Secrets of a tree whisperer: ‘They get along, they listen – they’re attuned’

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Suzanne Simard revolutionised the way we think about plants and fungi with the discovery of the woodwide web. The ecologist’s new book shares the wisdom of a life of listening to the forest

When Suzanne Simard made her extraordinary discovery – that trees could communicate and cooperate through subterranean networks of fungi – the scientific establishment underreacted. Even though her doctoral research was published in the Nature journal in 1997 – a coup for any scientist – the finding that trees are more altruistic than competitive was dismissed by many as if it were the delusion of an anthropomorphising hippy.

Today, at 60, she is professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia and her research of more than three decades as a “forest detective” is recognised worldwide. In her new book, Finding the Mother Tree – a scientific memoir as gripping as any HBO drama series – she wants it understood that her work has been no brief encounter: “I want people to know that what I’ve discovered has been about my whole life.” Her moment has come: research into forest ecosystems and mycorrhizal networks (those built of connections between plants and fungi) is now mainstream and there is a hunger for books related to the subject: Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees and Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life – about the hidden life of fungi – extend her thinking about the “woodwide web”, while the heroine of Richard Powers’s Pulitzer prize-winning 2018 novel The Overstory is said to have been inspired by Simard.

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