Finding the Mother Tree
An Interview with Suzanne Simard
Suzanne Simard is Professor of Forest Ecology at the University of British Columbia’s Department of Forest and Conservation Sciences in Vancouver. She is known for her groundbreaking research on below-ground fungal networks that connect trees and facilitate underground inter-tree communication and interaction. She is the author of the new book Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest.
Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee is an Emmy and Peabody Award–nominated filmmaker and a Sufi teacher. His films include: Earthrise, Sanctuaries of Silence, The Atomic Tree, Counter Mapping, Marie’s Dictionary, and Elemental. His films have been screened at New York Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, SXSW, and Hot Docs, exhibited at the Smithsonian Museum, and featured on PBS POV, National Geographic, and New York Times Op-Docs. He is the founder and executive editor of Emergence Magazine.
In this in-depth interview, Suzanne Simard—the renowned scientist who discovered the “wood-wide web”—speaks about Mother Trees, kin recognition, and how to heal our separation from the living world.
Emergence MagazineYou’ve described your work as an exploration of how we can regain our respect for the wisdom and intelligence of the forest and, through that, help to heal our relationship with nature. And over the course of your career, you’ve made some remarkable scientific discoveries about the ways that trees communicate and the intelligence that lies at the heart of the forest ecosystem. Reading your new book, I was struck by your description of how, even as a child—and as a forester, earlier in your career—you had this deep respect for trees and the forest and intuited much of what you ended up proving scientifically. Where did this deep respect for trees and the forest come from?
Suzanne SimardI grew up in the trees. I spent my childhood among the trees, always, and my parents are both from what’s called the Kootenay region of British Columbia, which is the inland rainforest. These are beautiful forests. They’re much like the west coast forests, but they’re inland, so there are towering cedars and hemlocks and firs and white pines. I grew up playing in those beautiful old-growth forests and not even really intellectually understanding how connected I had become, because it was just our way of life. And I understood the forest as this deeply connected, reverent place. It was like our church—these huge cathedrals of trees—so it was just absorbed into my bones and blood and DNA.
I didn’t realize, I didn’t articulate at the time, that I had this reverence for trees. But when I grew up and became a teenager and started thinking about my career options, it didn’t take that long to learn that there was this thing called forestry. I didn’t know what forestry was, other than that I grew up around it, because my grandfather was a horse logger, as were my uncles and my dad. And so when I went to university to become a forester, I realized that the way academia was viewing forests—and also the forest industry, because I ultimately started to work for them—was very different than what I had learned. I experienced it as an entwined place, where all the trees are interdependent; they were like one to me. They were a cathedral that was one, with all of its disciples and pews, and to me it was just this integrated place. And when I went to university, the professors had picked apart the forest. There were the trees, there was the soil, there were the plants; so it was a reductionist way of seeing this place that I had already grown up knowing was whole.
And then, when I got a job in the forest industry as a silviculturist, as a young woman, that’s how the forest industry treated the forest as well: take the trees and clear-cut them and sell them on the market and then plant trees again. And those plantations looked nothing like what was there before. The forest that was clear-cut was not at all what was put back. I became part of that machine, that clear-cutting, planting machine. And I loved it, but I knew there was something deeply wrong with it—that we were creating forests that were not connected and entwined; that we were creating forests that put the parts back but didn’t meld together as a whole, as I knew they should.
And eventually, I recognized that the trees were sick. Not all of them, but a good portion of them—about 10 percent—and I became tasked with trying to understand why they were sick. And I kind of intuited that it was because we were creating these forests that were so different than from where they came.
EMIn the book you talk about how, when you were working as a scientist with the Canadian Forest Service, the research and experiments that you were doing to respond to the sickness you describe and to find alternative approaches to addressing this issue butted up against long-held forestry practices and government policies. And from what you describe, it seems like there were these very intractable approaches to clear-cutting, tree planting, and pesticide spraying—approaches that you said emphasized domination in the management of trees and forests. Can you speak a bit about this domination model that you were up against?
SSI think that we can trace it back hundreds of years—even before Darwin, but Darwin was the one who really emphasized, in his studies of natural selection, that competition and dominance was how species were able to pass genes on to the next generation. And Darwin himself knew that competition wasn’t the only way that plants and animals interacted. He knew that they also cooperated, but his writings were most relevant in the field of evolution—with this competition model. And his studies and understanding of cooperation, mostly among plants, didn’t at all get the same profile that his theories of evolution did. Not to his fault—and I think that his theories of evolution, based on competition and natural selection, are still very strong and have been borne out—but he just didn’t emphasize so much this cooperative aspect.
Over time, some scientists—and in particular I’m going to talk about Lynn Margulis, who was an evolutionary biologist as well—she came up with the theory of endosymbiosis, which is that evolution is a coevolutionary process; that it is the cooperation and, really, the symbionts, or the coming together of different organisms, that led to the development of higher-level eukaryotes—multicellular organisms, like people; that we are actually the result of endosymbiosis. Even ourselves, we are not one; we are not just a human being. We are a whole consortium of bacteria and viruses and fungi. Our guts alone have about two pounds of bacteria in them that do all the digesting of our food.
