Family Trees

A lifetime devotee of forest ecology, Dr. Suzanne Simard’s research has forever changed the way that we understand forests from collections of individual trees to interconnected communities. Ahead of the release of her first book, she opens up about everything trees have taught her about systems, spirit, and what it means to be part of a living whole.

Interview by Willow Defebaugh

PHOTOGRAPHS BY COLIN DODGSON

Text Size

Willow Defebaugh

Dr. Simard, I’m thrilled to be speaking with you today. Your new book Finding the Mother Tree is such an eloquent telling of your discovery of all the information that changed the way we see forests—I read the whole thing in three days.

Suzanne Simard

Oh, good. You never know if people will be interested in the stories, so I’m glad to hear that.

Willow

One of the themes that emerged for me was family. You weave together your experience of learning that forests are families and that trees have these familial figures, while telling the story of your own family. I’m curious, were you aware of the parallels during your lived experience, or was that something you realized in hindsight, while you were writing the book?

Suzanne

Early on, I didn’t realize that there were parallels. I was drawing on my ancestral background of living in the forest, growing up in it, and coming at it from a kind of a naive point of view of: Well, how come the science says something different from what I learned growing up? But at that point, I was not putting together that it was really my family background [of logging] that led me to ask the questions that I eventually asked, which were about connection.

 

As I started researching, I could see that there was a lack of connection in the new forest that we were managing. And then, as I got further along—when I had my own family and I was doing this research looking at all these connections as my own marriage was falling apart—as I was discovering these deep connections between mother trees and young trees and how the forest is so intertwined, I was actually putting science to what I had felt as I grew up.

 

As my own life was unfolding, I think I could see this parallel, but I wasn’t fully cognizant. I was too wrapped up in it all. But then, as I looked back, as I was writing, I was like, “These all happened together.” The one thing was informing the other. It’s very deep and it was very rooted, but I wasn’t always aware as I was going along, step-by-step, over the years and decades, that my research was following in lockstep with how my life was unfolding. It wasn’t really until I put pen to paper that I went, “Oh my goodness, this is such a tapestry.”

Willow

I love that, in the book, you used that same word, “tapestry,” to describe what you discovered in the forest: the mycelium connections. Can you offer a brief explanation of mother trees for our readers?

Suzanne

When we first started, my lab group decided to use these molecular tools and graph theory to map what the below-ground networks looked like in multiple forests. And those maps that we came up with—we started using standard neural network theories to analyze the data, because it’s just that kind of data. People have described networks using graph theory in all kinds of conditions now—whether they’re human-built systems or biological systems or neural networks in your brain or, in this case, the soil—and realized that they were shaped the same way: with these hubs, these key figures that have high linkages to all else. And so [we found that] the biggest, oldest trees with the most roots were the most highly connected: They were the hubs of the forest.

 

And then, at the same time as I was doing this work on mapping the network, I had other graduate students who were looking at the role of these old trees and connection to them in regeneration, learning that connection made a really big difference in their ability to survive and grow and be healthy and full of nutrients. These old trees were nurturing the young seedlings through these webs, mothering the forest. I was working with a filmmaker, Dan McKinney, who made the first little film with me called Mother Trees Connect the Forest. And Dan said, “Why don’t you just call them mother trees?” And so, that’s how it came to be. Again, it’s about connection. It’s about conveying a phenomenon using words that we all can relate to. And when people talk to me about mother trees, they say, “I always kind of knew about this connection in my heart.”

Willow

That’s beautiful. I also loved the scene where you’re describing your whole family being there: Your ex-husband is there and your partner is there and your kids are there. As a reader, you watch this evolution of your family alongside your understanding of what family means in the context of a forest.

