When Suzanne Simard was a child, she would eat humus — the sweet layer of topsoil that most of us leave underfoot. “I was always putting dirt in my mouth,” she says. “It just became part of who I was.” It didn’t do her much harm. “It’s actually good for kids because it builds their immune systems.”

Born into a family of Canadian loggers, Simard grew up with the forest. Over a 40-year career, she has reshaped our view of it. She was alarmed by how plantations of Douglas fir were failing in British Columbia, then pieced together why. Now one of the world’s leading forest ecologists, she has shown in her work that different species of tree don’t just compete for resources, but rely on each other and on networks of fungi for nutrients and warning signals.

Others could not see the forest for the timber. But Simard saw the forest, the trees, the fungi and more. She saw that each part created a “wood wide web”. She was the basis for the nonconforming scientist in Richard Powers’ Pulitzer-winning novel The Overstory. Naturally shy, gently otherworldly, the 61-year-old has done for trees something akin to what Jane Goodall once did for chimpanzees — making them seem more like us, more worthy of respect. And while some people find solitude among the trees, she finds company: “It is never a quiet place, it’s never alone, it’s always regenerating and that’s the beauty.”

We are meeting in London’s Holland Park, close in location to oligarchs, close in intention to woodland. Simard stops and places her hand on a tree. “I walk through old forests at home every day, and I walk by the trees that I know so well, and I go up to the trees and smell them. If it’s a hot sunny day, the bark smells like vanilla, and I ask, ‘How are you doing, and what do you think today?’ Or I’ll say, ‘I hope I’m helping.’”

If this sounds excessive, it appreciates trees’ complexity. Would a tree notice us walking past? She insists it would. “If I clip the needles off a tree, or a caterpillar chews the needles off a tree, they respond differently. They’re so perceptive of what’s going on around them that it seems ridiculous to me that you would think otherwise.” She has faced down the sceptics already. “People were laughing at poor Prince Charles because he was talking to his plants. When I was doing my work in the early 1990s, I got laughed out of the room.”

But just as Goodall’s fame has not stopped chimps from veering towards extinction, so Simard’s work is yet to protect the forests. In her native British Columbia, she laments that only 3 per cent of the original, iconic, old-growth forests remain — some of these natural “cathedrals” cut down to make toilet paper and cardboard boxes. Chainsaws and climate change loom, from the Amazon to Alaska. Parts of the Arctic have been 30C warmer than the historic average. Trees find their natural habitats shifting hundreds of metres a year; they can’t spread northwards and uphill fast enough to keep up.

The work of restoring the land, and of helping species to migrate, awaits us. Changing how we think about trees is only half the battle. Simard wants to reshape how we treat them, now. “We’re so busy with all this other world of, you know, busyness that we’re not paying attention to our ecosystems. But we can do that. It’s quickly going to become our priority.”

We leave the park and duck into a neighbourhood bistro. I joke that, if scientists ever find evidence that plants experience pain, vegans like me could end up very hungry. “You can totally eat trees and plants,” Simard reassures me, laughing. “They’re depending on you! And they love disturbance.” We order salads, followed by different versions of pumpkin risotto. I should have guessed that my fungi-researching guest would ask for shavings of Périgord truffle.

In her memoir Finding the Mother Tree, Simard depicts scientific discovery not as an abstract process, but the product of imperfect human decisions — including how children are raised, who gets research funding, and what sacrifices academics make for their work. Her own personal and professional lives have dovetailed.

Her interest in the soil was sparked when the family dog fell into the outhouse and had to be dug free, revealing to her the layers of the underworld. The Simards were already enmeshed with the terrain: her great-grandparents cleared First Nations land to grow hay and tend cattle. Her grandfather and uncles logged the forests, rolling trunks downriver and losing fingers in the process.

Yet by the time Simard joined the (very male) logging industry in the 1970s, things had changed. Selective harvesting had given way to industrial clear-cutting. The bare ground was planted with a single species of tree. Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup was used to kill native seedlings: the theory was that they would otherwise crowd out the commercially prized ones. In fact, planting single species “strips the trees of all their companions that they need to do other jobs”, Simard says.

