Review Science

Secrets of the Forest and a Life

About: Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree. Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, New York, Knopf

by Michel Gueldry , 19 October 2023

The current craze for trees and their capacity for mutual help owes much to Canadian forestry expert Suzanne Simard, whose book traces her professional and life journey.

This is a dense and bushy work (like the trees, of course), it is also rich, fragrant, and multilayered (like the humus that feeds trees). It could have been pruned but it deserves our patient exploration and its global success, as it brings so much to the readers if they are equipped with a good map for its many paths.

Indeed, Suzanne Simard (1960-), a forestry expert at the University of British Columbia, Canada, pursues several objectives here: she pays homage to her family of Western Canada, offers a memoir of her professional journey, and details her work procedures, hypotheses, and trials in the field and in labs. She also shares memories of many conversations and encounters, accounts for her struggle as a scientist and a woman in a long-hostile environment, and explains many telluric mysteries of the forests. Her internal dialogue tends to be repetitive; many conversations and memories feel like retrospective reconstructions, and she constantly meanders to move forward. However, this overflow is not dispersion because an underlying unity emerges: the author presents the sum of her life and her scientific findings through the dual prism of human and natural ecology. “The integration of many layers of life” is a key phrase that comes to mind here to describe her dual purpose. In effect, she articulates what Alexis Jenni (agrégation in natural sciences, and winner of the 2011 Goncourt Prize) calls a “common life” (2021) between humans and ecosystems, between the sociosphere and the ecosphere.

What seems like detours (her wedding ceremony) or pauses (her divorce, her cancer) in her flowing narrative are more like clearings emerging from the thickness of life, where more light shines through, due to clarifying challenges and the simplification of purpose and perception. As Jules Renard (1864-1910) said: “To think is to look for clearings in a forest” (“Penser, c’est chercher des clairières dans une forêt”). Deep emotions also bubble up when tragedy strikes (pp. 61-63), when her two daughters are born, when she defends her integrity against corporate suits and sexist male colleagues, or when cancer unsettles her more than the bears and wolves she encounters while trekking the woods.

The Fertile Soil: Family Heritage and Formative Years

To begin and to end in a natural life cycle (pp. 24-44 and again p. 308), she pays homage to her family of loggers in British Columbia. Her family is originally from Quebec, and one will enjoy the colorful and occasionally spicy Quebecois expressions that dot her prose. Their work and outdoors life were physically demanding but in harmony with their spectacular environment. The book is illustrated by numerous childhood and family photos and pictures of mushrooms and trees, suggesting parallels and connections between two different symbiotic communities. She was raised in the Monashee Mountains of British Columbia; she initially worked for the provincial Forest Service, and then obtained her doctorate in forest science from the University of Oregon. She speaks admirably of her mother, warmly of her colleagues and her predominantly female students, and her tone remains measured when speaking of stubborn forest managers or manipulative journalists (pp. 190-92). As she is now largely supported by the scientific community, as her work is widely recognized, she comes across as a learned and serene matriarch educating the world (Simard 2016). A large part of her book presents her hypotheses, methods, tests, failures, and repeats, reminding us that the scientific process is not linear; it is a work of patience, dead ends, returns and repeats. Her life pivoted for the better in August 1997 when the scientific journal Nature published her study of gas exchanges among trees and among different species of trees via the symbiosis between roots and fungi, the mycorrhizae (from the Greek μύκης - mýkēs, “fungus,” and ῥίζα - rhiza, “root”), these networks of underground veins, capillaries, and venules allowing for mutually beneficial relationships between individual trees and different species. Mycorrhizae can be generalist (connecting, for instance, birches and spruces) or serve a single species that may be seasonal or endemic, and it can operate continuously (year-round) or with the seasons, depending on the needs of the species they serve and benefit from. Simard proved that plantation rhizospheres (farmed trees) are poor in such webs of life, unlike old natural forests where “all the plans [...] belonged to one another” (p. 169).

Telluric Constellations

In 2015, the German forester Peter Wohlleben upended our conventional perception of trees with his book The Hidden Life of Trees. Invited in Paris to the literary show La Grande Librairie, he explained that trees are not inert things but living, relational organisms communicating with scents, micro-electric and chemical signals, and networks of fungal filaments. When one of them is attacked by, say, beetles (coleoptera), it releases distress chemical molecules that others receive to protect themselves from danger. Or to offer another of his stunning examples, healthy trees continue to nourish the stumps of trees felled decades or even centuries ago. Here, Simard shows that underground biochemistry connects trees that on the surface seem disconnected. The filamentous mycelium colonizes the roots of many plants and trees and forms such a dense network that kilometers of mycelium can grow under a single large tree. The fast metabolism of fungal filaments and their quick reaction time allow them to adapt more easily and quickly to changing conditions, therefore facilitating tree survival. Simard injected carbon isotopes into testing samplings of trees (both in the field and in greenhouses) to measure gas exchanges among individuals and species, especially birches, Douglas firs, and red cedars. It shows that birches receive more carbon from firs when they lose their leaves, while they feed firs that grow, or try to, in (sub-optimal) shady areas. These species and others exchange sugars, minerals, and other nutrients according to seasonal changes. All plants (except non-mycorrhizal farming species or those that are irrigated and fertilized) “require the help of fungi to soak up water and nutrients to survive” (p. 67).


