Steve Paulson (00:15):
Do you have a special tree in your life? I do. It's an old gnarled maple, on my favorite mountain hike in Vermont. The main limbs were once ripped off by a lightning strike, and those charred remains are now decomposing on the ground below.
Steve Paulson (00:31):
At first, the tree looks dead, but when you look closer, you see leaves in the upper branches, reaching out toward the sun. Against all odds, this tree lives on. There's something miraculous about this craggy maple. And every time I walk by, I wonder what it's witnessed over the centuries, standing there, year after year as animals and people and younger trees have come and gone my own life barely registers on this time scale. I'm Steve Paulson, and I want to welcome you to a new episode in our series on Kinship With The More Than Human World. This is different from what you normally hear on To The Best Of Our Knowledge. It's a single long interview, the kind of wide-ranging conversation that we just don't have time for on the radio show.
Steve Paulson (01:16):
My guest is Suzanne Simard, the forest ecologist who discover the trees are social creatures. She showed how fungal networks fuse with tree roots, to create complex systems of communication within a forest. So trees can share nutrients, and also information with each other. They seem to learn and remember. And we now know that a forest has its own kind of intelligence.
Steve Paulson (01:40):
Simard herself has become something of a cultural icon. Her concept of the Mother Tree inspired the Tree of Souls in the blockbuster movie Avatar. And she was the model for one of the main characters in Richard Powers Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Overstory. But 30 years ago, Simard was a lone voice in the wilderness. One of the few female forest ecologists at the time, and an outspoken critic of commercial logging practices. She tells this story in her memoir, Finding the Mother Tree, Discovering The Wisdom Of The Forest.
Steve Paulson (02:11):
One thing I find so fascinating is how Simard understands trees. There's a lot of science, but it's also intuitive. She knows trees like no one else I've ever met. So our conversation gets very personal. And by the end, we get into why she talks to trees. I hope you enjoy it. Here is Suzanne Simard. So Suzanne, considering all your work as a forest ecologist, I think it would surprise a lot of people that you actually grew up in a family of loggers.
Suzanne Simard (02:38):
Steve Paulson (02:39):
Logging is usually seen as the industry that is destroying forests. And I'm wondering, how those early years, out with your family in these remote forests, how did that shape your thinking?
Suzanne Simard (02:51):
Well, I think it shaped me at the very core. It was just how I grew up. It's what we did. So it was in my blood and bones and DNA. Of course as a kid, I didn't know that it might be unique, that I grew up in a family of horse loggers, but I grew up thinking of the forest as a safe haven. Horse logging was a regenerative practice, not a destructive practice. So when I finally became a forester myself, my mind was opened up to this other way of seeing the world, which was kind of disturbing.
Steve Paulson (03:26):
Well, it's interesting that you say for you, it was a regenerative practice. Can you explain that? Because that's not the way people who are not in the business, see an industry that cuts down trees.
Suzanne Simard (03:36):
Well, the forest I grew up and worked, Inland Rainforest, lots of precipitation with huge trees, cedars and hemlocks and white pines and spruces. And when my grandfather and great grandfather and uncles and father logged, they would just take out a few trees. They were after certain trees, like the white pines were really valuable. So that was what they first started on. But eventually, they were logging for cedar poles, for when they were putting telephone poles across Canada. And so they would just really go in and select those special trees, just one or two at a time, and they created these small gaps in the forest. And those gaps filled in with seed and naturally generated. So to me, it was just opening up the forest. So it was no trouble at all for those forests to just rejuvenate themselves after this light touch of logging.
Steve Paulson (04:31):
So this is totally different than the big commercial logging operations businesses, where like whole stretches of a mountain will essentially be clearcut.
Suzanne Simard (04:41):
Yeah. So I started as a young forester, and I got a job with the forest industry in the 1980, late 1970s. And that was when this commercial clearcutting, which is what you're describing, was getting started. And I was working for a company, actually at the time when there was the first mountain pine beetle attack, at least that I remember. But it was an excuse to clearcut, from one end of a valley to another. So I saw whole valleys being removed. And this was really taking off throughout British Columbia and Western Canada, and I know West and North America as well, as the way to harvest forests. And it brought a lot of money. It was lucrative.
Steve Paulson (05:22):
From the timber industry's perspective, I'm assuming what they want to do is to get trees cheap and fast.
