In her scientific memoir, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, forestry researcher Suzanne Simard gracefully intertwines her private and professional lives. As a child, she learned the rough-and-ready ways of her logging ancestors and developed a deep devotion and commitment to forests. As a researcher, she pressed colleagues to look beyond the superficial, above-ground perception that forests are merely collections of individual trees.
In a series of innovative, years-long field experiments, she discovered and documented a below-ground world where trees share resources and information through intricate webs of fungal conduits. These networks link not only kin but also members of different species into a richly interwoven biological community. In her book, Simard details a deep cooperation in the forests that transcends life’s kingdoms and challenges the idea that competition between individuals is the sole driver of evolution.
For her inspiring and illuminating writing, she will be presented with the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science at The Rockefeller University on April 17. Named after its first recipient, noted physician-scientist and essayist Lewis Thomas, the prize was established in 1993 by Rockefeller’s Board of Trustees.
“By challenging entrenched beliefs with imaginative experiments, Suzanne Simard has overturned the idea that competition alone drives survival of trees in the wild,” says Jesse H. Ausubel, chair of the selection committee. “She has dedicated herself to understanding how trees support one another, and her work has not only established a new line of inquiry, but has also pointed toward improved management practices that promise to ensure long-term forest health. Relentlessly challenging the status quo at significant personal cost, Simard bravely contradicted long-held beliefs in a male-dominated field that did not welcome this young woman with her unorthodox ideas.”
Simard persevered through a battle with cancer, which coincided with the discovery that dying trees give what they can – in their case, generous quantities of carbon – to their neighbors in the forest community. She has drawn special attention to so-called Mother trees, the oldest, most abundantly connected individuals, which play indispensable roles in nurturing seedlings and helping forests heal after disturbances.
Simard majored in forest management at the University of British Columbia (UBC), with her summers spent working for a logging company and the Forest Service. During that time, she began to question standard forestry practices, which were based on the belief that individual trees vie with one another for resources. Silviculturists cleared swatches of vegetation and then planted monocultures of commercially profitable trees, but Simard knew that this approach was not sustainable. Forests are interlaced communities of diverse organisms, not patchworks of single-species ghettos. Furthermore, she had a growing suspicion that an underground fungal web might be essential for arboreal health.
To probe her ideas, she embarked on a research career. Her Ph.D. thesis at Oregon State University upended the notion that trees simply hoard carbon, and it was the first in a series of reports that demonstrated the importance of mycorrhizal connections to forest health. These intricate plant-fungus networks transfer resources and chemical signals. “Mother trees” function as hubs, playing crucial roles in connecting the forest.
In 2002, Simard joined the Faculty of Forestry at UBC, where she is now a professor of forest ecology, leading The Mother Tree Project. This multisite experiment in British Columbia aims to guide renewal practices that support forest resilience as the climate changes. She is also part of the burgeoning movement called the Mother Tree Network.
Simard has earned a global reputation for pioneering research on tree connectivity and communication, studies that hold significance for the long-term productivity, health, and biodiversity of forests. She has published more than 200 scientific peer-reviewed articles, including in Nature, Ecology, and Global Change Biology, and co-authored the book Climate Change and Variability.
Recipients of the Lewis Thomas Prize in recent years include social psychologist Jennifer L. Eberhardt, ornithologist Richard Prum, physician Siddhartha Mukherjee, astrophysicist Kip Thorne, oceanographer Sylvia Earle, and mathematicians Steven Strogatz and Ian Stewart.
Register for the 2023 Lewis Thomas Prize presentation and discussion here.