The German forester speaks of “memory,” “lineage,” and “counting time” among trees and is thus accused of anthropocentrism. Simard combines an ecosystemic approach with an anthroporelativist approach as she opens up to ancestral wisdom. Her ecosystemic approach speaks of “nods” and “hubs” in a vital network, her personalized view of mother and father trees (p. 228). She maps out the exchange relationship among organisms and generations (pp. 221-29) but, curiously, does not speak of genealogical ties or “family trees.” Yet these distinctions become blurred when she identifies the existence of “mother[s] of Mother Trees” (p. 233) that foresters rightly call a “wolf tree” (p. 233). Over time, thanks to her growing professional reputation and the impact of cancer, she enjoys “the freedom to ask riskier questions” (p. 259) concerning “kin recognition” (p. 258) among Douglas firs. Here too, she demonstrates that connected trees receive more carbon, iron, copper, etc. than isolated ones (pp. 268-69). During her chemotherapy, she is well surrounded by women (men are rare in her close circle) so she emphasizes the need for connection and communication for health, and the wisdom of native peoples for healing through plants. She comes to affirm that mother trees “can truly nurture their offspring [...], recognize their kin and distinguish them from other families and different species” (p. 227). And when she speaks of “the wisdom long held by Aboriginal peoples the world over” (p. 280), she reminds us of another famous Anglo-Irish-Canadian master botanist, Diana Beresford-Kroeger, whose work combines modern science and the wisdom of indigenous peoples, in her case Celtic and Native American tribes (2019). Toward the end of her memoirs, then, Simard mobilizes the forest wisdom of Native Americans and, not surprisingly, Indian grandmothers. Modestly, she emphasizes that she only rediscovered what these tribes long knew and that modernity forgot: “[...] everything in the universe is connected” (p. 283, italics in the original), for example nitrogen coming from the remains of salmons devoured by bears and then metabolized by trees where bears drop the carcasses or where river currents take them (pp. 290-93).

Simard offers a form of biomorphism based on forest science, systemic (system-based) ecology, the modern scientific canon, and ancient natural wisdom. Here, Jacques Tassin, a noted researcher in plant ecology, proposes a middle ground when he explains that Thinking Like a Tree does not mean thinking like the trees would think (an anthropocentric analogy) but thinking “in the way trees are in the world,” that is to say, “incredibly present, incredibly interactive, incredibly partner-oriented with this flexibility, this capacity for adjustment, they take their time, they are into simplicity” (La Grande Librairie).

Being a Woman Scientist

In another pioneering feat, Simard was the first woman to work for a logging company and to repeatedly challenge their corporate views, and those of the provincial forest administration. Against such vested interests, she condemns the practice of “raking away the forest floor” (p. 134) and recommend leaving “these [industrial] plantations to grow with intact native plant communities” (p. 137). After a distinguished 40-year career, she even criticizes dominant scientific methods as too rigid (“Nature itself had blurred the rigidity of my experiment,” p. 285) not because she has a feminine or feminist conception of science, but because she has a scientific (integrative) view of science, whereas official science has long been shaped by males according to a masculine view of reality—and to serve industrial interests.

This reminds us of the epistemological revolution initiated by Rachel Carson in the 1960s against the Big Science orthodoxy protecting DDT (Paquot 2023). Faced with male resistance, Simard had to argue for the reality of climate change (p. 202) and suffered incidents of physical pressure (pp. 205-06). Therefore, she dismantles the “regime of truth” as Michel Foucault would say, the genderized, social, and institutional mechanisms for the production of truth within academe and the Forest Service—which earned her enemies. Simard is a feminist in the broad sense of the term through her struggles for truth against a male system that was fossilized and coopted by corporations, and for having raised her two daughters in the love for forests, science, effort, and physical energy. Her choice to reveal her life, her original shyness and reluctance toward public speaking, and her bisexuality (p. 262) is a form of holistic writing, a liberating model of doing and being.

She is also a feminist in the sense that she stresses the links between capitalistic violence against nature and European (and later, white Canadian) violence against American natives. She does not comment much, or directly, on patriarchal violence against women as the foundation of an unjust economic order, but her students, her friends, the company she keeps and most of her role models are overwhelmingly female. Toward the end of the volume (pp. 294-95), she calls on Western science to integrate Aboriginal wisdom, which complements her pragmatic ecofeminism. Her two struggles, scientific and social, are structurally linked. It is worth noting that in 1984 Wangari Muta Maathai, a biologist and political-ecologist activist from Kenya, received the Right Livelihood Ward, the alternative Nobel Prize, followed in 2004 by the Nobel Peace Prize, for her defense of women and trees in her native country. In 1977, basing herself on a women’s activist movement, she founded the Green Belt Movement to reverse deforestation, soil erosion, and the exploitation of villagers’ life sources, and to promote women’s rights, democracy, and the rule of law. In a similar vein, in 1973 the Chipko Adolan movement united women and children from the Indian state of Uttarakhand (in the foothills of the Himalayas) to assert that local social development can’t be separated from sound forest management (Guy 1982; Mies and Shiva 1993).