Suzanne Simard (05:29):
Yeah, exactly. So not just taking the trees that they needed or were after, but taking everything, because it was cheaper. It was definitely cheaper to go in there and just clearcut. And eventually, chainsaws got replaced by feller bunchers. And now, feller bunchers actually, the operators operate within a cab that they don't actually ever have to get out of the machine. It became more and more mechanized over time, and the clearcutting became more and more efficient, which made more and more money for these companies.
Steve Paulson (05:57):
So what's the problem with that?
Suzanne Simard (06:00):
The problem is that the regenerative capacity of forests is really linked to the past. So the seeds, the plants, the old trees, they all play a role in bootstrapping that ecosystem to recovery. So, if you take out all the trees, for example, it really, in my neck of the woods in British Columbia, there are some clearcuts that are a thousand hectares. And when you have a clearcut that size, there's not much seed source. There're no neighbors that are nearby, and so the seed source goes down. So that's one consequence.
Suzanne Simard (06:31):
Another one is old trees actually provide not just seed, but they provide networks, which are what I studied, the below-ground networks with fungi that are symbiotic with the trees that are really essential to helping the new trees get started. Also, like the old trees provide habitat for all kinds of species, like wood peckers and even bears, all kinds of song birds, so that rely on these old trees, for their livelihoods. And I'll say one more thing, is that they also store a ton of carbon, which is really important today in the era of climate change.
Steve Paulson (07:08):
So I want to take you back again to your personal story. So growing up in this family of loggers, and you said that the forest was a safe haven, for you, because I'm wondering where your ideas originally started percolating, that there was a different way to think about a forest, then scientists thought about, then traditional loggers thought about it. Where did these ideas come from, for you?
Suzanne Simard (07:32):
Well, I think just from being a kid of the forest. Imagine in the forest, all these different species, the trees are huge, the roots overlap with each other. There are plants, wall to wall plants, devil's club, thimbleberries, huckleberries, orchids, they're all in there together, growing in these very distinct patterns, I guess, adapted to their sites. And it just was part of what I knew. And so I guess it started then. It started as soon as I could walk. As soon as I could get out there, I became fascinated with soils, the stuff that you could dig in, because I loved dirt. My brother and I would always make these forts, and throw dirt lumps. But I also loved to eat dirt. So there, you can see, I have pictures when I was just a little baby, my mouth full of dirt and worms. And I guess I just loved it. And even our dog falling in the outhouse, and watching my uncles and grandfather trying to dig jigs out of the outhouse. That was a fascinating=.
Steve Paulson (08:37):
[Crosstalk 00:08:37] a great story about that in your book. Can you describe what happened?
Suzanne Simard (08:41):
Yeah. Well we used to live every summer on Mabel Lake, it's in the Inland Rainforest. And my grandfather and his brothers and sons, that's where they logged. And my Uncle Wilfred had a dog named Jigs. And one morning, we got up and we could hear Jigs howling; Jigs was a beagle, and he was a curious beagle. He was always getting into trouble, but this was like the ultimate trouble. And he had fallen in the outhouse. And so we all heard-
Steve Paulson (09:09):
He had fallen down into the toilet?
Suzanne Simard (09:11):
Yeah. He was looking... He must have been looking down the hole, and he was probably going, "Oh, what's going on down there?" And he went.
Steve Paulson (09:20):
How did they dig him out then?
Suzanne Simard (09:21):
So I was about six at the time, and we were all like hovering around like laughing, and there're flies everywhere, and it stunk. And my grandfather and great uncle, they got their shovels and picks, and they started digging out the size of the outhouse, because he was way down there. It was about six feet down. And so it took a while, but they started. First, they had to clear away the forest floor and get the mushrooms out of the way, and the twigs. And then they started digging through the forest floor, which, to me, was like the best. I loved eating forest floor, especially if there were birch trees around. And so I was watching the... Actually, the forest floor was full of bugs, like worms and mites and collembola, but it was alive, and it was complicated. And then once they had got through the forest floor, there was this white sandy stuff, that wasn't really sand, but it was; it was like drenched of color.
Suzanne Simard (10:14):
And underneath that, there was this incredibly red soil. And now I know those soils are called podzols, and in the US, you call them spodosols, but they're the kind of soil that develops under a rainforest. And eventually, they got down to the glacial till. So Canada was glaciated in the last ice age. And so then the digging got really hard. And so then they were like, "Oh my God, how do we get these big rocks out of the way?" And eventually, Jigs, we were able to rescue Jigs and haul him out. And he was covered in poop and toilet paper, but it was a great successful operation.
