From Nature to Hollywood: Suzanne Simard on her research journey

The Canadian botanist who discovered the ‘wisdom of trees’ reflects on the growing enthusiasm for her work and why scientists should get emotional about their research

May 26, 2022
Ecologist Suzanne Simard in Stanley Park in Vancouver, British Columbia
Source: Diana Markosian

Suzanne Simard’s discovery that trees “talk” to each other – sending messages and nutrients under the forest floor via a network of fungi – continues to amaze, even almost 25 years after it was announced in a Nature cover feature that made headlines across the world.

But the continued embrace of Simard’s findings – that “the forest is wired for wisdom, sentience and healing”, as she puts it in her 2021 memoir, Finding the Mother Tree, now out in paperback – is perhaps as startling as the science behind it: her science has inspired the iconic Tree of Souls in James Cameron’s blockbuster movie Avatar, and the 2019 Pulitzer prizewinning novel The Overstory by Richard Powers revolved around a fictionalised version of Simard. This year, she was namechecked during a team talk in the wildly popular feel-good football comedy series Ted Lasso. Now she is due to be played by Amy Adams, after the Oscar-nominated actor, along with Jake Gyllenhaal, secured the rights to her book. Why does her research, originally based on her doctorate, continue to resonate so strongly?

“The idea of connection is fundamental to everyone – we are social creatures, so when we see this type of connection is also rooted in nature, it just makes sense,” says Simard. “The most common thing that people say is ‘I’ve always known this was true.’”

THE Campus resource: Why you should take your online teaching outdoors

Today, it is known that the “wood wide web” transports hundreds of kilos of carbon underground between trees in just a single hectare, but Simard’s idea was anything but accepted wisdom when she announced it. Timber companies in her native Canada were aghast at her suggestion that they should overturn their decades-old practices of weeding out smaller birch and alder trees, as well as other native plants, to make room for fast-growing pines. Some of her memoir’s most gripping scenes see Simard fend off hostile questions from a room of disbelieving logging industry representatives offended by the suggestion that their brutal clearance practices are not just ecologically disastrous but are also hindering the healthy growth of precious timber. “From the start, I was unusual as a woman in a very masculine field of work – women were automatically in a minority, and because I thought differently too, I was always regarded as an interloper,” she says.

Brought up in the forests of British Columbia, which her family had logged for generations, Simard joined the Canadian Forest Service after university, but that position meant she was viewed with suspicion in some parts of academia as well. Most notably, scholars lined up to attack the findings of her career-defining 1997 Nature paper, with botanists in the UK, and then Australia, wondering why Simard’s results were so at odds with their own observations, which showed no significant chemical transfers between species.

Some questioned whether a Forest Service employee – more used to spending her days planting and monitoring pines than on campus – had botched the lab experiments that proved the two-way transmission of carbon. For others, her thesis that “plants are attuned to one another’s strengths and weaknesses, elegantly giving and taking to attain exquisite balance” was too neat to be true. When Nature declined to publish her rebuttal – that the lack of carbon transfer was explained by the difference between the forests of Canada and the meadows of England studied by her critics – a torrent of criticism engulfed her.

“I was too tired and guileless to grasp the importance of what was going on, to go public with my responses – I convinced myself things would quieten down,” she says. They didn’t, even after she finally published her response.

At the time, Simard “couldn’t help but think they resented that I had published my findings in Nature, whistling past famous scientists who had been trying to unravel the mystery of how networks influenced plant-to-plant interactions for some time”, she writes, of what she called her “public drubbing”.

“Many of these academics had been working in universities for their whole lives – I’d just wanted to work in the forest, and I’d pretty much stumbled into my first research job [with the Forest Service] and then stumbled into a PhD, so I didn’t expect anything from my research,” she tells Times Higher Education.

Simard’s palpable sense of injustice as her landmark findings and experiments are “picked apart, bit by bit, for mistakes that aren’t there” is just one moment in her memoir when she talks candidly about the emotional toll of being an academic; she describes a mixture of rage and vulnerability as her work is dissected and debated in ways that she disapproves of. Simard explains how the febrile debate over her work became too much at times, which meant that she “backed away, ducked under, hid beneath” while her colleagues waded into battle over her ideas.

Her decision to wait for more than a year to publish a critique of her detractors’ arguments was a “mistake”, Simard admits. “Among academics, it was an admission of fault,” she reflects in Finding the Mother Tree – even though, as a Forest Service employee, the practicality of rebutting her critics was more complicated than it would have been for a university academic with a bigger conference travel budget.

Simard’s unsparing portrayal of the hardships of academic life – both emotional and physical – is, for many, what lifts her memoir above the copious popular science books on the market. Most notably, these pressures are outlined in a chapter titled “Nine-Hour Commute”. Having taken her first job in academia at the University of British Columbia a few years after her Nature paper was published, Simard describes how her husband Don initially agreed to sacrifice his work opportunities to move to Vancouver to care for their two young daughters. “As my research program built on success after success…my marriage did the opposite,” Simard explains in her memoir, which recounts how the couple agreed to live apart, with Simard making a 500km trip at weekends to the forest town where they had lived together. On Fridays, the journey would start at 4pm and end at midnight, with the return trip on Sunday equally arduous.