This idea of cooperation, even in Lynn Margulis’s life, wasn’t that accepted. A number of her early papers were rejected by the scientific community. And I think it wasn’t until the Human Genome Project that it really gained traction, and we’re looking at the DNA of human beings and realizing a lot of our DNA origin is from viruses and bacteria. And so, now, it’s much more widely accepted that coevolution and symbiosis are very much part of evolution.
Ecology, which applies some of these evolutionary theories, really focused in on this competition part of natural selection and took it to application in all kinds of practices. If you look at agriculture and forestry—that still is the dominant theory. In forestry, which is my field, all of our practices can be traced to trying to manage competition so that we create these dominant trees that we can use as commodities. We’ve commodified the forest using this reductionist approach that I mentioned earlier, where we’re so focused on growing these great big pumpkins—in forestry, we call them pumpkins—that we can cut down and then grow another plantation that looks the same, and then another and another. It’s called long-run sustained yield.
The trees that we plant, how big they are, how far we space them apart, how we weed around them to get rid of the plants that we think are robbing our special trees of resources, treating the forest like a zero-sum game, that there’s only so much resource pie, and that if these other plants are taking up those resources, water, nutrients, and so on, then there’s less for the trees—that’s based on the idea that only competition matters. And so, weeding out these plants—spacing the trees, even thinning them when they’re later in life—that’s all about managing competition so we can make these dominant trees.
What I was observing in the mortality of these forests were other interactions going on, not just competition: there’s collaboration going on; there’s parasitism going on; there’s protocooperation. There’s a whole suite of ways that trees are interacting—which, of course, I knew and understood deep in my DNA from growing up in the forest: that it’s a complex place with sophisticated interactions between plants and trees and the other organisms.
And so I think that what I was observing in the sickness of the forests was that we had so focused on managing this one aspect, this one way of trees interacting, that we were actually making the forests sick by taking out the plants that they needed to get through post-disturbance and succession. Those plants have roles in ecosystems. I was especially working on plantations of Douglas fir with paper birch, and the province was busy spraying and hacking and cutting and getting rid of these birches and aspens and cottonwoods and alders and fireweed—everything. They’re just like, “Clean them out.” And it turned out, through my research, that these birches were super important in harboring different bacteria that had antifungal properties, so they were antagonistic to the very pathogens that were killing the Douglas firs. And when we got rid of the birches and got rid of the consortium of bacteria that were antifungal, then the disease spread through these conifers that we so highly revered. We sort of shot ourselves in the foot because we didn’t understand how the system worked.
EMYou describe how your experiments started to reveal this cooperation, and the nuances you’re describing were not met with what you could describe as “open arms” by many of your colleagues and people within the government you were working for, even after your research started to offer some proof of what you were seeing within this cooperation model. And this continued for years, even after your work garnered wide recognition. What was it like to butt up against this continual resistance?
SSI think, in some ways, being a girl and being new to the forest industry—I started there in the late 1970s and started working for the forest industry in the early ’80s, one of the first suite of girls that entered the profession—it was difficult. We were butting up against all kinds of resistance to girls being in the industry. We see these problems in a lot of male-dominated professions, where women start to enter the field, and it’s not easy. And so, in many respects, that resistance—It’s not that the men treated me badly; it’s just that you’re not part of it. You’re there, but you’re not really part of the circle. And so always having to sort of fight your way in and defend yourself, and prove yourself, prepared me for this, what was coming down the road, making my skin a little thicker—but still, my skin wasn’t that thick.
I had a few tools in my toolbox to deal with it because I’d learned how to survive in this industry. And I was also very fortunate in that I had a really fantastic supervisor, Alan Vyse, who defended me, and stood with me and promoted me, and helped me get through this. And ultimately I did end up leaving the Ministry of Forests because it was downsizing, but it was also becoming untenable for me.
I published my research findings, and I did these experiments—just putting a time frame on this, I started them in 1992. I published my main findings: that birch and fir were connected and collaborating and sharing resources, as well as competing, but they were also in this collaborative community. I published that in 1997 in Nature, and at first I think the Forest Service was like, “Oh, that’s kind of cool. Somebody in the Forest Service published in Nature.” But they didn’t really know what that meant. And, so it was sort of like this shock. And then I started getting some interviews with newspapers—and that’s also unusual for the Forest Service, for one of their scientists to be out there speaking—and then the resistance started.
I did this one interview with The Globe and Mail, and I was pregnant at the time. I was about to give birth to my oldest daughter, Hannah, and she was due in a week. And this reporter had called me up, and I hadn’t done that many interviews, and we were talking about having children, and I was relaxed, and she says, “Okay, so what about what they’re doing in these forests?” And of course they were spraying and cutting and getting rid of the birches that I was finding were collaborating and protective for these Douglas firs that were the industrial model of wealth [laughs]. And I said, “Well, for all the good they’re doing, they might as well paint rocks.”