Suzanne

I hadn’t thought about that—it is the same, right? When I first started doing the work, I was looking at connections between trees of different species, which was kind of an awkward place to start, because why wouldn’t you start with trees of the same species? But what I discovered, starting where I did, [was that] the forest is a community of many species that help each other out. They compete too, but they also help each other out. It’s an extended family. It’s not a nuclear family. All species are sharing information with each other, trying to live in a healthy community. The construction of the family in that forest includes many things: It includes trees of different species. It includes plants of different life forms. It involves fungi and bacteria and animals, and it’s a big communicating network. In human evolution, we have had various ideas of community in different societies over the eons: some matrilineal, some patrilineal, some have extended families, some are nuclear families—there’s so many ways to combine a family together. And it’s true in forests. They taught me that, too.

Willow

It feels like for a long time, the Western view of nature was through a lens of competition. I remember growing up in school and reading about the survival of the fittest and natural selection. That was how I was meant to understand nature. And it seems that—in part due to your work—there has been a shift towards seeing collaboration, too. I love that you say it’s not either or; it’s both. Can you expand on that idea a little bit?

Suzanne

Trees and forests are as complex and sophisticated as our human societies are. They have many ways of interacting and communicating with each other. It’s not just one thing, and thank goodness! Otherwise, they would get into a lot of trouble really fast. It’s just as in a human society: If we were all competing with each other, there’d be nobody left standing at the end, right? It would be one dominant individual, and everybody else would be subservient. And so, it just doesn’t work. It makes more sense that we have these multiple ways of behaving towards each other. It creates a sophisticated, resilient, strong society. Same in forests. There’s a plethora of ways that trees interact with each other. They do compete, but it’s just one of several ways that they interact.

 

The idea of competition, as you so rightly said, really took off when Darwin was talking about survival of the fittest. Competition is what helps select for the fittest, but even Darwin knew that wasn’t the whole story. Even Darwin knew collaboration was important. Scientists tend to—when they see something that explains a lot of variation in phenomena, they latch onto it and say, “Oh, this is it.” Right? And then, that became the dominant way of looking at all kinds of phenomena in nature and how we manage it. So, in forests, we’ve managed competition for years. We get rid of the plants that we think are competing with the crops that we want at the expense of all the other plants, thinking that if we can take away the competition from the crop, then we can get all those resources into this crop tree. The same in agriculture. We put a lot of effort into fertilizing and cultivating the fastest growing corn plants and getting rid of the weeds.

 

So, that idea really took off, not just in how we saw evolution but in how we managed ecology. And when you get hung up on a single idea like that—and I’m sure it was not Darwin’s intention to make us so singularly focused—you make all kinds of mistakes, because nature is multifaceted. If you just look at one facet and just manage for that single facet, all those other things start to fall apart that actually make that ecosystem or that society whole and strong. And so, we’ve made a lot of mistakes. We’re still making a lot of mistakes. It still has not changed. We’ve started understanding that collaboration is now just as important or maybe even more common in nature than competition.

Willow

In the book, you ask the question: “What am I, if I don’t give back?” That speaks to what can be viewed as, in many ways, the deeper existential question at the heart of the climate crisis and the ecological crisis, which is: Who are we as a species? And what role do we want to play in the larger ecosystem that we’re all a part of? I really loved that you brought this theme in at the end, this notion of how science and spirituality have been separated for so long. I’m curious how that has evolved for you, especially having such a scientific background.

Suzanne

We all come from a place of spirit, right? We think of ourselves as these physical beings, but it’s really our spirits that are the most important. And even our physical beings are hard to define in a lot of ways, because we’re collaborative. Even our bodies are a collaborative consortium of different organisms. And our ideas are a collaboration of all the thoughts among our community and our peers. That’s where spirit lies: in our community and our caring for each other, our love of nature and where we come from. And so, when I started working in the forest industry, that was all stripped out of it. Science, that’s all stripped out of it. If you mentioned spirit alongside science in natural resources or in my field, it’s like, “Oh, how could you do that? That’s terrible.”