Steve Paulson (10:49):
Well, it sounds like this amazing science lesson too. You sort of got to see several feet, six feet or so, of forests being uncovered; the dirt, the ground. It's like, wow what a remarkable discovery.
Suzanne Simard (11:03):
It was, and so colorful. I was only six, so you have to imagine as a six year old, but there are these layers. There're layers like a layer cake and Jigs was down there at the bottom of this big cake, of all these different layers. And I found that just amazing, that under our feet, there's like a big city down there, and most of us don't really see that, but I saw it, and I was attracted to it, because of course I was just a kid that loved dirt.
Steve Paulson (11:31):
So when did you decide... Later on, when did you decide that you actually wanted to make a career out of studying forests?
Suzanne Simard (11:37):
My mother really instilled in us kids that we needed to get a good education, and go to university. So off I went, to the University of British Columbia, which at the time, there were no universities or colleges where I lived out in the bush. And so I had to move to the big city, which was shocking. I didn't even know how to take the bus for Pete's sakes. But anyway, off I go. And I had a friend who said, "You know, you could be a forestry. You could go into the faculty of forestry." And I'm like, "Well, what's forestry?" I didn't know what forestry was. And he says, "You know, like how your grandpa worked." I'm like, "Oh, well that sounds kind of cool." And off I went, and I never looked back. I absolutely loved it.
Steve Paulson (12:19):
Now I know you also had some jobs early on. Maybe this was even during your college years, where you worked for the logging industry, which meant that you were out kind of in the middle of nowhere, in some of these remote forests, which was also grizzly country in Western Canada. And you have some amazing stories, where you ran into some grizzlies. One happened, I think when you were 20 years old, you encountered a mother grizzly in her cub? Can you describe what happened?
Suzanne Simard (12:47):
Yeah. So grizzlies were a constant presence. They were constantly in my mind, because I often worked on my own, or there might be two of us, and we would be right in grizzly country, and saw grizzlies, regularly, and you had to be careful. But in this particular occasion, my friend, Jean and I, who worked with me, had decided to go backpacking one weekend in the Stein River Valley, which is one of the huge untouched water sheds that were in the area, right adjacent to where my company worked. So we were climbing into this hanging valley; it was my birthday. And the further up we went, the more signs of grizzly that we saw. And we got to this huge waterfall. And we saw huge grizzly tracks. And we thought, well we were used to grizzlies, but it was getting more and more concerning, because pretty soon, we started seeing big claw marks coming down the tree. So the grizzlies were actually putting up their warning signs, and then ripped out [inaudible 00:13:47], which is like one of their favorite foods.
Suzanne Simard (13:49):
And Jean and I just said, "We got to get out of here." So we turned around, and we went back down the mountain, and actually stayed overnight, part way, which was a story into itself. But then the next day, as we were leaving this place where we camped, there was this really strong smell of [kash 00:14:06]. And kash is rotten meat that was brought in by grizzly, overnight. And I could smell it. And I'm like, "Jean, we got to get out of here." And so we left really quickly. And we were going down the mountain, and got into these Douglas-fir forest, which normally aren't strong grizzly country. So I thought, "Oh, we're safe now."
Suzanne Simard (14:23):
But part way down, Jean stopped dead in her tracks, and there was a mama grizzly, with her two cubs, only a few feet from us. We could literally feel her breath on our faces. And Jean, who was much braver than me, she turned around and she says, "Okay, I'm going up that tree." And she dropped her pack, and up the tree she went. And so I'm like, "Okay." And I forgot to drop my pack, and I went for another tree, and I'm going up and trying to keep up with her in my tree. And she's going way, way up. In the meantime, mama grizzly has sent her cubs up another tree, and I'm going up and up. And pretty soon, my tree was getting smaller and smaller and smaller, and it starts to sway back and forth. And I'm going, "Oh my God, I picked a small tree."
Steve Paulson (15:06):
And of course a grizzly can climb a tree.
Suzanne Simard (15:10):
Well, grizzles can't actually climb trees. They're too heavy.
Steve Paulson (15:14):
Oh, they are? Okay.
Suzanne Simard (15:14):
But the cubs can climb trees, because they're quite light. But my tree was bending over so much, I was worried that every time it bent over, that the mama grizzly could actually stand up on her hind legs, and grab me out of the tree. But it turns out she didn't. She was so interested in staying at the base of her own cubs' tree, that she left me alone. And we stayed in those trees for over an hour, and she just stayed at the bottom, kind of keeping her cubs safe and then making sure that we weren't going to do anything. And then after that hour, we could hear the cubs coming down the tree. And they came down the tree, and then we waited another half an hour and heard nothing. And then Jean says, "Okay, we got to go." Anyway, the bears had gone, and we just ran down the mountain, and back to the river. We were so lucky.
