‘Highly Intelligent’: A Forestry Scientist’s Journey of Discovering How Trees Communicate

Suzanne Simard’s memoir, ‘Finding the Mother Tree,’ is being adapted into a feature film
June 7, 2021 Updated: June 11, 2021

Suzanne Simard discovered a fascinating fact about trees: They communicate and interact with each other using below-ground fungal networks, what she calls biological pathways. Not only that, she found that trees also have cognitive capabilities in terms of perception, learning, and memory.

Simard’s research led to the recognition that forests have hub trees, or “mother trees”—big, old trees that play an important role in flow of information and resources in a forest.

“Trees don’t have brains, they don’t have nervous systems, but they have these structures and these highly evolved patterns of how their bodies are built that are so similar to humans and animals that they have the hallmarks of intelligence,” Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia, told The Epoch Times.

Simard became interested in the workings of trees and forests as a child in B.C., where her grandfather was a horse logger and did forestry work with horses. She went on to become a pioneer in plant communication and intelligence.

She established the Mother Tree Project in 2015, created to study the connections and communication between Douglas fir “mother trees” and their seedlings.

“I designed these sorts of forestry practices that are based on the … idea that all trees are connected in the forest, and that big old trees are really important in the regeneration of the forest, in how the carbon is stored in biodiversity,” she said.

“We’re testing all these different ways of retaining old mother trees to help the forest be resilient.”

Simard and roughly 30 of her graduate students have been expanding the initial research to forests in British Columbia, Alaska, and Chile.

She explains that the old trees around the world build mutually dependent associations with fungus or groups of fungi, known as mycorrhiza, literally “fungus root.” With the help of these mycorrhizal fungi that facilitate inter-tree communication, these big trees are able to pass danger signals, manage resources, and regenerate the forest.

While noting that forest systems have “very similar patterns that we have in our own bodies,” Simard said she has to be careful how she describes her findings in relation to humans in order to avoid “science taboos” or accusations of anthropomorphizing.

“I think that in some ways, our strictness about that has led us to be blind in certain ways. It’s blindfolded us to what plants and trees are and [what] forests are capable of,” she said.

“But that aside, what words are we going to use to describe this incredible ability for forests to respond and adapt and perceive and change and learn, and record memories in their rings and their seeds? … I think that’s highly intelligent, that’s highly evolved.”

Epoch Times Photo
Cover of Suzanne Simard’s recently released memoir. (Mother Tree Project)

Last month, Simard released her first book, a memoir titled “Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest,” and there are plans afoot to adapt it to a feature film.

The film will be developed and produced by Bond Group Entertainment, which is co-founded by American actress Amy Adams, who will play the part of Simard. It’ll be co-produced by actor Jake Gyllenhaal’s company Nine Stories Productions.

Simard says she hopes the film will raise awareness about the “tragic exploitation of forests,” particularly in her home province.

“What I’ve seen, as I’ve grown up in this province of B.C., is it has gone from a province of old-growth forests to a province of clearcuts,” she said.

“We depend on these forests for water, for biodiversity, for carbon storage. Our lives depend on healthy forests in so many ways, and I don’t think people really realize that, and it’s too easy to ignore this tragedy that’s happening in our forests.

“I think that that will be one of the key messages that come out [of the film]: to love the forest, and to protect it against needless exploitation.”