In my pregnant state, I went over to my boss and I said, “Oh, Alan, I just had this interview, and I said this.” And he goes, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe you said that.” He spent the afternoon trying to call the reporter to say, “Please don’t write that. Don’t print that.” Well, ultimately, that is what reporters like to do, so they printed that, and immediately the backlash started. I was accused of being unethical. I’m not supposed to criticize government policy in public: it all has to be vetted through them. And ultimately, they put a letter on my file saying that I had crossed this ethical line, and “if you do it again, you’re out.”
I kind of got through that, but the pressure never really stopped after that. And it wasn’t just the ministry; it was also academia. So there were academics out there that were also critical—they didn’t actually believe the results that I was reporting. And so then I had this double whammy: I had my bosses. I had academia. The forest industry, I think, was just going, “Oh, well, this is cute. We’ll just ignore this.”
And at that time, in the late 1990s, I had another child, so I was a young mother dealing with all of this conflict, and I thought, “I don’t want anything to do with this. I’m not doing this research anymore.” And I made that conscious decision and just left it behind me. And then, a couple of years down the road, I actually got laid off. I got let go and landed in academia, and in academia they said, “You should pursue this research that you were doing before, because this is cool stuff.” So I was encouraged, and I started up again. But I almost left the whole thing. I didn’t want anything to do with this kind of work again [laughs].
EMWell, that landmark study you described—published in Nature in 1997—was dubbed the “wood-wide web,” and it really created a wave of interest around the world and a ripple effect, and not just from reporters and academia and the science community but people all around the world. So I wonder, for those who don’t know the intricacies of what you discovered, if you could just briefly explain what your study showed
SSThe “wood-wide web” is a term that is directly out of my Nature paper, because I was the first one to show that these fungi in the soil—they’re called mycorrhizal fungi—connect trees together. That was earth-shattering, right? That trees aren’t just individuals competing for resources but are actually connected. And so, how are they connected?
This special kind of fungi—mycorrhizal fungi—is one of several types of fungi that exist in forests. The word “mycorrhiza” literally means “fungus root,” and it describes the relationship between the trees and these fungi. They’re in an obligate, generally mutualistic relationship, where the tree provides photosynthate for the fungus, because the fungus doesn’t have leaves. It lives in the soil, and it’s dark down there. So it provides the food to the fungus, and the fungus takes that food, and it grows its mycelium, which is just the fungal threads—its body, basically. And it grows its body through the soil and picks up nutrients and water and then transports them back to the tree, and they trade. That’s why it’s called a mutualism: they’re both mutually benefiting from this relationship.
And so, I was looking at the different kinds of fungi on the roots of my test species, which were birch and fir and western red cedar. And there are different suites of fungi on different trees and plants. They have fidelities for certain fungal species, and the fungi have fidelities for different trees as well. But birch and fir shared a whole bunch of species in common. They’re called ectomycorrhizal species, meaning that the fungus forms a sheath on the outside of the roots, and it’s kind of like an outside fungus. I found that they shared lots and lots of species in common. These fungal species—about fifty species associate with birch and fir—can connect them together: the individual fungus can connect them together. And so I made this discovery that they had all these fungi in common, and western red cedar had a whole different suite of fungi, called endomycorrhizae, or arbuscular mycorrhizae, and couldn’t join in the network of Douglas fir and paper birch. So the wood-wide web is about these mycorrhizal fungi connecting—in this particular example, paper birch and fir together—and forming this network, flying in the face of the idea that trees are individuals, just out there to compete for their own resources. Now, suddenly, they’re an integrated whole.
And, of course, this made complete sense to me, knowing where I came from in the bush, where everything grew together. And so then my experiments looked at, “What did that web do?” And I was tracing how carbon moved back and forth between birch and fir. And the funny thing was, in the middle of the summer, the more that I shaded the Douglas fir artificially—emulating the shade that paper birch casts on fir, as in a young plantation—the more the birch sent carbon to the fir. So, yeah, it was competing for light and shading it and dampening photosynthesis, but at the same time, it was sending carbon over to the fir—like there was a group thing going on, kind of a group selection.
Group selection is a fraught area. Not a lot of people believe in group selection, but groups of plants do associate with each other. There are plant associations. They like to grow together. Birch and fir are like that. Birch has all these other features—like it harbors bacteria that are antagonistic to pathogenic fungi in the soil. And so, Douglas fir loves being around birch because it’s healthy. It doesn’t get infected. It’s enriched by the nutrients from the birch leaves. There are all kinds of ways that it benefits from being with fir. In a sense, they’re selecting to be together, like a group selection. I made this discovery in the woods. That’s why it’s called the wood-wide web.
But about ten years before I did my work, there was a scientist in the UK, David Read—Sir David Read, now—who had done a laboratory study. He grew these little pine seedlings in little root boxes in the lab and inoculated them with a single mycorrhizal fungus and found that they could connect together, and that carbon actually moved from one to the other. He used radioactivity to show this. And at the time, it was a real revelation, and his paper was published in Nature as well. But then, over the subsequent decade, there was a lot of controversy around his studies … and it didn’t really go anywhere.
