Nature’s Internet: How Trees Talk to Each Other in a Healthy Forest: Suzanne Simard at TEDxSeattle (Transcript)

Suzanne Simard

Suzanne Simard – TRANSCRIPT

The Coast Salish people say, “We are one.” For thousands of years they lived it. But we didn’t pay any attention. Most of us have forgotten that we’re connected to each other, and to nature, that we are one. But nature is not some separate thing, but an intimate part of us. And what we do on this Earth ripples through our ecosystems, our web of connections.

Now, the signs are undeniable: climate change, species extinctions, human suffering. We have forgotten. But for their faith, the people are connected through spirit to forests, and oceans and rivers and bears and salmon, the Coast Salish people were ignored. But truly, it does come down to a matter of faith, to trust and respect the relationships that make up the complexity of nature. But we said that’s unscientific. Western science requires exact measurements, visible proof, statistics. But make no mistake, the Coast Salish people were deeply scientific. How else could they have lived here for over 10,000 years in such prosperity?

In fact, they were more scientific than we. For us to look any deeper, that would have hampered progress. “There are trees in those forests, and our buildings need wood, and our printers need paper. We need to cut down the forests and replant those trees.” Now, how do I fit into this? Well, I come from a family of loggers. And while my family was up on the mountainsides cutting down trees, one here, one there, I was playing in the forest below, in the places that are seen and unseen, in the trees and the logs and the forest floor. And I believed that fairies lived there. And their job was to live in and protect the forest, just like my job. But the fairies couldn’t save that forest, and neither could I; actually, nobody could. Because the owner of the patch had to cut it down to feed his family. And that moment changed me forever. Actually, it motivated me.

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And I went to school to study forestry. I wanted to understand the mystery of why forests felt so powerful to me. I wanted to save forests. Ironically though, the first job I got coming out of forestry school was to mark old growth trees for clearcutting, and then to replant those clearcuts with fast-growing firs and pines, and to weed out the unwanted species – the alders, the birches, the aspens. And you know what? Well, it’s because we considered them competitors, interfering with our profits. And I got pretty good at creating these shiny new monocultures. But you know, the questions kept piling up. Why was disease spreading through these plantations? Why was cutting out birch making the fir so sick?

And I was also increasingly worried about the increasing rate of clearcutting. You see, I’d learned in school that about a century ago, that in Canada, in British Columbia, they developed this cutting plan to cut down all of the old growth trees in the working forest. I knew about it, I’d learned it in school. But it took me a long time to realize that the cutting was not going to stop. Nor the attitude that we could convert these old growth forests into nice marketable, neat plantations. It seemed to me that there was more to the forest than meets the eye. So, I returned to graduate school and I became fascinated with the underground, I wanted to understand the mystery of why these old growth forests were so powerful.

So, I looked at this UK study, and they were examining seedlings growing in the laboratory, and colonized them with this fungus, a mycorrhizal fungus. The fungus connected the seedlings in a web, and they transmitted carbon from one seedling to the other. A mycorrhiza is literally a fungus-root. In this symbiotic association the fungus grows through the soil picking up nutrients and water, and bringing them back to the plant, and trading them for photosynthetic carbon. It’s a symbiotic, mutualistic, reciprocal relationship. And most fascinating to me, these fungi could connect plants below ground.

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