In Finding the Mother Tree (Knopf, May.), forest ecology professor Simard shares her life story and her revolutionary discoveries about plant communication.
What’s surprised you the most about how your life has turned out?
I was just a nobody kid. I was so shy and introverted, I was cast as the cat in a school play because it had no words to say. I could barely speak. I had to grow up and become a whole person, so to look at where I am now versus that kid is shocking. There was no expectation, even on my part, that I would do anything of importance. I also didn’t realize how important spending so much time in the forest would be to my work as a scientist. I would never have asked the questions I asked if I hadn’t had that background.
What stands out to you as the most amazing thing you found in your research?
When I first made the discovery that plants were connecting and sending resources back and forth. I remember being in the lab and analyzing the data, and these patterns just popped out at me. The more that a tree was shaded, the more carbon went over to the shaded tree from a tree that wasn’t—that’s when I realized that our whole idea about competition, this neo-Darwinian view of nature as this combat zone, I knew it was wrong. That was a huge moment.
How did that find compare with what you’d been taught about competition in the forest?
When I started out working as a forester, that’s not how I was taught. In university, that’s not how I was taught forestry was practiced. Instead, it was that the trees were all separate and competing—just individuals trying to be the best and the most dominant.
Does your research have implications for other branches of science?
I’ve had people come to talk to me from all kinds of disciplines, because they see similar connections in their fields. Cancer researchers are super interested in my work; I went to speak to a group of them who were looking at cell-to-cell communication, cancer cells to healthy cells, who wanted to know how that might relate to how a fungus communicates with a plant cell. People are seeing these parallels—not just medical researchers, but also in fields like architecture. These findings I’ve made have captured people’s imaginations, and they’re seeing the transdisciplinary parts of it.