When I started working with it—because I read the paper and thought, “Wow, I wonder if this happens in our forests”—and discovered that the woods are all connected, that was the first time it had been shown in nature. Like, in real nature [laughs], not just in the journal Nature. That’s why it was such a revelation—the wood-wide web suddenly turned our understanding of forests upside down, from just a collection of individuals competing with each other to this entwined, interactive suite of species that actually collaborated and competed. They had this whole way of conversing with each other that was complex.
EMWell, as revelatory as it was, it did cause quite a backlash, and you described that briefly earlier—a lot of critiques from the scientific and academic establishment. And I’m sure there are lots of reasons why that was the case. But it also seemed like maybe at the root, it hit this core nerve, which echoes what you described in the domination model that you were up against in Canada in the Forest Service, challenging well-established beliefs in natural selection, ecological theory, and how competition was what shaped forests—or ecosystems, generally—not the cooperation that your work was now showing. That was a big, big challenge to the establishment that you revealed.
SSYes, very much so, and I have to say, even today. So now we’re in 2021. I did my initial work in 1991—that’s thirty years ago—and it still has not been accepted in forest practices. People understand it; they know about it. But when it comes to being used in how we manage our resources, we’re still back in the old model. I think that the people who are devising forest policies—and then, ultimately, practices—are still stuck in the old model. So we’re still doing those same things that we always did. We’re still spraying all the aspens—or a lot of the aspens—in the north because we see them as competitors, not as part of the ecosystem. We’re still trying to grow trees that are tall and dominant because they’re going to provide commodities in the future. It still dominates our genetics programs. It dominates our cultivation programs. It dominates how we practice forestry. So I have to say that I don’t think that much has changed at all, where the rubber hits the road.
But while I say that, I’m also working on stuff, and I’ve been funded to create a project called the Mother Tree Project, which is based on the idea that there is a collaboration in forests and it is a whole place. And it’s been funded. People are watching this. The forest industry is going, “That’s cool. Maybe we could use some of these ideas.” And so I feel like we’re on the cusp of change, but we’re just not quite there yet.
I have to say, one of the biggest heartbreaking parts for me is that we’re still clear-cutting our forests at a really high rate. We only have a few percent of our original old-growth forests left because we clear-cut them and plant them back to these plantations that are designed to only grow for another hundred years, and then cut them again. So there’s very little plan for having old-growth forests in the province anymore, although we do have reserves and parks in protected areas. But it’s not nearly enough. When it comes down to it, it has not been embraced. We’re now on the cusp of, basically, a collapse of the forest industry, which I think is because we’ve been so focused on this model of dominance and growing these plantations that are simple and clean of other plants, and it’s not doing us any good.
EMYou talk about the Mother Tree work that you’ve done, which I understand kind of picked up after you left the Forest Service and started working in academia, where you had a little bit more freedom to do the work that you wanted to do. I wonder if you could explain and share what a Mother Tree is and how it relates to the forest.
SSSo as my work moved along on the mycorrhizal networks—and I was a professor now—I had graduate students who were trying to understand what these connections were doing, what nutrients and information were moving through networks, and they were publishing the work. But ultimately, we wanted to map what that network looked like in the forest. I had one graduate student, Kevin Beiler, who mapped the network in the forest. He went into Douglas fir forests, and I really wanted to focus on these pure Douglas fir forests. They grow naturally here. They’re multigenerational forests, in that the young trees grew up in the understory of the old trees. And it’s a single-species forest, so it’s much easier to work with than multispecies forests, where there are many, many fungal species, many tree species.
But we had the molecular biology tools to look at Douglas fir and to look at the main mycorrhizal species, which was Rhizopogon vinicolor, and basically use these molecular tools to identify individual fungi, individual trees, and then piece together what the network looked like. So Kevin would go into the forests and look at all the fungal material in that patch of forest, and all of the DNA in the trees, and he was able to map the location of the trees and all the fungal connections. And what emerged out of that map was what’s called a complex system, or a complex network, where you have hubs, or big trees, that are the most highly connected. You can imagine a big, old tree that is the dominant tree in the forest. They have large root systems. The root systems can go as wide as they are tall, and there are many of them, because there’s a huge photosynthetic capacity in that crown to feed into that root system. So they were connected with almost everything else. And when those old trees would shed their seeds in the fall, those seeds would fall to the forest floor; in the spring, the seeds would germinate; and then, within a month or two, they would tap into the network of the old trees.
These young trees were actually—and we measured this—receiving carbon and nutrients and water from the old trees until they could make enough leaves themselves to survive on their own. These old trees were really nurturing the young seedlings coming up around them, so that’s where we started calling them Mother Trees, because of that nurturing thing, and because they were the most highly connected. And then we asked even more questions: “Well, could these old Mother Trees actually recognize which ones are their own seedlings, versus a neighbor’s?” And it turns out that they can.
So we did a bunch of elegant experiments showing this: how Mother Trees can recognize which are their kin—it’s called kin recognition. They send more resources to those kin seedlings to ensure that their survival is good and that they can pass on their genes to the next generation. And so kin selection and kin recognition became a big part of this story as well. That’s why we call them Mother Trees.
