Ecologist Suzanne Simard Wants To Change The Way We Look At Trees

Ecologist Suzanne Simard Wants To Change The Way We Look At Trees

“As discussed in this article, the key to healthy forests is (1) tree species biodiversity, and (2) healthy soil life.


NOTE: this article was originally published to Chatelaine’s Apple News channel on January 12, 2023. It was written by Michelle Cyca. Photo by Felicia Chang.


Suzanne Simard has spent more than 40 years studying the mysteries of the forest. Now, her memoir is hitting the big screen—transforming how the world looks at trees


ON A SUNNY DAY IN 2007, Suzanne Simard was driving from Vancouver to Nelson, B.C., when she spotted a slope covered with Douglas fir trees. Some stretched more than 35 metres into the sky, their towering, jagged peaks shadowing a forest floor dense with brush and slender saplings. It was exactly what Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, had been hoping to find; the ideal site for a research project to map mycorrhizal networks, the underground lattice of fungal filaments that link trees to one another to form cooperative, collaborative ecosystems. As she knelt under the canopy and traced the roots of the largest trees, each of which connected to the younger saplings that surrounded it, she was struck by a profound revelation. These ancient giants were the Mother Trees, the matriarchs that nurtured the saplings and seedlings, the living heart of the forest.

Simard, now 62, has spent more than 40 years studying the mysteries of the forest. In the process, she has transformed how we look at trees. A decade before she stumbled across that slope of Douglas firs, her research demonstrated that trees were not solitary individuals, but interconnected communities that depended on one another for survival. Her groundbreaking doctoral research found that birch and fir trees exchanged carbon through underground fungal networks, sharing resources rather than fighting for them. Nature published her findings in 1997, calling these networks the “Wood-Wide Web” and upending the long-held scientific view that all natural species were locked in an eternal struggle for survival. Perhaps, Simard’s research suggested, the forest wasn’t a battlefield—it was a neighbourhood. “I found evidence of all these communications and connections,” Simard recalls, “and it completely turned how I saw the forest upside down.”

Since then, Simard’s work has transformed how millions of other people see the forest, too. Her research inspired the Tree of Souls in James Cameron’s 2009 film, Avatar, and Simard served as the inspiration for a character in Richard Powers’ 2018 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Overstory. But it was her bestselling 2021 memoir, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, that made Simard herself a public figure. Braiding together her personal and scientific quests to understand the mysteries of the forest in a moving, often transcendent narrative, Finding the Mother Tree became an international sensation and will be adapted into a film starring Amy Adams as Simard. On Instagram, Adams described it as a “deeply beautiful memoir” and “a call to action to protect, understand and connect with the natural world.”

On a blustery day last November, I meet Simard in her office at the University of British Columbia. “Sorry for the mess,” she says, leading me into a warm, cluttered space. Books and papers cover every surface, boxes are piled on the floor and the walls are decorated with drawings made long ago by her two daughters, now in their 20s. “I haven’t cleaned up my office yet,” she says apologetically. Simard, who splits her time between Vancouver and Nelson, recently returned from the latter, where she and her family were caring for her mother, who passed away in August 2022. “I’d been looking after her for a long time,” she says. “I needed a break, so I came here to spend time with my daughters and my students. But I haven’t had time to tidy up, because I’ve been travelling so much.”

A large window frames the blue sky and the spiky tops of evergreen trees; occasionally, a bald eagle dips into view. Dressed in a soft, plum-coloured shirt, blue jeans and the Blundstone boots that every Vancouverite owns, Simard gestures for me to sit as she clears her desk chair and settles in.

Simard is naturally soft-spoken, an introvert who has had to train herself for the endurance sport of public attention, and the effort has taken a toll. When we meet, she’s masked and recovering from the flu, and her light-green eyes are shadowed with exhaustion. Our planned interview the day before was rescheduled because Simard spent the afternoon in urgent care. “I’ve been pushing it too hard,” she says. Still, she planned to fly next week to Haida Gwaii, B.C., to meet with a group of 25 First Nations to discuss sustainable strategies for generating revenue while safeguarding their ancient forests. The work, she says, is too important to stop.

“This moment is not about me,” she says. “The moment is about all of us.”


this is a pitcuire of Suzanne Simard writing in a notepad in a forest


Simard grew up spending summers in the Monashee Mountains of south-central B.C., under the dense canopy of western red cedar and hemlock trees that her family had logged for generations. She was at home in the woods, climbing trees, falling into creeks and eating clumps of humus, the soil formed from decaying organic matter that she found as sweet as chocolate. Her capacity to perceive forests as holistic systems, which has facilitated many of her most significant scientific breakthroughs, is the product of a lifetime of reverent observation.

Even now, Simard is most at home among the trees. “We’ll be out in the forest somewhere, and all of a sudden I’ll turn and see that she’s all the way up a slope,” says Dr. Teresa (Sm’hayetsk) Ryan, a Tsimshian ecologist who has collaborated with Simard since 2014 and who gave her the nickname “matte,” which means “mountain goat” in Sm’álgyax. “It’s like a fix for her. She just has to get out into the forest, climb that hill.”

