Ecologist Suzanne Simard's ‘Mother Tree’ Is Getting a Hollywood Makeover

The best-selling book is coming to the big screen.

Suzanne Simard
Suzanne Simard.

Ryan Lash / TED / Flickr

A new memoir of personal discovery and scientific exploration by a famed forest ecologist is branching out to the big screen. 

Actors Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, through their respective production companies Bond Group Entertainment and Nine Stories, have secured the film rights to Suzanne Simard’s “Finding the Mother Tree.” The recently published book, already a NY Times best-seller, offers fascinating research into how trees and forests communicate and cooperate. Interconnected with the science are insights into Simard’s own career and personal life that helped shape her approach to conservation and discovery.

“Working to solve the mysteries of what made the forests tick, and how they are linked to the earth and fire and water, made me a scientist,” Simard writes in her book. “I watched the forest, and I listened. I followed where my curiosity led me, I listened to the stories of my family and people, and I learned from the scholars. Step-by-step—puzzle by puzzle—I poured everything I had into becoming a sleuth of what it takes to heal the natural world.”

Adams, best-known for dramatic turns in films like “Arrival” and “Hillbilly Elegy,” is slated to not only produce, but also star as Simard. In a press release with her Bond Entertainment co-founder Stacy O’Neil, the actress called the novel an “inspiration.”

“Creatively, it excited us with a narrative about the awe-invoking power of nature and the compelling parallels in Suzanne’s personal life,” they shared in a statement. “It forever transformed our views of the world and the interconnectivity of our environment. Finding the Mother Tree is not only a deeply beautiful memoir about one woman’s impactful life, it’s also a call to action to protect, understand and connect with the natural world.”

The ‘Wood-Wide Network’

Regular readers of this site will recognize Simard’s name in concert with other forest ecologists we’ve covered over the years and their incredible investigative work to decipher the hidden language of trees. Her breakthrough moment came in the late '90s when she discovered that mycorrhizal fungi in the soil acted as a communication/transport network between fir and birch trees. She nicknamed this connection the “wood-wide network.”

“It’s this network, sort of like a below-ground pipeline, that connects one tree root system to another tree root system, so that nutrients and carbon and water can exchange between the trees,” she told Yale Environment 360 in 2016. “In a natural forest of British Columbia, paper birch and Douglas fir grow together in early successional forest communities. They compete with each other, but our work shows that they also cooperate with each other by sending nutrients and carbon back and forth through their mycorrhizal networks.”

Like different wireless networks in a neighborhood, Simard says these relationships are not all-inclusive. Whereas birch and Douglas fir form one bond, other symbiotic pairings of different types of mycorrhiza have been discovered between species like maple and cedar and even within grasslands.

“Group selection is a fraught area. Not a lot of people believe in group selection, but groups of plants do associate with each other,” she told Emergence Magazine. “There are plant associations. They like to grow together.”

The Mother Tree Project

Despite research showing trees depend on these groups to flourish, Simard is disillusioned with the ongoing forestry practices of monoculture tree plantations. A 2019 study in the journal Nature found that of the global reforestation projects underway, 45% of them involve fast-growing monoculture plantations of trees like eucalyptus and acacia. These plantations are not intended to replace natural forests, but to instead provide quick commercial harvests for the paper industry. 

“When it comes down to it, it has not been embraced,” Simard said of her research. “We’re now on the cusp of, basically, a collapse of the forest industry, which I think is because we’ve been so focused on this model of dominance and growing these plantations that are simple and clean of other plants, and it’s not doing us any good.”

Undeterred, Simard has founded The Mother Tree Project, a long-term experiment focused on “forest cutting and planting methods in order to learn how to create resilient forests for the future.” It’s hoped that the initiative’s work will inform a more sustainable approach to tree harvesting and reforestation efforts across the globe. A little help from Hollywood to get the message won’t hurt either. 

“The forest has taught me that our relationships—with each other and with the trees, plants, and animals around us—are what make our lives beautiful, strong, and healthy,” Simard said in a statement. “I’m thrilled to be partnering with the visionaries at Nine Stories and the Bond Group to bring this story to the screen and share it with people everywhere.”

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