 

How do [trees] perceive what we’re doing to them? I always think that they’ve been waiting so patiently for us to figure things out and have endured so much abuse. And I think, “If only we just listened.” And our First Nations, the aboriginal people—that’s always part of their way of approaching their place in nature. Their epistemology is to listen and respect, and if the forest is not welcoming you or providing you the gifts of its creation, it’s because it’s not well or it needs more time to grow old. If we don’t listen, then we never tap into its spirituality. And that all harkens back to the Western European separation of man from nature, mind from body. And now, it’s deeply, deeply ingrained in science.

 

One of the consequences of me trying to tap into the spirituality of forests and the intelligence of forests and their perceptions of us is that I get accused of anthropomorphizing a lot, even with the term “mother tree.” And I just think, “You know what? It’s us that’s missing out.” If we are so blinded and so rigid that we can’t even go there to look at our spiritual connection to forests and their spiritual connection to us, then we’re going to continue to screw up, because we are part of nature. We are part of these forests ourselves.

Willow

Another favorite line of mine from the book is: “I had learned so much more by listening instead of imposing my will and demanding answers.” Do you feel like, when it comes to ecological solutions, that people are listening a bit more to nature and that there’s a shift in that regard?

Suzanne

I think so. There are many reasons for that. Climate change is huge for all of us, and we now see its effects in our everyday lives. Almost everybody is experiencing some result of climate change, whether it be that the trees are blooming earlier than usual or, in my case, in my forest—how come all these trees just died? Thousands of hectares of trees or millions of hectares. Because people are actually experiencing it in their own lives, they’re getting worried—and rightfully so. The media has also been very good.

 

The other thing is, I think that the pandemic is instructive, that it can help us with climate change and understanding systems. In the pandemic, [we see that] individual behaviors matter: whether you wear a mask or you don’t wear a mask. You can be a super-spreader or not. These behaviors, in ecosystems, we call them self-organizing systems. These self-organizing, small-scale individual behaviors result in changes. They can be imperceptible at first, but then as people get on board—with wearing a mask, getting a shot—then we get herd immunity.

 

With climate change, people start making individual behavioral changes: eating less meat, taking more mass transit. Then, they’ll start to pressure their politicians to reinforce those behaviors. That means that you need some top-down rules so that we can all behave in an organized way. Once you start getting those two things happening at those different scales—working together, the bottom and the top—then you get these big shifts in system behavior. We can all behave in ways that result in phenomena that change the whole system.

Willow

Would you say that humans are self-organizing creatures too, then?

Suzanne

I think that we are. Self-organization comes from relationships. If you think of a tree: A tree germinates, and it taps into this broader network. That tree is also a point for birds to come and nest and have perches. When the birds come, the squirrels come. When the squirrels come, their predators come. The system starts to self-organize around this tree, or this forest, and the thing that they’re self organizing around is the energy, that these trees are able to photosynthesize—convert sunlight into chemical energy—and this attracts the whole food web of creatures. It’s around that point of energy. Things become networked, and cycles start forming around it.

 

In human societies, it’s also the relationships between people and their neighbors and the broader society. They organize around energy as well, but also ideas. We have thought leaders. We have people with money, which is a resource. It’s energy. People organize around those resources. We develop towns and societies and religions. That’s all self-organization. It’s around these points of ideas, thought, energy, resources. If you look at any system from around the world, you could look at it through that lens. When you start looking at it through that lens, you realize you’re part of this big relational community.

 

That’s what self organizing is: It’s being social. It’s social phenomena. It’s relationships. The idea that we’re self-made—none of that can ever be true, because you are embedded within this society and you’ve had relationships that have helped you along, helped you become who you are. We are social creatures, just like forests are social creatures. The sooner that we can honor the relationships that build our societies and strengthen the ones that help make our societies brilliant, then our societies, our systems—all self-organizing systems—will work better.

Willow

I love that idea, that it’s impossible to be self-made.

