Changemakers Speaker Series: Suzanne Simard and The Mother Tree

A woman smiles upwards towards a camera with a forested background.

Royal Roads University’s Changemakers Speakers Series is an appropriate venue for Suzanne Simard because the UBC professor’s research has helped change generations of thinking about trees and forest ecosystems.

Rather than trees existing as independent entities competing with one another for sunshine and water from the sky above and nutrients from the soil below, Simard’s research has shown forests are complex societies in which trees mediate resources amongst themselves, and learn and adapt, much like humans do.

It’s that interconnectedness of trees — and her journey to discover it — that will be at the core of her sold-out talk March 1 at the Victoria Conference Centre (you can join the ticket waitlist), titled Finding the Mother Tree, which is also the name of her bestselling book.

That book is subtitled “Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest” and Simard, a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia and leader of The Mother Tree Project — which researches forest renewal practices that protect biodiversity and carbon pools against climate change — discovered hers at the intersection of Western and Indigenous science.

The Western approach, she says, looks at forest ecology as parts to be managed. But as an ecologist who worked as a forester, she believed that approach was devastating to ecosystems.

“When I started working with my Indigenous colleagues, I realized that they had this worldview that everything is connected, and their stewardship practices protected the relationships and the forest and the connections,” Simard says, noting that this approach meshed with her own.

“I said, ‘OK, this is where I belong, this is where my work belongs.’ So, I’ve been working with braided knowledge with [First] Nations for the last decade.”

Just as she has learned that trees interact and communicate using below-ground fungal networks, she believes collaborations between scientists, foresters and Indigenous Peoples can bring a transformation to the practice and business of forestry.

“We have formed The Mother Tree Network, a collaboration of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scientists, artists and geographers, where we are encouraging a transition from an extractive to well-being economy that cares for the forests,” Simard says. “Now, we’re getting noticed by the traditional foresters because they’re coming to the realization that we’re in the middle of this great transformation, that we have to transform forest practices.”

That transformation requires bringing together government, policy makers, forestry managers, ecologists and Indigenous people, she says, and demands that forestry management be local, place-based and decentralized.

It also demands a focus on climate change and the new carbon economy, and a move away from exploitation of forests — instead of cutting them down, we need to tend them and take only what we need, and we need to consider carbon emissions at every step of the process, including emissions from wildfires.

“We have a lot of work to do,” she says. “One step is to stop old growth [harvesting], another is to shift any harvest to second-growth, where you can take out small trees in order to enhance biodiversity and make value-added wood products.”

All of which is built into her emphasis on the critical need to rethink our relationship with our natural world so we can begin to slow climate change.

“I never get discouraged,” she says. “I always keep my main goal in mind, which is the land, the forest, the people, and we’re all in this big circle, we all are interdependent. And if we want our kids to have a future, we need to keep working on this.”

RRU’s Changemakers Speakers Series explores the complex challenges facing humanity and innovative ideas about how we might solve them. You can learn more about the series and join the ticket waitlist.


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