How one woman discovered the secret life of trees

Suzanne Simard was dismissed by the scientific community for decades. Now, she’s inspired a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, a Hollywood film of her life – and written her own incredible memoir.

A photograph of Suzanne Simard sitting at the base of a tree.
Suzanne Simard. Image: Diana Markosian/Penguin

Suzanne Simard is exhausted. Her words, not mine. I’ve caught the Canadian author and forest ecologist in the midst of a gruelling transatlantic press campaign ahead of the release of her first book, Finding the Mother Tree. There are media requests about deforestation protests in Vancouver Island to attend to; just yesterday, global news broke that Amy Adams would be playing Simard in a film of her life. It has been something of a whirlwind.

Still, all this feels somewhat overdue. Simard is in her sixties and has dedicated her life to the pursuit of a scientific discovery so brilliant and unbelievable that for decades her peers dismissed it: that forests function through fungal webs of communication. Trees, like animals, raise their young and educate them like animals do. They grow in something akin to a social structure, with “Mother Trees” at the heart. Seedlings appear with encouragement and nutrients from older trees; when older trees die, they do so after transferring knowledge to those that have come after them.

Her pioneering work – and her position in the male-dominated forest ecology community as a woman – caught the attention of another writer a few years ago. Richard Powers, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory, has said his character Patricia is a “fictional composite” of prominent women scientists. “Her mature discoveries owe more than a little to the tremendously exciting research of Suzanne Simard into the intricate communicative and resource-sharing networks in a forest,” he told Conjunctions, Bard College’s literary journal.

'There’s the time she had to hide up a tree for hours in order to escape a mother bear protecting her cubs'

She tells me she was wary when she first heard about Patricia – her work has been written about before, and not always in the way she would like. “But then when I read The Overstory I absolutely loved it,” she says. “Patricia wasn't completely based on me but the struggles and some of the science in it resonated and I thought yeah this is pretty good, I like this.” She and Powers are yet to speak, although it feels as if their books have formed their own kind of kinship. “I’m looking forward to the day when I can meet him,” she says. “He sounds like an amazing person.”

Evidently, Simard is now being listened to, but as Finding the Mother Tree shows, this has not always been the case. Spanning the decades from her earth-eating childhood (she was quite the connoisseur: “the more worms, the richer and tastier the humus”) spent in the company of her forester family to her triumphant discovery of Mother Trees as she works alongside her daughter, Simard’s memoir is fuelled by persistence and determination. She is scoffed at by commercial foresters; other academics publicly challenge her work; experiments are foiled by ranchers and saplings die year after year. Then there’s the time she had to hide up a tree for hours in order to escape a mother bear protecting her cubs.

Nevertheless, she persisted. Simard is characteristically nonplussed about this when I raise it. “I don’t know, I think it’s just how I’m made,” she shrugs, from the other end of a Zoom call. “It was like, what’s the next thing, how do I get to it? I also come from a family of survivalists. I was brought up to be like that: you need to get a career and look after yourself. My mom was always pushing me, she was a real inspiration for me to keep going.”

'I've watched in grief as my home forests are just getting cut down. We’re literally at the last stems'

She started writing Finding the Mother Tree after going on sabbatical in 2017. “I wasted the first half going to conferences!” she admits, before sitting down on 1 January 2018 with a determination to tell her story. Simard is motivated by the desire to save the forests she has loved all her life. “I've watched in grief as my home forests are just getting cut down,” she says. “We’ve only got like eight per cent of our productive old growth forests left. We’re literally at the last stems. I feel it's so important to keep what we do have left, because this is where our genetic diversity resides.

“This is where trees that are 1000 years old are archiving, in their DNA, past climates and the ability to adapt and create for us in a future that is going to be climatically very volatile. I'm at the point where I'm frustrated, I know that these are our last chances to change things, to keep what we have left,” she says. “I was hoping this story would get out there, that it would help.”

If, as Simard’s book suggests, there is a kind of invisible connection between her personal life and that of the forest, how might the release of Finding the Mother Tree be reflected by the trees, I ask. “We'll have to see,” she says, “but in Vancouver Island, which is one of some of our most productive forests, protestors are putting their bodies on the line to stop the harvesting of these this last watershed,” she says. “I'm getting lots of calls from the media to comment on the importance of these old growth forests. And that wouldn’t have happened, and the protestors wouldn’t have known to contact me for help, without the book coming out. I feel like I'm able to contribute to that in a really meaningful way.”

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