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Speaking For The Trees

Suzanne Simard is opening our eyes to what forests are capable of.

Diana Markosian, used with permission.
Diana Markosian, used with permission.

As a young adult, Suzanne Simard was on the job with a logging company in Western Canada when she was confronted by a patch of ailing seedlings. Her dismay over the failing trees, meant to replace those the company had cleared, helped inspire a decades-long scientific journey. As she illuminated the beneficial relationships between trees and subterranean fungi, which physically join trees together in a network, Simard—now a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia—faced a lack of interest and skepticism, but ultimately found validation. In her book, Finding the Mother Tree, she relates how she came out of the wilderness to make a series of daring discoveries about its true nature.

Early in your career, you literally dug around out of curiosity. Where did that impulse come from?

I don’t know—my backyard? My parents spent their childhoods roaming the woods. My family lived in the bush, so I just grew up that way. My brother and I had free rein. We were always playing in the forest and building forts. To me, the greatest thing ever was to get dirty. Those initial formative experiences imprinted on me so strongly that they carried on throughout my life, and to be away from trees feels unnatural to me.

You’ve said that your instinct is to “listen to what living things are saying.” What does that mean to you?

Forests are telling us things all the time, like what kind of shape they are in, whether they are blooming, whether their roots are growing. Knowledge of the land helps us to be caretakers of the land. And if we impose our will without understanding what the land is telling us, we inevitably make big mistakes. If you want to harvest the forest, for example, and it’s too dry or too wet, that’s telling us something. Maybe don’t go there, or work around it. Or if we’re going to repopulate the forest, try to consider what was there naturally and put that back. The land always tries to regain balance, and it tells us this in ways that can be surprising.

Did the discomfort you felt as a young worker in the logging industry motivate you in the long run?

Absolutely. When I came into the forest industry, I loved trucking around the woods and laying out cut-blocks and roads and plantations. I loved it because I was out there. But what I was doing was really ultimately in service of cutting down forests. It took me a few years to start to understand where my cognitive dissonance was coming from.

You describe forests as having intelligence. How similar is it to human intelligence?

There are definitely patterns that I and my students have uncovered that have many similarities to human intelligence. For example, we looked at the mycorrhizal network in the soil and discovered that the pattern is a biological neural network. As in the brain, the networks are organized around centralized hubs—the big, old trees—and there are smaller trees that are like in-between nodes. The structure is mathematically similar to our brain. Trees transmit information and resources through these networks, and a lot of the information involves basically the same chemicals: Glutamate is moved through the networks, and it’s also a neurotransmitter in our brains.

What is an example of trees responding to the environment in an intelligent way?

They recognize which trees around them are genetically related to them, and they modify their behaviors to protect those kin. And that is an evolutionary response: to protect your genes so they can be passed on to future generations. To me, that is a highly intelligent response. Another example that we’ve measured in forests is that injured trees can transmit information to healthy trees and say, “Hey, watch out. There is an insect or a disease here and you need to upregulate your own defenses.” Trees have multiple pathways of communication; they pass information chemically through the air as well as underground.

Are some people bothered that you describe trees with language often reserved for humans?

I’ve read things like, “You can’t use these terms; that’s anthropomorphizing.” Just to dig down into that: It comes from the development of Western science and the idea that we’re objective observers, that nature is this and we’re that. That’s what’s gotten us into trouble. If you look at the history of aboriginal cultures, they were all in balance with nature. They had to be, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to survive. They had to pay attention to their natural surroundings and give them respect, and they recognized that trees and plants and animals were all in it together. They knew for thousands of years about these networks that I rediscovered using Western scientific tools.

What frustrates you about our relationship with forests, and what gives you hope?

Our forests give us life: They cycle water, they give us oxygen to breathe, they store carbon. And yet, we’re clear-cutting them at this astounding rate. In my home province of British Columbia, only about 8 percent of the highly productive old-growth forest remains. You have to fight for the last stick, otherwise it’s all going to be cut. The hopeful part for me is that people have an incredible capacity to adapt and be flexible. I’ve been trying to work with the forest industry to change practices so we save these old trees. They know that what they’re doing isn’t working. I think once they can see that it’s better for the environment and they can still make money, people will respond.

You’ve pursued counterintuitive ideas for decades. What lessons have you learned?

As a woman in my early 20s in the forest industry—being in a man’s world as a young girl—I tried to make my way and have my voice heard, and it was not heard. It took years to find my own voice. It’s still going on. You get rejected, your ideas get shot down, but you’ve got to persist and get people around you who protect you and support you. And if you’re persistent, at some point your ideas become more accepted. You weather the storm. Even in my 40s, my papers were getting rejected. And then I kind of got through that and could see my field was changing. Sometimes it takes more than one lifetime, but you’ll make enough progress that it’s worth it.