And I have to give a caveat, in that these Douglas fir trees are actually mothers and fathers. The pollen cones and the seed cones are in the same trees. But I started using the term because it’s culturally an important term. People understand. Everybody has a mother, everybody has a father, too, but we’re close to our mothers in a special way. When a mother has a child, you know your child, you feed your child, you nurture your child. And this is what we were seeing. And I felt like this term had good gravitas, that everybody would understand this. When you look at history, our Indigenous cultures also referred to Mother Trees, and Grandmother Trees, and Grandfather Trees. The Mother Tree is just the biggest, oldest tree in the forest.
EMThroughout your work, you’ve kind of departed from conventional naming in many ways: “mother,” “children,” “her.” You use very unscientific terms—and, it seems, quite deliberately, as you just described—to create connection, relationship. But it’s not the normal scientific practice.
SSNo, it’s not. And I can hear all the criticisms going on, because in the scientific world there are certain things that could kill your career, and anthropomorphizing is one of those things. But I’m at the point where it’s okay. There’s a bigger purpose here. One is to communicate with people; but also, we’ve separated ourselves from nature so much that it’s to our own demise, right? We feel that we’re separate and superior to nature and that we can use it, that we have dominion over nature. This premise runs throughout our religion, our education systems, our economic systems. It is pervasive. And the result is that we have loss of old-growth forests. Our fisheries are collapsing. We’re in a mass extinction.
I think a lot of this comes from feeling like we’re not part of nature, that we can command and control it. But we can’t. I’ve started to study our own Native cultures in North America more and more, because they understood this, and they lived this. Where I’m from, we call our aboriginal people First Nations. They have lived in this area for thousands and thousands of years—on the west coast, for seventeen thousand years: much, much longer than colonists, who have only been here for about 150 years. And look at the changes we’ve made—not all positive.
Our aboriginal people view themselves as one with nature. They don’t even have a word for “the environment,” because they view trees and plants and animals, the natural world, as people equal to themselves. So there are the Tree People, the Plant People; and they had Mother Trees and Grandfather Trees, and the Strawberry Sister and the Cedar Sister. And they treated them with respect, with reverence. They worked with the environment to increase their own livability and wealth: they cultivated the salmon so that the populations were strong, the clam beds so that clams were abundant; they used fire to make sure that there were lots of berries and game, and so on. That’s how they thrived, and they did thrive. They were wealthy societies.
I feel like we’re at a tipping point now because we have removed ourselves from nature, and we’re seeing the decline of so much; and we have to do something. I think the crux of it is that we have to re-envelop ourselves in our natural world. We’re all one, together, in this biosphere, and we need to work with our sisters and our brothers, the trees and the plants and the wolves and the bears and the fish. One way to do this is to start viewing the forest in a different way: that, yes, Sister Birch is important, and Brother Fir is just as important as your family.
Anthropomorphism is a taboo word, and it’s like the death knell of your career; but it’s also absolutely essential that we get past this, because it’s an invented word. It was invented by Western science. It’s a way of saying, “Yeah, we’re superior, we’re objective, we’re different. We can overlook—we can oversee this stuff in an objective way. We can’t put ourselves in this, because we’re separate, we’re different.” Well, you know what? That is the absolute crux of our problem. And so I unashamedly use these terms. People can criticize it, but to me, this is the answer to getting back to nature, getting back to our roots, working with nature to create a wealthier, healthier world.
EMOne of the many things I appreciated in your book was that you repeatedly said that your studies and research were proving or revealing, scientifically, what had long been held by the Indigenous peoples of the areas that you were spending time in and studying. And this kind of recognition, again, is not common in Western science. Could you speak to the importance of this acknowledgment in your field?
SSScientists stand on the shoulders of others. The way science works is that we advance the ideas, and we do one little piece at a time. So that’s part of my recognition, but most important is that our aboriginal people were highly scientific. Their science is thousands of years of observations of the cycles of nature, the variability in nature, and working with that variability: for example, creating healthy salmon populations. So, for example, Dr. Teresa Ryan—who started out as a postdoc student with me and is now a research associate—is a salmon fisheries scientist and is studying, along the coastline, how the salmon and the coastal nations are one together. The trees, the salmon—they all are interdependent. And the way that the Heiltsuk, the Haida, the Tsimshian, and the Tlingit worked with the salmon by using tidal stone traps, these huge walls that they would build below the tide line on the major rivers where the salmon would migrate to spawn. And when the tide came in, the salmon would be passively trapped behind these stone walls. And they would throw them back on the high tide; they wouldn’t collect those salmon. But on the low tide, they would go in and passively catch the fish, and that was their harvest. And they always threw back the big Mother Fish. In so doing, their genetic stock created more large salmon. The population of salmon actually grew and grew, and in that way, they could look after their people.
The salmon and the people were one, together. As the salmon migrated upstream, the bears and the wolves would feed on them and carry them into the forest; and basically, the mycorrhizal networks picked up those salmon nutrients as the remains decayed, and they ended up in the trees. So the salmon nitrogen is in the trees: it’s like a fertilizer. And these trees grew bigger and would shade the streams, lowering the temperature of the water and making it more hospitable for the salmon to migrate into. And so, in that way, everything was connected.
