why the weeded, monoculture tree crops were so sickly compared to the remaining old-growth woods. “In my bones,” she writes, “I knew the problem with the ailing seedlings was that they couldn’t connect with the soil.” It seemed obvious that standard forestry practices were not good for the forest’s long-term health. But she knew she’d need “rigorous, credible science” to prove herself and her hypotheses to the men who directed government forestry policy.

Simard transitioned to working with the British Columbia Forest Service, investigating weeding effects in clear-cuts. A sense of duty drove her to speak out against wrongheaded practices — like removing native shrubs from tree plantations to reduce competition — and continue her research. Then, in 1997, Nature published her study on the way trees share carbon via fungal networks. Though government forestry policies didn’t change immediately, her paper received worldwide press and encouraged a new generation of scientists to pursue similar lines of inquiry.

It’s not until the book’s final chapter that Simard explicitly lays out the connections between her work and the long-held wisdom of Indigenous traditions. She explicitly describes how her findings echo the teachings of tribes like the Secwepemc Nation, in whose ancestral territory she grew up and did much of her research. 

Simard’s story also shows how rare effective comm-unication between traditions has been, and still remains.

Simard’s decision to place these revelations at the end of her story reflects the chronology of her own understanding; her acceptance evolved in parallel with mainstream recognition of the importance of traditional ecological knowledge to contemporary forestry. The fact that different traditions can arrive at the same truth solidifies that truth’s veracity, but Simard’s story also shows how rare effective communication between traditions has been, and still remains. Inclusive stewardship is not merely a worthy goal for women like Simard who want to make it in male-dominated fields — it is an urgent priority as climate change upends ecosystems.

Gradually, policy evolved to tolerate a greater diversity of native plants in British Columbia’s managed forests. But, more importantly, Simard’s work contributed to a shift toward more holistic ecological thinking across institutions, a sea change whose impacts will become clearer as younger scientists achieve new understandings of biodiversity. Simard is optimistic. One of the most intriguing branches of her later research involves the way trees warn each other of disease or drought. What Simard, and the Secwepemc, call Mother Trees — the biggest, oldest trees in a grove — act as vital hubs in this communication network, passing messages and sustenance to their offspring and neighbors. It is this collaboration, this sharing of intelligence and resources within a diverse forest community, that makes resilience possible. “The forest is wired for healing in this way,” Simard writes, “and we can help if we follow her lead.”

Claire Thompson is a seasonal trail worker in Washington’s Cascades and a graduate student at the University of Montana, where she is pursuing a master’s in environmental studies and a certificate in natural resources conflict resolution.

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