Steve Paulson (16:03):
Suzanne Simard (16:04):
We were pretty terrified, but we survived.
Steve Paulson (16:08):
So you went on to do your doctoral work on Douglas-firs, and the relationship actually between Douglas-fir and paper birch, in British Columbia. What did you find?
Suzanne Simard (16:19):
So I was working in this kind of forest, because it was the Inland Rainforest, and those old forests were being clearcut, and they're planted the Douglas-fir, in the hopes that they could recreate these valuable old trees that they were made a ton of money on. The forest service in British Columbia, at that time, had just enacted this new law called Free To Grow. And it required that these Douglas-firs and all the trees that they planted, were free of anything that might compete with them. And that included paper birch and all the deciduous trees, as well as all the native plants. I called it a war at the time, where they were trying to get rid of all these plants. And paper birch was especially a big target. And so there were helicopters spraying herbicides, there were people out there brushing these plants out, weeding them out with whatever way they could, whether they were hacking at them with saws or axes or chemicals.
Suzanne Simard (17:15):
And I started noticing. And because I actually had a job then with the ministry of forest, to look at these plantations and measure that about 10% of these trees were dying to a fungal infection, a root disease. And so I knew there was something wrong, that these birch trees, taking out the birch trees was creating an imbalance in the soil. And so I went back and did my PhD, trying to figure this thing out, like what the heck are we doing? Is this the right thing to do? And that policy had become so entrenched, that they were spending millions and millions of dollars every year, spraying our province. So it was not an easy thing to argue against.
Steve Paulson (17:54):
What you were investigating, sounds a little counterintuitive. You're suggesting that it's actually advantageous to the Douglas-firs to have birch trees growing alongside them. You'd think they'd be competing for the same resources.
Suzanne Simard (18:08):
Right. Everybody was so focused on competition; competition for light especially. And I didn't see it that way. I saw, in my upbringing, in the forest, all these plants as companions. And so I wanted to figure out how they might help each other. Why was the birch, when we were taking it out of the system, creating this disease in the forest? I was going to study the pathogenic fungi, but I ended up looking at, instead, at the fungi that all trees associate with, which are called mycorrhiza fungi. And these are helper fungi, where the fungus actually associates with the tree to grow through the soil, pick up nutrients and water, bring it back to the tree, and trade it for photosynthesis. It was like an extension of their root systems.
Steve Paulson (18:52):
So the fungi are sort of wrapping themselves around the tree roots, and it's sort of they kind of almost become fused together.
Suzanne Simard (18:59):
Yeah, that's right, right at the root tips, where the fungus grows around the cortical cells of the root of the tree, where the membranes of the plant and the membrane of the fungus meet. And that's where this exchange goes on.
Steve Paulson (19:13):
Why was that so important?
Suzanne Simard (19:16):
Well, it was important to me, because there was a new research coming out of the United Kingdom, showing that in these garden boxes in the lab, that these fungi could actually connect trees together. At the time, the scientist's name was Sir. David Reed, was just looking at one species pine. And he grew these pines in these little garden boxes in the lab. And he labeled, one with carbon-14. And he saw that the carbon-14 moved through the mycorrhiza network that linked these two trees together. And I wanted to know whether or not this was happening in our forest. Maybe this was the puzzle that birch and fir were connected by their mycorrhiza fungi, and that this was what protected the fir.
Suzanne Simard (19:56):
And so I started doing similar work to what David did, but I did it in the forest. And I would label my plants with carbon-14 and carbon-13, and watch these tracers move back and forth, between the birch and fir. And I discovered that the more birch shaded Douglas-fir, the more it gave carbon to Douglas-fir. At the same time, it was like it was competing for light. And so it was like the two trees were in this balance, where they were actually competing and collaborating all at the same time.
Steve Paulson (20:27):
So why would a forest work like this, where there are trees of different species that actually need each other to thrive?