Suzanne Simard in Stanley Park in Vancouver © Diana Markosian/Magnum Photos

She noticed that healthy fir trees had fungal threads on their roots, but those in struggling plantations didn’t. After reading up, she realised these mycorrhizal fungi were essential for the trees to gather nutrients, but had been obliterated by forestry techniques. Initially she tried to convince the industry from within to temper clear-cutting. Rejected, she went to the forest service instead. There she showed that Roundup killed the fungi that seedlings needed, and left monocultures that were vulnerable to pathogens.

Her breakthrough paper, published in Nature in 1997, proved that paper birch and Douglas fir were exchanging carbon through the soil (as part of this, her team sealed a bag over a birch seedling, pumped in radioactive carbon isotopes, then used a Geiger counter to detect carbon transferred to nearby leaves). Such interspecies sharing had previously only been shown in a lab.

In 2002, after state politics lurched right, Simard jumped from the forest service to academia before she was pushed. Her students have identified reciprocity among various tree species. “Diversity really does make a healthier ecosystem,” she says. 

Her findings seem un-Darwinian. Are they compatible with species evolving for self-interest? “I think so,” she says, her voice soft as snowfall. “The part of Darwin’s theory that got popularised in the late 1800s was that competition was the main process that natural selection occurred by. But he also talked in his writings about the other ways that plants co-operate and collaborate.” Collaboration is “as important, if not more important” in the development of ecosystems.

The wine arrives for Simard to taste. “That’s delicious. I’ll try not to drink the whole thing,” she says, putting her sharing ethos in practice.

Simard’s later work has found that the biggest, oldest trees in the forest — the ones prized by loggers — play a key role in nourishing young seedlings. She calls these trees, which are often connected by fungi to hundreds of others, “mother trees”. (Technically each fir is both mother and father, but to her, mother of two girls, it felt like mothering.) The old trees even channel more resources to their own seedlings, especially when they are sick. “It really is the trees recognising their offspring,” she says.

Questions remain about the underground transfers. One is whether fungi could be almost manipulating the trees. Some criticise the term “wood wide web” for making the fungi seem like passive cables. “When I explain things, I try to simplify — ‘think of it like a telephone line.’ But it’s much more complex than that.” Yet if the fungi were in complete control, why would trees shuttle more resources to their own kin seedlings?

Six Portland Road

Holland Park, London, W11 4LA

Carafe of Mâcon-Pierreclos, Marc Jambon, Burgundy £30
Salad of lettuces and herbs x 2 £16
Pumpkin and sage risotto £23
Truffle supplement £5
Chef’s vegan main £23
Cardamom chocolate pot £8
Basil sorbet with vegan meringue £7
Total (inc service) £126

We chew through delightful salads, strewn with hazelnuts and pink flowers. While Simard eulogises trees’ mothering, her own efforts to balance research and family were beyond stressful. She worked unworkable hours and tried an absurd commute. A decade ago, after years of strain, she split from her husband. “I often think, what would I have changed? The hard part was choosing between my work and staying at home with my kids. It was like an impossible choice.” Her work was for her children. “My guiding light is to protect the Earth so that we can protect our kids.” One of her daughters said she understood her mother’s choices after attending her university forestry classes.

Professionally, Simard’s frustration was that policymakers long remained deaf to her groundbreaking findings. “There’s still a lot of clinging to the past.” Even some colleagues at the University of British Columbia downplayed her work; she felt “terrible”. She was more diffident than her critics. “I’m not an alpha anything! I’m talking a lot today but normally I’m quite shy.” But she kept on: “I’d spent my whole life in these forests, and I knew that I understood them.”

Many environmental researchers undergo a paradox: the more peer-reviewed science they do, the more respect they have for the knowledge that predates western science. For Simard, indigenous people’s forest management — selective harvesting, controlled burns, an appreciation of the forest as a diverse community — is far wiser than western profit maximisation. Simard’s First Nation friends “have whole words that describe how trees communicate and feel”, which capture non-animal perception better than English can.

Simard pushes back at the pandemic cliché of following the science. “Science is limited. The idea that we can be so objective — there’s a lot of mystery around these answers that we’ll never figure out [so] we have social intuition, social understanding.” But forestry policies ignore both science and social intuition, and instead favour special interests.

