Suzanne Simard Explores The The Forest Society Of Trees In Book

May 1, 2021
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Suzanne Simard's new book may change how you see the world, even or especially the parts that are below the ground. "Finding The Mother Tree: Discovering The Wisdom Of The Forest" helps us see what amounts to a system of nerve endings underfoot that create a kind of forest society among trees, where mother trees actually recognize and nourish their saplings.

Suzanne Simard, a member of the University of British Columbia's faculty of forestry and leader of the Mother Tree Project there, joins us now from Nelson, British Columbia. Thanks so much for being with us.

SUZANNE SIMARD: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: You opened my eyes. What's going on that we can't see?

SIMARD: Well, I think an easy way to think about what's going on belowground is a giant internet (laughter) that is conveying messages between trees through these little, tiny threads - fungal threads that are kind of like telephone wires between plants.

SIMON: And they communicate using some of the same chemical properties we do.

SIMARD: Yes. Well, when I started looking at these linkages between trees, I focused on the resources that we know that trees compete for, which are light, water and nutrients. But then as my research became more sophisticated and more in-depth, I realized - or I discovered - that there's a lot more information going through between these trees than just resources. There's also information about their health, their stress, whether they've been infected by something and even whether or not they're related to each other.

SIMON: Oh, mercy. I mean, you're talking about investing certain forms of sentient behavior in trees.

SIMARD: Yeah. I mean, I referred to it as an intelligence. And the way - the reason I use that word is because when we map this network from a scientific point, you know, very scientific using DNA analysis in how these fungal threads link different trees together, what emerged out of that map was a complex network. In fact, it's a biological neural network if you look at it mathematically. And we have neural networks in our brains. And although trees and forests don't have brains, they do have these biological neural networks belowground. That led me to thinking of nature as more of an intelligent system. Not a lot of people, you know, agree with using words like intelligence or sentience even further than that. But for me, the English language is that those are good words to describe what I'm seeing.

SIMON: Your book "Finding The Mother Tree" is also part memoir and autobiography. I find it interesting you used to be a logger.

SIMARD: Well, I came from a family of loggers. My great-grandfather and my grandfather and my great-uncles and my dad and his brothers all horse logged. And so, yeah, I grew up around this. You know, my grandfather and my great-uncle, they built all their own flumes and their own water wheels to generate electricity, their own logger's houseboats. They - you know, their words (ph), their boats - everything was handmade, and everything was slow and small. And so - of course, to me, it was just the way of life.

SIMON: Yeah.

SIMARD: But I look back, and it was fascinating because what they did was really quite sustainable logging. They only took what they needed.

SIMON: You think human beings may not be able to save the world's forests, but they might save us. How so?

SIMARD: Well, forests cover about a third of our land. And they take up about 80% and store 80% of the CO2 that's in our atmosphere in the ground. And they also are home to 80% of our species. And if we lost forests, we wouldn't be here. So their mere existence or their ability to recover is what our lives depend on. They are our life support systems.

But we have a role to play in helping save forests, too, because as climate is changing, the velocity of climate change is much faster than how our forests can adapt, how trees can adapt. And so we have to have a hand in helping these forests adapt and change.

And one of the key things to doing that is called assisted migration. So as climate changes, tree species need to move to habitats where they are adapted to those climatic conditions so that they can survive, and so that assisted migration means taking genotypes from warmer climates and moving them northward or upward. And in so doing, we can maintain a forest cover that will maintain these life support systems that - you know, that we rely on.

SIMON: I address this last question with absolute respect, even if it sounds dotty because I finished your book the other night. And I joined my family for dinner, and I picked up a piece of asparagus. And I looked at it and thought, should I really be eating you?

SIMARD: (Laughter).

SIMON: Not so long ago, you were communicating with, you know, maybe the stalk next door. I mean, it really made me examine that.

SIMARD: Yeah. It would have been communicating with the stalk next door. So that's very, very astute of you to think about that and kind of you to think of that.

SIMON: I ate it with lemon and sea salt, but...

SIMARD: (Laughter) But it's - you know, it's OK to eat the asparagus, and it's OK for us to be living in forests and using the forest. You know, we're all part of this big biosphere, and our cycles depend on trophic levels.

SIMON: Remind us what trophic means.

SIMARD: It means the different levels of organisms that eat each other that cycle nutrients. And at the baseline of that trophic pyramid are plants - green plants, trees. They're the things that capture light energy, turn it to chemical energy, and that's how come we're all here, is because of photosynthesis. You could think of it that they're kind of in service to the rest of the trophic food web, and human beings are pretty much at the top of that food chain. And so you don't need to feel guilty about eating asparagus because it is there as part of our food web.

SIMON: Suzanne Simard - her book, "Finding The Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom Of The Forest" - thanks so much for being with us. And if I may say, bon appetit.

SIMARD: Thank you. Bon appetit to you, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF NICOLAS GODIN'S "ALGER LA BLANCHE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.