Much of the history is oral history, but some is written, of course. Those stories have disappeared, but they also have been saved. And I’m listening to these stories, and also reading, and discovering that these connections were already known. They already knew that these fungal networks were in the soil. They talked about the fungus in the soil and how it fed the trees and how the salmon fed the trees, and they would take the remains and the bones of the salmon and put them beneath the trees, or into the streams, to fertilize them. And so I thought, “This has always been known.” We came—colonists came in and so arrogantly dismantled a lot of those stone traps. It was against the law for them to use those stone traps. They couldn’t fish using their traditional methods. And now the modern fishery basically takes everything. The knowledge, the aboriginal knowledge systems, were ignored, even ridiculed. People didn’t believe it.
We were arrogant, thinking that we could come in and apply this very ignorant way of managing resources with only 150 years—versus thousands of years—of observation and science. And I thought: Okay, it’s kind of strange that, here I come along, I use isotopes and molecular techniques and reductionist science, and I figure out that these networks exist in forests, and then publish it in Nature. The world is like, “Wow, this is cool,” even though there were a lot of people saying, “It’s not cool.” But suddenly it’s believed because it’s Western science, published in Western journals.
I understood my role in this. I was a scientist who came along and was able to build on the science of David Read, but I’m standing on the shoulders of thousands of years of knowledge. I think it’s so important that we all recognize this: that there is so much knowledge there that we’ve ignored, and that we need to manage our resources properly. And we need to listen to our aboriginal roots—the indigenous parts of us—because we all are basically, at some point, indigenous. Let’s listen to ourselves and listen to what’s known. I’m glad people are tuned in, and that it’s published, and it’s understood; but I also want to recognize and acknowledge that I’m standing on the shoulders of thousands of years of knowledge.
EMI guess this leads to what you could call an underlying problem of the Western scientific lens, which often discounts traditional ecological knowledge and those thousands of years of wisdom built through observing natural systems, and this model reduces the whole to its parts and then often limits the understanding or awareness of the larger interconnected and interdependent whole you’re describing.
You wrote about this, and how in the university you have been taught to take apart the ecosystem: to reduce it to parts, and study these parts objectively; and that when you followed these steps of taking the system apart to look at these pieces, you were able to publish your results, no problem, but you soon learned that it was almost impossible for a study of the diversity and connectivity of the whole ecosystem to get into print. Now, I imagine this is starting to change and your work has helped shift that, but this seems like a huge systemic problem.
SSIt is. You know, earlier in my career, I published this work in Nature, which is very reductionist, and a bunch of different journals. And at the same time, I was working with whole ecosystems, and working with my birch-fir system, and trying to publish that work, and I couldn’t get it published because there were too many parts in it. Like, “Can’t you just talk about one little part of it?” And ultimately, I felt like the reviewers couldn’t handle it. They couldn’t handle the bigger-picture stuff. It was way easier to pick apart this small experiment on one test subject and see that it got all the boxes of replication and randomization and fancy analysis, and then, “Oh, you can publish that, but you can’t publish this, on this complex ecosystem.”
In fact—I think I said this in the book—I got one of the reviews back, and the reviewer said, “Well, you can’t publish this. Anybody could just walk through the forest and see this stuff. No, reject.” I was so discouraged at that point, and I thought, “How do you ever publish something on the whole system?” Now it’s a little easier. You still have to have all those basic parts—randomization, replication, analysis of variants, this very simple way that we do statistics—but now there are whole fields of statistics, and a whole understanding about systems and how systems work. It’s called complex adaptive systems science, and that’s helped a lot. A lot of that has come out of a group in Europe called the Resilience Alliance, and they’ve opened the door to these more holistic ecological-economic-social integrated studies. There are whole journals now dedicated to systems science. And thank goodness. But it’s still not easy to publish these large, far-reaching, integrated, holistic papers.
And I have to say, too, in academia, you get rewarded for the number of papers that you publish. They still count the number of papers. You get more money, you get more grants, you get more recognition, especially if you’re the lead author. Then you see, in areas like microbiology or even satellite imagery and remote sensing, if you can dissect your paper in these little bits and bites and publish these small ideas and have many, many, many papers, you’re much further ahead than writing that one big, seminal paper that integrates everything together, that’s going to be really hard to publish.
And so academics do. They put them in these little bite-sized pieces. I find myself doing it too. It’s how you can survive in that environment. And so it is a self-fulfilling system of always having these little bits of papers. It’s the antithesis of holistic work. And I think that was one of the reasons I wrote this book—I’m allowed to bring it all together. So yeah, it’s an ongoing issue. It’s changing, it’s getting better, but it definitely has shaped how people view publishing, and publish, and how they design their research and how they get funding, and how science therefore advances.
EMReading your book, I felt that you were being very free about expressing yourself. And I found that very touching, because often science feels like it creates a separation, even in the language and the way that scientific papers are written. When I read your paper, I thought, “I’m not a scientist and I can understand this”; but I also felt like I don’t know who Suzanne is, and I don’t really know about your personal relationship with the place that you’re studying, or what you’re feeling.