Suzanne Simard (20:36):
A diverse forest tends to be more productive and healthier. So how does that work? It's that when you have a diversity of trees, say you've got like 10 tree species versus one, those trees occupy different niches in the forest. They all have different growth rates, they have different kinds of crowns, they capture light in different ways. Some of them hang out in the under story and are shade tolerant. Some like to be at the top, and they're shade intolerant, and they capture different wavelengths of light, basically. And so it's easy to see them, while a diverse forest is actually more productive, because it's able to capture the full suite of site resources.
Suzanne Simard (21:15):
And that's not the whole story. The other thing is that if there are infections in the forest or herbivores, a lot of those pathogens and herbivores are very specific to certain species. And if you have that out one species that, for example, lodgepole pine and mountain pine beetle, then you're going to lose the whole forest. Whereas if you have multiple species, say some aspen and some fruits in there as well, then those other remaining species that are not attacked, can take over and fill in the crown and maintain the productivity and the cycling in the floors, the water cycle, the nutrient cycles, the carbon cycles provide habitat for all the creatures. So you still maintain a good healthy forest.
Steve Paulson (21:58):
My guest is Suzanne Simard, the forest ecologist at the University of British Columbia, and the author of Finding the Mother Tree, Discovering The Wisdom Of The Forest. This conversation is part of our series on Kinship With The More Than Human World.
Steve Paulson (22:12):
So when you first came out with this study, based on your doctoral work, and it was actually published in Nature, one of the premier science journals, and it was given this great title, the Wood Wide Web, which has sort of stuck ever since, you got a huge amount of pushback. It was not just from the timber industry; you were questioning their practices. It was a lot of other academics, ecologists, who studied these kind of things. What did people say to you?
Suzanne Simard (22:42):
Well, when I published the paper, I had a young family then. And yeah there were a lot of criticisms coming out in the literature. Even at conferences, my work was getting criticized. And because I was so busy being a young mother at the time, I didn't respond to them very quickly. And the criticisms grew. It was kind of like one person started hammering at me, and then it became almost like a fashion. And before I knew it, my Nature work was getting cited in the literature, and so were the criticisms. And so for me, this was really uncomfortable. I'd never experienced anything quite like this before. I felt like I created this hailstorm, and I was suddenly this target.
Steve Paulson (23:26):
Were you targeted partly, do you think, because you were a woman, and this was a field dominated by men?
Suzanne Simard (23:32):
I certainly was a woman, and certainly the criticizers were men. And so, you can put two and two together yourself, and it was in the 1990s. There weren't that many female scientists or female ecologists. And also, I think what I realized at the time too, is that the work that David Reed did in the UK, had created its own center, its own little hurricane, and there was controversy around the meaning of his work. And I think that I had kind of stepped into a hornets nest. Even regardless of me being a girl, and them being men, they were already having their little debate in the UK. And I also realized that they'd been working in grasslands and mores, and with small plants. And I was working in these forests that were cathedrals, where trees were 50 meters tall. It was a completely different environment.
Steve Paulson (24:22):
So you have described yourself, as by nature, fairly shy. And you've said that you didn't really like public speaking, at least early in your career. You certainly didn't like confrontation, and here you were, being very openly attacked. Your professional reputation was at stake. How did you deal with that?
Suzanne Simard (24:40):
It was a real growing process for me. It was not easy at all. You're right, I'm shy. I've trained myself not to be so shy. But if I ever go to a party, like I'm always the one that's like heading for the door first, because I can't talk to all these people about this stuff. And then confrontation, I grew up... My mother would always run away from confrontation. And so that's what I learned. And so here I had this terrible combination of being shy and hating confrontation, and I had to overcome it. And I taught myself how to speak in public. It took me years to even learn how to speak up in a meeting. Literally, it was painful. But now I can do it. I encourage anybody who has those problems, just to train yourself to overcome these things, because they can be a real setback in your career.
Steve Paulson (25:28):
Yeah. So looking now, where you have taken this whole field of forest ecology, do you now think of a forest as almost like a single organism, as opposed to all these different competing trees?
Suzanne Simard (25:45):
I view it as a highly connected place, where all the creatures are interdependent, and that we are one of those creatures. That interdependence, makes you think of a single organism. It's not a single organism, it's a suite of organisms that are intimately linked together, and affect each other in profound ways. And that they regulate the system, they shape that system.
Steve Paulson (26:10):
Do you think a forest has intelligence? Is that a word that you find useful?
