Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Suzanne Simard Changed How the World Sees Trees

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Robert Moor writes in New York:

Suzanne Simard has given her life to the study of trees. She sweated for them. Bled for them. Damn near died for them — once at the claws of a grizzly, and once from the invisible clutch of cancer. (Working with toxic herbicides and radioactive isotopes in the course of her research likely contributed to her breast cancer, which resulted in a double mastectomy.) But Simard’s sacrifices as a forest ecologist have paid off. Her work with herbicides uncovered the fact that denuding tree farms doesn’t help them grow faster — a finding that overturned the forestry industry’s prevailing logic for half a century. Later, upending basic Darwinian logic, she showed conclusively that different trees — and even different tree species — are involved in a constant exchange of resources and information via underground fungal networks, known technically as mycorrhizae and popularly as the Wood Wide Web.

Her long fight against the twin patriarchies of the logging industry and the scientific Establishment has yielded startling discoveries about tree sociality — and even, some believe, about tree sentience. Now Simard, a professor at the University of British Columbia, has published a memoir, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest — which is being adapted into a film, with Amy Adams set to star. We spoke recently about what studying trees has taught her about how to live in our increasingly tenuous world, and how forests can help fix our compounding problems.

Do you feel that being a woman in a male-dominated field has given you any special insights into the workings of the plant world?
For sure. I was always on the outside, because it was a man’s world. Women weren’t allowed into forestry until my generation. The whole perspective on forests was all from this one-gendered perspective. It very much focused on competition and dominance. When I came in, saying, “What about the collaborative things going on?” — I don’t think that my male colleagues would have asked those questions. I did learn from them, of course, and they started looking at collaboration too, well before me. But I was the one who took it further and fought the industry.

Your book is full of harrowing stories about your adventures working in the forestry industry, deep in the mountains, being chased by grizzlies and scrambling up trees. But to me, perhaps the scariest thing was the state of forestry back then. What kinds of practices were you witnessing?
I would say that the state of forestry is even worse now. But back then, for me, it was a shock, because I came from a family where we were horse-logging and selective logging, and suddenly I’m working in an industry where it was all clear-cutting and replanting monocultures. I really loved the work, and I try to convey that in the book. I loved being in the old-growth forest, even though I was laying out clear-cuts and roads, because I was so free, and I was doing this dangerous work among grizzlies. But at the same time that I had this love affair with the job, I also saw the devastation that it was wreaking.

You describe how logging companies will fly around in helicopters and spray their clearcuts with Roundup to kill off undergrowth, believing that this will get rid of “competition” and make their tree farms grow faster. But you started to discover that it doesn’t really have the intended effect.
I got a position with Canada’s minister of forests as a research silviculturist, and my job was to research how to regrow these plantations. They had adopted these policies and practices from the U.S., where it was a war on the forest, clear-cutting like crazy and applying multiple layers of herbicides. I did all this research on what the impact of that practice was on different kinds of plant communities. In almost all cases, it made no difference in how fast the trees grew. They grew the same, but the biodiversity was lower. Now, there were some forest types where it did improve growth. But it also caused survival rates to go down, because the trees were getting infected with pathogens and insect infestations. I did this work for like 11 or 12 years, and I published it all, and I’m just going, “The evidence is not there for what we’re doing!” It was making the forest worse. And yet they’ve actually hung onto those policies.

How does it feel, to have your work ignored?
I’m not the only scientist who gets ignored, so that’s okay. These policies get entrenched, and people feel like that policy is their life’s work, so as long as those people are in place, they will protect it to their death. Then, as the policy is in place for longer and longer, there’s a whole industry that evolves around supporting that work — the herbicide industry and the brush-clearing industry and the growing-fast-trees industry. The momentum starts, and once that whole thing gets going, it’s really hard to change.

In the book you describe standing in tree plantations, looking at rows of trees, and a lot of them don’t look healthy. And then you look just off to the side, where there’s a wild forest with a mix of species, and they seem to be doing quite well. It seems like the whole of your career is an investigation of that mystery: Why is it that those trees over there are doing better than the trees on the plantation?
When I started my Ph.D., I learned about this work in the U.K. by David Read, where he had grown pines in root boxes in the lab, and found they connected together; he labeled one pine with carbon-14 and saw it move into another pine. I wanted to find out if that was partly what was going on in my forest. I ended up discovering that the mycorrhizae are really what links the plant with the soil. They were the conduit from the photosynthetic machinery into the soil, which drove everything, all the cycles.

At first people were resistant to the idea that one tree species would be helping another. But that’s precisely what you found.

Yeah, in fact, in that little system that I was working in, with birch, fir, and cedar, the more the birch shaded the fir, the more the birch shared its resources with the fir. That upended our notion that birch was just this competitor; it was actually collaborating. And the system was fluid, so later, when the birch needed resources, the fir would provide it. The upshot of this was that  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2021 at 10:52 am

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