Though Simard dreamed of becoming a writer, studying forestry in university was a natural fit. But the logging methods of her grandparents and great-grandparents—hand-falling trees, pulling them by horse to a flume and driving the logs down the river—could not have been more different than the vast clear-cutting that Simard witnessed as a forestry student in the early 1980s, which left the earth bare. “That’s when I learned we were just ripping apart these ecosystems,” she says. “It was like watching a slow train wreck.”

Her first job, at 20, was surveying the health of spruce seedlings planted to replace mature stands of subalpine fir that were razed for timber. Despite being planted in full sun and healthy soil, many of the seedlings were already dying, their roots limp and stunted. But a nearby fir sapling, which had survived the clear-cut, was thriving, its roots wrapped in silky fungal threads.

Puzzling out the link between the health of trees and these underground fungal networks became Simard’s obsession. She began designing research experiments for the B.C. Forest Service to test the effectiveness of forestry methods, which dictated that clear-cuts be replanted by a single species of fast-growing, profitable trees, evenly spaced and free of competition from shrubs and other plants. When experiments revealed that this approach was fundamentally flawed, Simard assumed the data would speak for itself: The forestry industry should log selectively and retain biodiversity in order to cultivate healthy, resilient forests. But when she made her case, she discovered the industry was more interested in profits over sustainability. “The aim of the industry is simple: ‘How do we make more money from forests?’” she says. “The major companies that have control over the forests of Canada are focused on their shareholders and their bottom line and they’re reporting billions of dollars in profits. Meanwhile, the forests of British Columbia are a mess.”

Simard realized there was no place for her views in the industry. In 2002, she accepted a job in the Faculty of Forestry at the University of British Columbia. By that time, she was the mother of two young girls; when her then-husband insisted that the family stay in Nelson, she made a weekly 16-hour round-trip commute from Vancouver. (Simard and her husband separated in 2012.) Meanwhile, her research into the social relationships among trees drew skepticism from other scientists. But Simard continued her efforts, refuting the criticism with more research that showed trees cooperated for survival.

Simard is the first to point out that her scientific findings are not new; they build on Indigenous knowledge systems, and much of her work happens in partnership with Indigenous scientists. “I cringe at the term ‘integrate,’” says Ryan. “I don’t want to integrate Indigenous science into western science. What we need is . . . to bring these two knowledge systems together, so they can interact. The work that Suzanne and I do together, it’s a unique approach, and I think it helps people better understand science.”

Critics of Simard tend to focus on her use of anthropomorphic language, which encourages people to relate to nature, rather than see themselves as separate from it. In 2021, ecologist Kathryn Flinn criticized Simard’s use of terms like “mother” and “community,” arguing in a Scientific American editorial that “we are moral creatures in an amoral world. Nature does not share our values.” And just a week before I meet with Simard, mycologist Justine Karst—who has co-published articles with Simard—told The New York Times that she worried about her son learning that “trees talk underground.”

Simard understands that the public needs to care about forests in order to save them, and there are only so many readers willing to engage with an academic research article. “I published [Finding the Mother Tree] with the intention of reaching everybody,” she says. “The public needs to know, to make educated decisions about what to do [with our forests.] And if they don’t understand the issues, then they can’t.” Ryan says Simard’s work strikes a deeper nerve, focusing on collaboration over competition. “It challenges the paternalism that’s embedded in science,” she says.

In 2015, Simard established The Mother Tree Project, a research study across nine B.C. forest sites, each in a different climatic region. By retaining Mother Trees at each site that will nurture regrowth and protect carbon reserves while logging around them, the project is testing how the needs of the forestry industry can be balanced with those of the forest.

Then there’s the Mother Tree Network, a collaboration founded in 2022 between B.C. First Nations and a team of researchers, journalists, scientists and foresters. Together, they work with nations to find economic alternatives for logging their old growth. “They’ve been wedged between servicing their debts and logging their forests—or watching others cut them down,” she says. “And yet, their livelihood depends on intact forest and ocean ecosystems. So, how can we help them protect their way of life?” This is her mission, not arguing about whether it’s an exaggeration to call the communications between trees “talking.” She says of The New York Times article: “That’s a tempest in a teapot.”

Mother Trees provide the greatest value to the forest and to humanity, storing enormous amounts of carbon that would otherwise warm the planet. An ancient forest like Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island—where land defenders protecting centuries-old trees have clashed with logging companies and the RCMP—can store up to three times as much carbon as a clear-cut. But those ancient trees are also the most profitable for the timber industry. Though the B.C. government promised in November 2021 to temporarily defer logging of 2.6 million hectares of old-growth forests, these deferrals have yet to be enacted.

Last August, B.C. conservation non-profit found that 55,000 hectares of old-growth forest that the province had promised to protect was at risk of being logged, while other proposed areas for deferral had already been logged. These trees are effectively irreplaceable; it will take many human lifetimes for the forest to recover. We may not have that long. “When we say that our survival is at risk, people think that’s an exaggeration,” Ryan says. “We need people to see that everything is connected.”

I look at Simard, weary behind her mask, four decades into a fight that’s far from over, and ask her if she finds it hard to be hopeful about the future of our forests. “I’m aware of how dire it is,” she says. “But one thing about being a systems scientist is that I have a unique perspective. I know that these biological systems are built to be resilient and regenerative. I think most people don’t really know that. They haven’t had a lifetime of working in a forest and watching it for 60 years. It can become diverse again. And I have to make sure people understand that, so that you don’t lose hope. Because these forests were meant to heal.”



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