Rethinking the Four Natures

The expression “the four natures” refers to the evolution of our representations of nature and the relationship between the anthroposphere and ecosystems. The first nature is the original, pristine nature where homo sapiens lived in an unchanged world, subject to its possibilities and obligations, before any transformation. In De Natura Deorum (Of the Nature of the Gods, 45 before JC), Cicero (106-43 before JC) defines the second nature as the modification of the environment through agriculture and water engineering. The third nature, according to the Renaissance humanist Jacop Bonfadio (c. 1508-1550) consists of the numerous parks, gardens, and other natural pleasure places that aristocrats and wealthy patrons created for their enjoyment (Beck 2002). We now live in the fourth nature, which features mass agriculture, the industrialization of life, biotechnologies that manipulate genetic evolution itself, and climate change... Simard challenges the green revolution and intensive agriculture (a scorched earth policy through pesticides, fertilizers monoculture, and high-yield harvesting), these foundations of the fourth nature, and underlines the possibility of an alternative approach. She is in good company when she states that humans should learn from the rhythms, cycles, and patterns of nature. For instance, Tony Rinaudo, an Australian forest expert and the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award in 2018, published his autobiography The Underground Forests (2022) to underscore the regenerative capacity of trees. His revolution in reforestation techniques and farmer-manager natural regeneration was co-developed in Niger with his wife Liz and numerous local communities in the 1980s, to great success. He did not plant new trees but regenerated existing stumps, trees that were dormant underground but kept alive by collective underground networks where healthy living trees sustained them patiently (De Marco). His work demonstrates the potential for an integrative, non-mainstream science of underground constellations, in order to organize what Vandana Shiva calls Oneness vs the 1% (2020), that is to say humans united with nature against the plutocrats.

Therefore, Simard intends to redefine forest science because “the industry had declared war on those parts of the ecosystem [...] that were seen as competitors and parasites on cash crops” (p. 4). She proves that our sensory, conventional perception of trees as individual, separate, and vertical organisms reflects our ignorance born of our own isolation, it is but a projection of a misguided anthropocentrism, of our individualistic narcissism and our productivist economy. Trees are collective organisms; they are powerfully horizontal or to be more precise they are multidimensional and multidirectional, and in effect they form a world wood web.

Trees form a complex ecological system, in the sense that systems theory and scientific ecology give to these words. It is therefore necessary to extend Aldo Leopold’s famous expression (Think Like a Mountain, 1949) and to “think like a forest” (2020). Suzanne Simard proves that a forest is a coevolutionary process where “everything has a purpose” (p. 303). Coevolution means that trees are interconnected, that humans are linked to them and to ecosystems in general. Thus, as cooperation is “essential to evolution” (p. 61), her ecological perspective applied to forest science and human society has profound implications for our Anthropocene.

Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree. Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, New York, Knopf, 2021, xi-340 p.

by Michel Gueldry, 19 October 2023

Further reading

Work Cited
 Beck, Thomas E. “Gardens as a ‘Third Nature’: The Ancient Roots of a Renaissance Idea.” Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes. 22.4 (2002): 327-34.
 Beresford-Kroeger, Diana. To Speak for the Trees. My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest. Random House Canada, 2019.
 De Marco, Camillo. “Volker Schlöndorff, Réalisateur de The Forest Maker” April 5, 2022. <>.
 Guy, Barthelemy. Chipko. Sauver les forêts de l’Himalaya. L’Harmattan, 1982.
 Jenni, Alexis. Parmi les arbres. Essai de vie commune. Actes Sud, 2021.
 Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanach. Oxford UP, 2020 [1949].
Mies, Maria and Vandana Shiva. Ecofeminism Zed Books, 2014 [1993].
 Paquot, Thierry. Rachel Carson. Pour la beauté du monde. Calype, 2023.
 Rinaudo, Tony. The Forest Underground. Hope for a Planet in Crisis. Iscasts, 2022.
— -. Interview with Michael Messenger, 2022. <> .
Shiva, Vandana and Kartikey Shiva. Oneness vs. the 1%. Shattering Illusions, Seeding Freedom. Chelsea Gren, 2020 [2018].
 Simard, Suzanne. Ted Talk August 20, 2106. “How Trees Talk to each Other.” <> .
 Tassin, Jacques. Penser comme un arbre. Odile Jacob, 2018.
— -. “ ‘Penser comme un arbre’, la proposition de Jacques Tassin”. La Grande Librairie. May 4, 2018. <> .
Wohlleben, Peter. Das geheime Leben des Bäume. Was sie fühlen, wie sie kommunizieren. Die Entdeckung eines verborgenen. Ludwig Verlag, 2015.
— -. “La vie secrète des arbres”, La Grande Librairie. December 15, 2017. <> .

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Michel Gueldry, « Secrets of the Forest and a Life », Books and Ideas , 19 October 2023. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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