The Woman Who Looked at a Forest and Saw a Community

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Simard assumed that her data would speak for itself, and only when it became clear that her results would not shift policy did she become a vocal advocate. The forests — and our futures — were too important for her to stay silent.

Sensing she’d reached a dead end working for the Forest Service, Simard transitioned to academia, where, ever since, she’s had the freedom to pursue her investigations, allowing her research questions to further evolve and recruit graduate students to help answer them. Her work is now influencing forestry policy on a provincial level and guiding scientific discourse around the world.

Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” promoted many of the same concepts as Simard does here. However, Wohlleben was met with considerable criticism from the scientific community for drawing conclusions beyond what the data showed. His facts were blended with supposition. Simard does not make the same mistake. For example, she describes how her family and community coalesce in times of joy and tragedy, and she suggests that forest communities can do the same by sharing resources in times of stress. But her arguments are buoyed by rigorous, decades-spanning research.

Simard can confidently write that “the trees were connected, cooperating” by pointing to charts of two-way carbon flow between paper birch and Douglas fir, then explaining the significance of these elemental transfers. Birch can provide fir with enough carbon to actually make seeds and reproduce, and the amount transferred depends on access to light. That is, a birch doles out resources based on need, not as a single, one-size-fits-all fire hose stream. The more shade a birch casts over a fir, the more carbon is transferred to it to help it survive. Later, once the fir outgrows the birch and shades it, the energy flow is reversed.

Simard explains in clear language what the implications of these findings are, an important next step often lacking in the work of other scientists who try to share their ideas with a wider public. Investing in dynamic systems will result in healthier forests and sustainable forestry, she says. “It means expanding our modern ways, our epistemology and scientific methodologies, so that they complement, build on and align with Aboriginal roots.” Protecting the Mother Trees is of pinnacle importance to her.

“Elders that survived climate changes in the past ought to be kept around because they can spread their seed into the disturbed areas and pass their genes and energy and resilience into the future,” she writes. “When Mother Trees — the majestic hubs at the center of forest communication, protection and sentience — die, they pass their wisdom to their kin, generation after generation, sharing the knowledge of what helps and what harms, who is friend or foe, and how to adapt and survive in an ever-changing landscape. It’s what all parents do.”

For Simard, revitalizing synergies in the forest while meeting the needs of humans is more than a job. It is a calling as grand as the subjects of her book: to be a Mother Tree herself.

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