Suzanne

I’m definitely not a self-made scientist. There’s no such thing as that. We all build on other science and knowledge. I think one of the most intriguing, satisfying, fascinating things to me is: As I work with more aboriginal people of North America, their epistemology is that we’re all connected, we’re all one. So many First Peoples around the world see themselves as one with nature. The coastal Salish people, they always knew about these connections in the soil. They knew that the fungi connected the trees and that this was all one big system. They’ve known it for thousands of years.

 

Me “discovering” it with Western science tools—I stumbled onto something that had been known for thousands of years. The First Nations come to me and say, “We’ve always known this. Can we work with you?” They’re so desperately trying to get us to reconnect, to look after the land. They always were looking after the land. That was their responsibility. That was what their cultures were built on: on fulfilling that responsibility and nurturing nature and working together and honoring the connections. And when colonization happened, they were stripped of that responsibility, their resources. If I can shed some light on these connections from the point of view of Western science, so that Westerners can accept and embrace it and say, “I get it now”—even though it’s been said for thousands of years already and ignored by them. If this brings some awareness, then I’m so happy that I can be a vessel for that awareness.

Willow

One of the most powerful parts of your story is when you’re studying the dying mother trees and you’re grappling with your cancer diagnosis and treatment. There’s so much that you learned about life in that time when death was so present. That just jumped out to me because we’re in such a moment where death is present, whether you look at it through the lens of the pandemic or the climate crisis. I’m just curious if you have any wisdom to offer around that?

Suzanne

It’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I think that most humans don’t want to die. In our modern society, I think death is…we’re afraid of it. We set it aside. We put our old people in old folks’ homes. We try to enhance our youth. I think that it all is a process of life. Trees really showed me this too: These mother trees, when they’re dying, are sending their energy to their offspring—their carbon, which we were able to measure. They’re passing on what they have left, their wisdom, to the next generations. That’s part of life: that their wisdom carries on through many generations, through time. That’s a responsibility you have as a person growing up and then becoming an elder and eventually dying and passing your energy on.

 

For me, I was always afraid of dying, just like everybody else. I was always afraid of getting cancer. Then when I got it, I had to come to grips with my mortality and what it meant. The trees showed me. At that point I thought, “If I die, it’s okay, I’m just passing it on.” Once I got to that realization that it’s going to be okay no matter what happens, whether I live or die, I relaxed. I thought, “This is okay. I’m just here. I’m doing my part. I’m part of this thing, passing through generations. I hope I can pass on what I’ve learned and convey it, and that I’ve fulfilled my role as a human being in this big world.” That’s a beautiful thing.

Willow

It struck me that so much of your journey described in the book is of wanting answers, wanting to know. I thought it was so beautiful that your doctor came in and offered you the wisdom that there is a mystery to life, and it’s up to you whether or not you embrace it. I’m just curious: What is the role that mystery plays in your life these days?

Suzanne

Dr. Bellpath talked to me about that, and I’ve learned it in so many different ways, too: You have to let go of trying to control so many things. Things are going to happen. You have to live in the moment. It is a cliché, but it’s true. I started the Mother Tree Project when I was in my mid-50s. I’m 60 now. This is a hundred-year project. Of course, I’m not going to see it to the end, but that’s okay. I had the opportunity, and I took that moment. It’s been amazing, the project, and the students love it. That has given me so much joy: having people working together and figuring out how to heal the forest or how to protect it, to engage with it. To me, it was taking that moment and going with the mystery, even though I won’t see it to the end. It’s the relationships, the process. It’s being part of moving forward.

AnthropoceneNow,ArtWorld,BeyondBorders,BlackFuturity,ClimateChampions,DemocracyEarth,EarthEquity,Earthscapes,EarthTones,HolisticNature,Indigeneity,QueerEcology,ReFashion,RisingTides,TEKToTech,TheFrontline,TheOverview,WildLife,