When the trees talk, we need to listen, Suzanne Simard reveals in her bestselling book Finding the Mother Tree
'There is a link between forests and people. We need to make some transformational changes'
This interview originally aired on Nov. 27, 2021.
Suzanne Simard was born and raised in the B.C. rainforest. The Canadian scientist and professor began observing trees when she was a child — which led to a life of studying forest ecology and breaking new ground with her discoveries.
Finding the Mother Tree is a scientific memoir and Simard's first book. Having spent the last four decades understanding how trees communicate with each other, Simard explains how trees are a complex, interdependent circle of life and how forests are social, communal creatures connected through underground networks.
Finding the Mother Tree is an international bestseller and creating a buzz. It was the grand prize winner of the 2021 Banff Mountain Book Competition Awards, the Booker Prize-longlisted American author Richard Powers has cited her work as a key influence, and Hollywood actor Amy Adams is set to play Simard in an upcoming feature film based on the book.
Simard spoke with Shelagh Rogers about writing Finding the Mother Tree.
Your language is so beautiful and the writing is exquisite. I feel such a strong sense of place. I feel like I'm really there. Is this a danger when you're a scientist?
Suzanne Simard: I wanted to be a writer when I was a kid. My pragmatic side and also my family history led me into forestry — but I always held in my heart that I wanted to write as well. As a scientist, you're constrained in your style of writing. You have to carve it down and simplify it so it's just telling you the bare raw facts of what you've done.
My pragmatic side and also my family history led me into forestry — but I always held in my heart that I wanted to write as well.
I always found that frustrating that I couldn't express myself. I felt like I was losing the ability to express myself in that more poetic and creative way. I was yearning to let myself loose and allow myself to write in the way that came from my heart instead of my head.
WATCH | Suzanne Simard discusses Finding the Mother Tree:
One of the reasons people are reading Finding the Mother Tree is that there is that sense of heart language as well.
Suzanne Simard: It's funny, I did this incredible research that is the backbone of this book. I felt so frustrated that nobody really knew about it, except for other scientists. I knew how important it was, because of what's happening in our forests.
There is a link between forests and people. We need to make some transformational changes. I wanted to reach into the hearts of people, and to have people understand that this story began with my life. The questions that I went on to ask in science grew from who I was as a child of the forest in the heart of British Columbia.
There is a link between forests and people. We need to make some transformational changes.
I hope that I convey that in the book that this has deep roots as a Canadian and as a child who grew up in these complex, intertwined forests. These questions were so logical for me to ask.
They do expand our understanding, or at least how Westerners have understood forests for the last century or more. It hopefully speaks also to the Indigenous roots in our country, where I think that this understanding is already well founded, well understood, and would serve us all to understand this more deeply.
You've had a number of "eureka" or "aha" moments in your life. When was that moment regarding the Finding the Mother Tree?
Suzanne Simard: I was in my early 30s when I made these discoveries — that trees were passing carbon back and forth. I met a whole bunch of resistance when I published that paper, not just in forest practices but academia as well. It challenged the modern industrial view of how forests grew, which was that they're highly competitive, and trees are fighting for their own survival and trying to get all the light and soil resources that they can.
This created a huge backlash. There was a period of about 10 years or more that I was mired in this backlash, and so did the study of this phenomena of below-ground connections in the forest. I set out to map what those networks in the forest looked like.
All of the trees in our forests in Canada — in fact, all over the world — have this symbiotic, mutualistic association with fungi. There are these certain fungi — mycorrhizal fungi, which literally means fungus root — where the tree provides energy to the fungus not in photosynthesis, and the fungus takes out energy and uses it to grow itself. It grows itself through the soil, winding around all the pores and all the soil — pulling out nutrients and water and delivering them back to the tree.
All of the trees in our forests in Canada — in fact, all over the world — have this symbiotic, mutualistic association with fungi.
What I discovered is that these fungi can actually link these trees together. There are literally hundreds of species in a single forest of these fungi, and so you can imagine what that tapestry might look like.
WATCH | Suzanne Simard discusses Finding the Mother Tree:
At one point, as you describe everything working in concert, quite literally, like an orchestra's going on in the forest — with all of that collaboration and communication.
I often think when I'm in the forest, I'm listening to a symphony. You do hear stuff, of course, but just knowing that all the players are working together to create this incredible wealth of an ecosystem that is so productive and so diverse. It provides oxygen for us and food and for all of the creatures that live in the forest.
It takes a symphony to create a beautiful piece, and that is what the forest is.
It takes a symphony to create a beautiful piece, and that is what the forest is — it's a symphony, too.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.