“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. 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.
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.
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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