Suzanne Simard (26:16):
I've used the word quite a bit. Let me qualify that. So trees don't have brains, they don't have nervous systems, and we've ascribed intelligence to ourselves, and we have brains and nervous systems. But what I've uncovered in the forest floor with my graduate students, is that these trees form neural networks in the forest. Not nervous networks, but neural networks. And what that means, is that they have a pattern. And that pattern is that there are central hubs, like these big old trees that are linked to their neighbors, that are smaller plants or smaller trees, and that complexity, that pattern is really efficient at moving information, resilience.
Suzanne Simard (26:55):
And even in these fungal networks, what I found was that even the chemicals moving through the network, most of that is a chemical called glutamate. It's an amino acid, and it is the very same chemical that is actually a neurotransmitter in our own brains. And also, as I've learned, that trees perceive and respond, and are receptive to each other, and are attuned to each other, I have come to realize that this is a form of intelligence. It's not a brain, but it's its own pattern that is a conserved pattern in nature that works.
Steve Paulson (27:33):
You've come up with another idea, what you've called mother trees. What are these?
Suzanne Simard (27:39):
Well, so these are the hubs at the center of those networks. Hub trees or mother trees are just the biggest oldest trees in the forest. And the reason they're important is because they're highly connected to all the other trees and plants in the forest. So the reason that they're the most highly connected, is that they have big root systems with lots of root tips with, mycorrhiza fungi that just go out and link with almost everything around them, of the other trees that they're compatible with. So these are sort of the central linchpins of the forest. And then we did a bunch of experiments to find out what do these old trees do. And it turns out that when seedlings actually link into these networks of these old trees, that it improves their survival, and growth and nutrition, and that these trees also can transmit information and chemicals and help each other out.
Steve Paulson (28:29):
This is not just other trees of the same species. You're talking about all kinds of different species. They are essentially talking with these other trees.
Suzanne Simard (28:37):
So yes, trees of different species link up. Because they have compatible generalist fungi, they can link them together. They communicate with each other, and that ability to communicate or interact in that way, helps them to coexist. They work together to create a cohesive system, when they can compliment each other and coexist and help each other out, and compete at the same time.
Steve Paulson (29:01):
Yeah. That's worth noting that the mother tree was a central idea in the blockbuster movie Avatar.
Suzanne Simard (29:07):
Steve Paulson (29:07):
Do you know if James Cameron got that from your work about mother trees?
Suzanne Simard (29:11):
Well, I have a strong sense that he did, but I don't know for sure. But I'll tell you what I do know, is that right [inaudible 00:29:17], when Avatar was coming out, I got a phone call from a person who worked with James Cameron, and had been participating in their workshops, and they had been reading my Nature paper. And so I think that it did influence the thinking. And since then, of course, James Cameron is working on more Avatar movies, and I'm involved. They've asked me to participate in a documentary film that's about the science behind Avatar. So...
Steve Paulson (29:41):
Oh really? Wow.
Suzanne Simard (29:42):
... they know about my work, and it's influenced the movies.
Steve Paulson (29:45):
Now there's something that you have been talking a bit about more recently. It's kind of a question you've raised, and that's whether trees have the capacity to perceive human beings. I'm wondering where you go with that.
Suzanne Simard (30:00):
This is an interesting question. And I haven't done any research on this myself. It's just an idea. But the reason I think this, is that trees are responsive to all the creatures around them. So if, for example, a woodpecker pokes a hole in the bark, or if a bud worm comes along and eats the needles off a tree, that interaction causes a cascade of biochemical responses in the trees. The different biochemical pathways, like the Jasminum pathway is activated, jasmonic acid is produced as a result, which actually helps defend the plants against further attack.
Suzanne Simard (30:39):
One of the pieces of work we did is we took some trees in the lab, and we pulled the needles off. So we injured the trees, human beings, and we watched this cascade of responses in the plants. And then we also found out that the plants were able to communicate this injury to their neighbors, through their mycorrhiza networks. And so I came to the realization that I injured this plant, and it's responding, and it's actually telling its neighbors about me, what I did. Maybe it didn't know I was a human, I don't know, but it got me thinking. And I kind of thought, well why wouldn't they perceive us? They live for hundreds, if not thousands of years, with people all around them doing things. And if you're in an orchard, like cutting their branches or pruning them, don't you think that it make sense?
Steve Paulson (31:23):
Suzanne Simard (31:25):
Yeah. So, I had-
Steve Paulson (31:25):
Well, let me push on this a little bit, because it just totally fascinates me. And I don't know if these are strictly science questions or whether it's something more than that. It sort of has more of an intuitive understanding of trees. I guess I'm wondering if this goes beyond just a tree sensing human presence, when we cut them down or cut their branches, but whether it's more than that, or to take it even further, whether a tree might actually be able to distinguish between different people.