But in this book, it’s different. And you wrote, “I have come full circle to stumble into some of the Indigenous ideals. Diversity matters, and everything in the universe is connected, between the forests and the prairies, the land and the water, the sky and the soil, the spirits and the living, the people and all other creatures.” This is a very spiritual statement. And hearing you talk over the last hour, I feel a lot of what you’re saying is spiritual. It doesn’t feel like what you’d expect to be coming from a scientist. It has a different quality to it.
SSI’m so glad you got that, that you get that spirituality from the book. I’ve stood on the edge of death and had to really examine this—because I got really sick. I’d always been very afraid of dying, and death is sort of a taboo in our culture. Nobody wants to die, but we also try to be young and alive, at least the way I grew up. It was like we were trying to pretend it didn’t exist; and that’s a problem, because one of the results of this is that we sort of shove our elders aside. I think one of the expressions is that we put them in “homes.”
And I think there is a strong place for elders and the dead, and the multiple generations coming after that. My Granny Winnie, whom I talk about in the book, lives in me, and her mum, my great-grandmother Helen, lives in me as well, and I feel all that. The aboriginal people talk about seven generations before and after, and that we have a responsibility to our previous and forward generations. I truly, deeply believe this. I really saw that and felt it—I learned it—when I got so sick, when I was standing on the edge of death, and my own spirituality grew immensely. And so when I talk about connection and the wood-wide web, it’s a very physical, spatial thing, but it is also through the generations.
I talked about how the little seedlings tap into the networks of the old trees and how they’re sustained and nurtured by the carbon and the nutrients coming from those old trees. That is caring for their next generations. And those little seedlings also give back to the old trees. There is a movement back and forth. And that’s a rich, rich thing. That’s what makes us whole and gives us so much—the history that we can build on and move forward. I wanted people to understand that we are connected to our future generations. We also have a responsibility to them; we want our next generations to be healthy and thriving and loving their lives, to have happy lives, not to be suffering and facing a bleak future.
I have children, and they worry. It’s a worry, and I imbue in them my own spirituality. I want them to have me with them as they go through life and make it a better world themselves. It was such an important personal revelation for me to remember that we’re one of many generations, that we have an important role in our own space and time, and that we carry things forward and we send them on into the future.
EMYou wrote very openly about your experience with cancer in the book, and it seemed to happen in parallel with your deepening studies about the Mother Trees. How did your understanding of the Mother Trees shift during this time as you went through this period of transformation?
SSI was listening to myself and listening to where I was at, and my research was moving along, and it was so amazing how it all worked together. But as I was facing an uncertain future—my children were twelve and fourteen at the time—I thought, “You know, I could die.” I had a mortal disease. I wanted to make sure that I was giving them all that I could and that they were going to be safe even if I couldn’t be there—that I would still be with them even if I wasn’t physically there.
At the same time, I was doing this research on trees that were dying. And our province had undergone this massive mortality event in our forests, where the mountain pine beetle came through and killed an area of forest the size of Sweden. And so there was death all around us, and I was studying what that meant. Like, were these dying trees just dissipating into nowhere, or were they passing on their energy and wisdom to the next generations?
I was doing multiple experiments with my colleagues and students around this at the same time I was diagnosed with cancer. And it dawned on me that I needed to learn from my experiments, but I also had to take my personal experience and fold it into what I was studying. So I just started directing my students and my studies toward understanding how energy and information and our learning is passed on in trees as well, and found out that, yeah, they do this—when a tree is dying, it passes on most of its carbon through its networks to the neighboring trees, even different species—and this was so important to the vitality of the new forest. The trees were also receiving messages that increased their defense against the beetle and other disturbance agents in the forest and increased the health of those next generations. I measured and analyzed and saw how the forest gives forward, passes forward. I took that to my children and said, “This is what I need to do too. I’m like the Mother Tree, and even if I’m going to die, I need to give it my all, just like these trees are giving their all.” And so it all happened together, and it was so cool, I had to write about it.
EMTalking about the future, in your book, you don’t shy away from the harsh realities of climate change and the looming threats that we face. But your story and your work are also inherently hopeful: the connections you’ve discovered, the way that the living world functions. There’s a hope in becoming aware of this again. And you also say that you don’t think it will be technology or policy that will save us, but rather transformational thinking and becoming aware of what you’ve seen; that we need to heed the answers we are being shown by the living world and acknowledge that we are one. Could you speak a bit more about this?
SSYeah. Now, as I understand how ecosystems work and systems work—one of the amazing things about systems is that they’re designed to heal themselves. All these connections create wealth and health in the whole. So systems have emergent properties, in that you take all these parts, and out of the parts interacting in their relationships arise things like health and beauty and symphonies in human societies. And we can have an incredible, positive emergence of these things—and tipping points as well.
