The scientist who has transformed our understanding of trees talks to Isabel Lloyd about the networks between living things, and why community is at the heart of the natural world and human society
Some people are never satisfied. Suzanne Simard certainly isn’t. An internationally renowned 61-year-old forest scientist from Canada, Simard’s experiments have pretty much single-handedly changed the way we think about trees. For her next trick? She wants to fix the world economy. “Pfft,” she says, with a shrug. “Just a small job.”
But let’s start with trees. We meet while Simard is in London promoting the paperback of Finding the Mother Tree, her highly praised memoir from last year. With endearing honesty and an acute ear for a metaphor, it traced Simard’s battle to prove that trees are not inert sticks of wood, but beings with agency, part of an active, supportive community that uses a “wood-wide web” of underground fungi to share both nutrients and information. Her work, and her life among the bears and huckleberry bushes of Canada’s backwoods, have infiltrated popular culture, inspiring, among other things, James Cameron’s Avatar and a central narrative in Richard Powers’ Pulitzer-winning The Overstory.