Suzanne Simard (31:57):
My intuition says yes, and I'm not alone in this, and it's not just Western scientists, but the Aboriginal people of the world over, have got certain principles that they live by. And one is that we are one with nature, that the creatures are relations, that we need to care for them as though they are our brothers and sisters. In fact, Aboriginal people, even in the West Coast of North America, probably all across North America, view trees as people. So there's the tree people. Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about the strawberry people. And we are perceiving these gifts of nature, and there are relations. Why wouldn't they perceive our gifts back, or our exploitation back to them? And so, yes it's partly philosophical, but it's also, if you start dissecting systems, you understand that all the parts of the system have relationships that they're built to work together. And so to me, it's not a huge stretch of the imagination that they would perceive us and distinguish us, who is an exploiter and who is a regenerative person.
Steve Paulson (33:05):
Have you had relationships with specific trees?
Suzanne Simard (33:08):
Well, certainly I have. In my backyard, I have a beautiful maple tree that I go sit under every day. And yes, I have a relationship with that tree. And I have relationships with lots of trees actually. Every day, I go hiking in my favorite place in Nelson where I live, and I talk to the pines and the firs and the aspens. And yeah, that's where my home is.
Steve Paulson (33:29):
When you say you talk to them, you're talking out loud to them.
Suzanne Simard (33:33):
Yeah, I do. I pat them on the bark, and I say, "I hope you're having a great day. How are you today?" I know it kind of sounds goofy, but that is just me, and-
Steve Paulson (33:42):
Yeah. Well I don't think it's goofy. I'm sort of fascinated by this, because it raises this bigger question of how much of this is science, in terms of what we can glean from the workings of nature, and how much of it is something else. Maybe it's a spiritual orientation, maybe it a philosophical way of looking at the world. And I know a lot of people sort of get frustrated, like always trying to put science in one box, and this other way of thinking in the other box. And I'm wondering how you deal with that.
Suzanne Simard (34:13):
Yeah. The science that we are so used to right now is reduction of science. And it came from Western civilization where we reduced the parts of systems to study them in isolation. And we've done that in forest. We're trying to understand the trees and how they grow in isolation of all the other creatures. And it's like looking at the forest was just part of your eye open. There's so much to it that we'll never explain with our reduction of science. Because when you put those parts back together, the soil, the tree, the plant, and hope that a forest grows, you're missing so much part of it. In fact, our plantations show that. And that part that's missing, is the emergent property; scientists call those the emergent properties of the ecosystem, things that you can't necessarily explain.
Suzanne Simard (35:00):
Even the spirituality that we feel when we're in the forest, is something that we can't actually put our finger on, and study and say, "Oh, that feeling that I feel in the forest, it's because of this chemical and that chemical." No. It's something much bigger and more mysterious than that, but it's so important. It's our spirit. Like we are spiritual beings. And we need to get back to that. When I go out in the forest with my colleague, Dr. Teresa Ryan, who's Tsimshian Nation, and she's a cedar weaver, and she peels bark from the cedar trees. When she goes to those trees, she lays her hands on the trees and talks to the tree, and asks the tree permission to harvest some bark. And if the answer is no, then she doesn't do it. She goes to the next tree. And so there's this relationship between her and the trees that is very heartening, and it's healthy. And it connects her, it connects all of us if we do that, with our natural world, which are basically our relations.
Steve Paulson (36:02):
So you've talked about how you talk to trees, when you go out for certain walks. Do you have a sense that they talk back to you?
Suzanne Simard (36:10):
Yes, I do sense that. They don't have voices, but I get that feeling of belonging. As soon as I walk in the forest, I know I belong, and I thank the trees for what they have shown me. And I feel they're waiting for the discoveries, so that we can all understand this. And I think that there's a gratitude. I feel it when I walk in the forest.
Steve Paulson (36:29):
Now I know some people, some ecologists now talk about kinship, as a way of understanding a lot of these connect that you're describing within the natural world. There's biological kinship, and then there's sort of kinship at a whole different level, and also our relationship with the non-human world. Does that word or that concept of kinship resonate for you?