A tipping point is where a system under different pressures and stresses can start to unravel if there are lots of negative things going on. We’re seeing that with global change—some things are unraveling. It’s like taking rivets out of an airplane. If you take out too many rivets, suddenly the plane loses its wings and it falls apart and crashes to the ground. That’s a very negative tipping point. And when people think of tipping points, they think of that negative, scary thing. But tipping points also work the other way in systems, which are actually wired to be whole. They’re intelligently designed to transmit, across systems, information and energy to keep them whole and strong. And so there are positive tipping points too. You can do simple, little things, like not driving so much and taking the bus. All of that is important.
Policies are important too: global policies that say, “We’re going to decarbonize our future. We’re going to get off fossil fuels and find alternative energy sources.” Those are all little things that are being put in place. Joe Biden is saying we’re going to have electric cars in the US within fifteen years. Those are all little policies being put in place that are going to lead to tipping points—not the negative ones but the positive ones, where suddenly the system starts to become more cohesive again, more connected, more healthy and whole.
And I think it’s really important for people to understand this, that what you do is not hopeless at all. I know that maybe I said that policies weren’t as important—they are important, but behind policies are behaviors and the way we think. And putting these things in place, we’ll see suddenly the system will start to shift, and suddenly it’ll hit a tipping point and it will improve. We’ll start drawing down CO2. We’ll start seeing species coming back. We’ll start seeing our waterways clean up. We’ll start seeing the whales and the salmon coming back. But we’ve got to work; we’ve got to put the proper things in place. And it’s so heartening when you see some of those things happening. That’s how we improve: small things, big things, but consistently moving it along till we get to those hopeful places, those tipping points.
EMWhat you’re working on now seems like one of those ingredients that can help us get to that place: the Mother Tree Project. Could you talk about what that is and what it aims to do?
SSI had done all this basic research on connection and communication in trees and was frustrated that we weren’t seeing changes in forest practices. And I thought: Well, I need to demonstrate how these systems work, and also test. If we’re going to harvest trees—which we’ll continue to do (people have always harvested trees in some way and used them)—there’s got to be a better way than clear-cutting our old-growth forests. It’s like clear-cutting the salmon population—it just doesn’t work. We need to leave some elders behind. We need Mother Trees to provide the genes. They’ve been through multiple climate episodes. Their genes carry that information. We need to save it instead of cutting them down and not having that diversity to help us move into the future.
The Mother Tree Project’s main goal is to look at how we need to manage our forests and design our policies so that we have resilient, healthy forests as the climate changes. And so I designed a space-for-time experiment, where I have twenty-four forests across a climate gradient of Douglas fir species, and then we harvest those forests in different ways and compare them to our standard practice of clear-cutting, leaving Mother Trees in different configurations and amounts and seeing what the response of the ecosystem is in terms of how it regenerates: The species that come back, the natural seeding in. What happens to the carbon in those systems? Does it respond like a clear-cut, where we lose so much carbon right off the bat? Or do we protect it by leaving some of these old trees? What happens to biodiversity?
So that’s what that project is doing, and it’s a huge project. It’s the biggest one I’ve ever done. I started it when I was fifty-five, and I’m thinking, “Why am I starting this at fifty-five?”—because it’s a hundred-year project. But I have so many students, from fifteen-year-olds to fifty-year-olds, coming in and working on it, and they’re the next generation to carry this experiment forward. And we’re finding out some incredible stuff. We’re finding that when you clear-cut you create the most risky environment: we lose a lot of carbon right off the bat, and we lose biodiversity, and we have less regeneration. The whole system ratchets down. Whereas if we leave clusters of old trees, they nurture the next generation. They keep the carbon in the soil; they keep the biodiversity; they provide the seed. And this is really cool—it shows a different way to manage forests. We call it partial cutting: when you leave old trees. To practice partial cutting, we have to change our mindset in other ways too. Our government has what’s called a cut level, an allowable annual cut, that is actually legislated and assigned. If we said, “Okay, partial cutting and leaving Mother Trees is the best way to go,” that doesn’t mean that we’d just keep the cut the same level and do more partial cutting over the landscape. That would be a disaster, too, because we would end up affecting a much bigger landscape.
What we have to do is say, “We don’t need to cut so much. We don’t need to be managing our systems so that they’re on the brink of collapse all the time.” Which is basically what that allowable cut is. It’s like, “How much can we take before we destroy the whole system?” Let’s move back and say, “Let’s take a lot less and leave a lot more behind.” And we can use partial cutting but take a lot less. Then we’re going to be on the road to recovery. That is what the Mother Tree Project is about.
I would like to see these concepts applied around the world, because this idea of elder trees and their importance in forests is not just important for our temperate forests; it’s important for arboreal forests and our tropical forests too. And ancient aboriginal cultures all have this reverence for old trees. They knew the importance of them, and I would like to see people trying to use these concepts in the management of their own forests elsewhere. That doesn’t just mean applying it carte blanche but trying different things—the principle being that elders are important.
EMSuzanne, thank you so much for taking time to speak with us today. It’s been a real pleasure to learn more about you and your work.
SSWell, thank you, and thank you for such insightful questions. Those were really great questions.
EMThank you, Suzanne.
SSIt’s been my honor.