Unsurprisingly, the marriage didn’t last. “I’d drowned in the stress of the commute, and he had grown even more frustrated that I wouldn’t quit. Late one Sunday night driving back to work, dark circles instead of eyes reflecting in the rear-view mirror, I knew I could not do this any longer,” she recounts.

“There are a lot of trade-offs in academic life," adds Simard, now a professor of forest ecology at British Columbia. "Many people reading the book are shocked that academics do this and that family life can be so hard. I wanted this to be part of the book, and I hope they’ll keep it part of the film.”

The Winjngaardplein installation, which celebrates Suzanne Simard’s discovery that trees and plants are interconnected underground, in Bruges, Belgium, in 2020
The Winjngaardplein installation, which celebrates Suzanne Simard’s discovery that trees and plants are interconnected underground, in Bruges, Belgium, in 2020

That said, universities could do more to help female academics to balance their personal and professional commitments, she says, with the rise of videoconferencing perhaps offering more scope for reduced travel. “Academia could make things so much easier for women – give them much more flexibility when they need it. And maybe we’ll see this happen with women in more leadership roles,” she says.

Documenting the ups and downs of academic life so candidly is unusual even for Simard, she admits. “I’ve published more than 2,000 journal articles, but wanted to do something different – I wanted people to feel close to the science, to explain how it makes sense to their world,” she says.

Opening up was particularly difficult, however, on the subject of her younger brother, Kelly. Described as a “bull-riding, snuff-chewing, calf-birthing, blacksmithing cowboy reincarnated from the past”, who would “rather die riding their horse across a meadow than in a chair reading a book”, he is a powerful presence in the book – with the earthy role an ideal fit for the forthcoming film’s co-producer Gyllenhaal. Simard chronicles the strong but strained bond she had with him as they grow up in the forests not far from Simard Mountain, and the arguments they continued to have in adulthood despite Kelly's support of his sister's career. A few days after one such quarrel in a bar, after which the siblings parted on bad terms, Simard learns that Kelly has been crushed to death in a farmyard accident.

“I went through a lot to be in a place to write about my brother – this book was not a journey to help heal myself, but I wanted to tell people the million moments that have helped to shape my thinking,” she says. “People have ups and downs, conflicts and reconciliations, there is love and competition – we were just a regular family, and I wanted to show this. I feel the public has really embraced this – it is not something to be avoided, it’s to be trusted, and it helps others to make sense of their world.”

Leaning into a more emotional approach to science is not just about communicating more effectively, she adds. Her best results have come when she has backed a hunch or gone against the standard playbook to use methods that aligned with her own values, such as respect for nature and commitment to family. For instance, one of her first experiments clearing alder trees was wrecked after the prisoner work gang assigned to her butchered the saplings she had planned to study; undeterred, Simard called on Kelly and other family members to help plant new saplings, allowing the project to thrive.

“As graduate students, you don’t have any money, and funding for research is really meagre. So you bring the resources you can, and often it was family involved in these things,” she says. More broadly, “we’re trained to self-regulate and, in some sense, take our personality out of the science – to see that anything that isn’t completely objective is tainted. But when we seek to totally remove ourselves – our personality, our humanity – from science, we don’t always get the best results. In forestry, we seem to understand that this subjective approach can work.”

Happily, science continues to prove that Simard’s insight that trees operate much in the same ways as families – with “towering, hard-working elders…teenaged saplings and younger seedlings, all huddling as families do in the cold” – was correct. Her intuition that older trees protect younger ones in “the way my mother and father, grandmothers and grandfathers, protected” is no romantic flight of fancy.

Weaving together science, family and nature, as Simard does, has proved a compelling proposition to readers. It prompted Amy Adams to meet the academic to secure the film rights. “We really hit it off – she said she saw the human story in the book, which she loved. She has young children now and cares about the world she is leaving them and sees this film as a way to make the future better,” says Simard. “I never imagined it would be a movie, but so many people were interested in the book that we were interviewing five or six actresses who wanted to be involved.”

Seeing a fictionalised version of oneself on screen is a scenario that few scientists will experience, although Simard is probably well placed to cope with this, given the various novel characters that she has inspired. “I’ve had a bit of an evolution with this – when I appeared in Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, it felt strange, as if they’d taken only an apple and presented it as an entire tree,” she says. “But I’ve come to terms with it as it’s become a bit of a cultural thing – I loved how The Overstory took the ideas and developed them.”

Overall, she is “really just glad that people are reading about these concepts and developing them in their own way”. But seeing herself in fiction did sometimes make her wonder “‘How do they know that about me?’ It made me realise why I should write my own story.”

The legacy of Simard’s research is already extraordinary – both in influencing public policy, academic thinking and the public imagination. But maybe, with a Hollywood film in the works, it has only just begun.

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