Suzanne Simard (36:54):
It definitely does. This concentric way of seeing the world, that we are all related. Where I live in British Columbia, we only have 8% of our old growth forest left, because the province has been clearcut. And the consequences, we can't meet our carbon emissions. Our creeks are flooding over. We have wildfires that are running through like young plantations that are very flammable. If we want to change that trajectory, we have to reimagine how we relate with forests, to re-discover our kinship with all these creatures that we are in a concentric circle, that we are all linked together. What humans do to forests, is going to come back, and it is coming back, to affect us. And we need to reconnect and fulfill our obligations to the land and to nature, and be responsible for what we do, instead of just being exploiters.
Steve Paulson (37:45):
So clearly, there are better and worse ways to grow and harvest trees. Is it possible to have a viable timber industry that really supplies the needs, the human needs of the world, that is sustainable?
Suzanne Simard (38:00):
Yeah, I think there is. Right now, the demand for wood is so high, and in the marketplace, oh we need to supply that demand at any cost. If we can make money from it, we can do it. It's like, should we exploit every drop of oil from the earth just because we can? No. We need to regulate this. Like we don't have to use so much of the resources of the world. In fact, it's going to kill us if we just keep exploiting like that.
Steve Paulson (38:26):
So how would forestry, how would logging change in a sustainable way?
Suzanne Simard (38:32):
Right now, we're overcutting. We can't sustain this rate of cut. And so we need to pull back and reduce the cut. And then when we do cut, we need to not cut the remaining old growth forest of which is only, like I said, 8% left, because of their biodiversity and incredible carbon storage capacity, and refocus our efforts on second growth forest, or forests that have already lost so much. And we can rejuvenate those forests by favoring the mother trees. When we go to cut, leave them behind, and protect them by having groups of them, and allowing them to regenerate on their own, and helping them along if we need to, by planting. And then we also need to migrate species because the velocity of climate change is so rapid, that these trees and seedlings will not be able to keep up. These mother trees can help bootstrap these new migrants into the forest. At the same time, we can take out some trees, and still provide wood for people. That's okay. Like we need to do that. But we need to do-
Steve Paulson (39:33):
And you're saying, and you think we can generate enough wood doing it that way?
Suzanne Simard (39:36):
I think we can. I think we just need to reevaluate how much wood we need. Do we really need to cut down a whole forest, ship logs overseas to build things that maybe are not absolutely necessary, that is just sort of feeding a voracious machine that will take as much as will give? Do we need to use so much paper? Do we need to produce so much toilet paper? So in British Columbia, for example, we've decided that we're going to turn some of our old growth forests into wood pellets, and we're going to send those wood pellets overseas, to feed the European market for wood stoves, as a substitute for fossil fuel energy.
Steve Paulson (40:12):
Oh God. Oh.
Suzanne Simard (40:14):
Yeah, I know. And the damage to the ecosystem is immense, but we haven't thought it all through. Just because there's a market demand that's suddenly been created, does that mean we cut down our boreal forest to create wood pellets? It's a disaster, because that carbon gets admitted back into the atmosphere. So we really need to be much more judicious about our decision-making as a global community. Like we're talking about survival here. We can't be making these kinds of decisions, and hope for the best. They have to be done with intelligence.
Steve Paulson (40:46):
There's one line you have, actually right near the beginning of your book, where you say you wrote this, not so weakened to save the trees. Really, the question is how the trees my might save us. Do you want to explain that?
Suzanne Simard (41:00):
Right. Forests cover about a third of the land area, but they supply like three quarters of our water. They house 80% of our species. They store most of our carbon, 80% or more in the soil. They suck up about a third of the manmade carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions. And so they really are earth's life support systems. If we don't have forests, we wouldn't be here, or it would be a planet of a lot of human suffering, and suffering all around. So yes, the forest, they are our life support system. And it's in our own self-interest as well as everybody else's, to protect these places. We are going to help forests, but they're essential for us. Without them, we would be gone.
Steve Paulson (41:49):
Yeah. Suzanne, this has been so fun to talk with you. Thank you. This has been such a pleasure.
Suzanne Simard (41:55):
Thank you, Steve. Thank you so much.
Steve Paulson (42:00):
That's Suzanne Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, and the author of Finding the Mother Tree, Discovering The Wisdom of The Forest. This interview is part of our podcast series on Kinship With The More Than Human World, which is produced by To The Best Of Our Knowledge, in partnership with the Center for Humans and Nature, and with support from the Kalliopeia Foundation. Our sound designer is Sarah Hopefl, and I'm Steve Paulson. If you want to find more in our Kinship series, go to ttbook.org/kinship, where you'll see all our podcast episodes, and also a lot of great essays. Thanks for joining us.