Exhibit A: British Columbia’s forests are being turned into wood pellets, shipped to Europe and burnt as a supposedly green alternative to fossil fuels. “It’s even more outrageous than you think,” says Simard, pointing to how governments subsidise this. (Drax, which burns American and Canadian wood pellets in Yorkshire, last year received £893mn in UK subsidies.)

Exhibit B is our relentless demand. “We destroy the ecosystem to make shit we don’t need. Amazon — they’re shipping shit all over the world in boxes made from old growth forest.” (Amazon, which encourages but doesn’t require suppliers to reduce virgin forest products, declined to comment.) British Columbia’s forests, like part of the Amazon, now emit more carbon than they absorb.

Policies are “corrupted”, yet at her university faculty, “there’s only a couple of us that speak out, because everybody’s so worried that they might taint their science. They’re afraid of ridicule, losing their funding. Sometimes you have to be a little bit courageous.”

After protests in 2020, which Simard supported, the authorities proposed limits on logging, but First Nations must still navigate bureaucracy to opt in. Many indigenous communities lack other economic options; some have taken on debt to invest in forestry. “It’s not nearly sorted,” says Simard. She wants a moratorium on logging old-growth forests worldwide, with possible exceptions where indigenous people request it. Ultimately, just as forests rely on mother trees, she believes societies will be saved by good leaders.

Simard declares her food “fantastic”; I pick off the salty, crisp vegetables around my plate. Simard is focused on applying her ideas. Her Mother Tree Project is looking at the best mix of harvesting and planting. Simard knows that single-species plantations are not the answer. “Half of those trees are dying. In one study, we found 50 different infections.” She argues that logging must do away with big machines. In northern forests, “half of the carbon is below ground, and about half of that is in the forest floor. Machines plough it up. It gets put in piles and burnt, or it decays. So we’re ending up losing this huge storage of carbon. It took thousands of years to build that up.” One alternative is to do more by hand. “We’ve got so many unemployed people, what a wonderful job to be a craftsman of the forest.”

One of Simard’s gifts is to coat her rage with optimism. She applauds those, like the singer Ed Sheeran, who want to rewild as much land as possible. Her research shows that forests will regenerate, and spread, more readily in areas where “mother trees” are left standing. “The forest is a self-organising system. You don’t have to do everything for it. If we move the energy source, which is trees, the other stuff will come along. And we might have to move a few other species. We’ll have to figure certain things out.”

Yet one in three of the world’s tree species are threatened with extinction; 142 are already extinct in the wild. Can our actions possibly be enough? “I was born in 1961. Where I lived it was covered in old-growth forests. Now I live in a province of clear-cuts. . . It will massively change again. There’s going to be huge catastrophic shifts, but people are going to survive, there’s going to be a ton of suffering . . . There’ll be whole novel ecosystems that we can’t even imagine.”

There’s a consolation in working with beings that live for hundreds, even thousands, of years. “We’re like a little blip,” says Simard. One of her students, Amanda Asay, died in a skiing accident in January, aged 33. The tragedy scars, yet Simard takes heart from “all the little trees that she planted, they’ll still be there . . . Amanda’s life was so short, and ours are too”. When Simard herself was treated for cancer (possibly brought on by her work with radiation), her radiotherapy included a drug derived from the Pacific yew tree. It comforted her.

The waiter offers dessert. “Do we have time?” Simard asks. She orders a chocolate pot, and I have a basil sorbet. Sceptics wonder if Simard anthropomorphises trees. I ask her what distinguishes humans from trees. “I don’t know, honestly. This is the hardest question for me to answer. They have lots of perceptive ability. There’s a cascade of biochemical responses that are instant. It’s not that different from me getting angry because someone didn’t bring me the right dessert. To me, it’s like, what’s the difference?”

I order Simard a car to her next meeting, warning her that my Uber rating is not great. “What does that mean?” she asks, and I explain the ruthlessness of ride-hailing. In the lull that follows, I mention that the last Canadian I interviewed was Jordan Peterson. “OK,” she says. “I don’t know who he is.” After she leaves, I think how nice it’d be to know more of the things that she knows, and less of the things she doesn’t. I pour myself the last of the wine, but I wish I was a child eating humus instead.

Henry Mance is the FT’s chief features writer

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