Ted Talks About Trees

Trees along the Swallow Hollow Trail - Photo by Karin Johnson
Trees along the Swallow Hollow Trail – Photo by Karin Johnson

Do trees talk? Do they have a kind of intelligence?  These may seem strange questions with easy answers at first. But these were groundbreaking research questions for Canadian forestry scientist Suzanne Simard. With imagination and intuition along with rigorous science she launched into finding answers. Her data reveals some surprising facts.  

Her curiosity and questions began with an unlikely incident. When she was about 8 years old, while taking a walk with her grandpa, his dog, Jiggs, ran into an outhouse on his property and fell into the pit. Yuck! While Grandpa dug down to rescue Jiggs, Suzanne stood nearby watching him uncover the roots and threads belonging to the trees and fungi underground. That incident left lingering questions and led to a career in forestry science!  

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With quiet enthusiasm accompanied by photos and graphics she relates her findings in a Ted Talk filmed before a live audience.  

I won’t give away all of the secrets Suzanne discovered about the talk of trees, or the ins and outs of her work in forests, but I will say it was not easy.  She met many roadblocks along the way including a lack of funding. Looking back, she treats the difficult parts of her research with humor, but I’m sure they were not funny at the time.  

Watching this Ted Talk provides a great activity for the winter months. I hope to jump start your curiosity by asking you to think about a few questions you might want to answer by watching and listening: Which trees did she study? How do trees talk? What do they talk about? Do they share food? Do they take care of their children and find ways to nurture them? Do they compete? Do they cooperate? Before listening, what do you think the answers might be? And here’s a question you may want to answer after watching: What do you think is her most important finding?  

Is there a mother tree in this stand of trees? Photo by Karin Johnson
Is there a mother tree in this stand of trees? Photo by Karin Johnson

This Ted Talk is sure to entertain, enlighten and enrich your understanding of ecology and interdependence in nature. We humans have a deep and abiding connection to the life of trees. Maybe we can learn important lessons from them. Suzanne Simard ends her talk in hope for informed conservation and preservation of old growth forests. Forests are resilient and if clear cutting, and industrial logging are managed with the health of forests in mind, she believes we can maintain an ecological equilibrium, and respond to the threat that climate change poses to us and the forests. She suggests four solutions:

  • We all need to get out into the forests.
  • We need to focus on saving old growth forests,  minimize clear cutting, and harness research for preservation and conservation.
  • We need to save the legacies of trees by preserving the “mother trees” (hub trees).
  • We need to regenerate our forests with diversity of species.
Fungi. What's happening underground? Photo by Karin Johnson
Fungi. What’s happening underground? Photo by Karin Johnson

For those interested in the tree root and fungal network and want to better understand what goes on underground, I recommend another Ted Talk  by Suzanne Simard and Camille Defrenne, “The Secret Language of Trees”. This 4 minute video explains graphically the underground network between trees and fungi, while relating some mysteries still to be solved.  

Before you take your next hike at INWR, take time to view the video (18 minutes), maybe with your family. Stands of trees line the trails, particularly the Ononondaga, the Swallow Hollow and the Kanyoo. As you walk the trail, don’t just look at the trees along the path, but imagine … imagine what is going on beneath the ground, beneath your footsteps. Look for the “mother trees”. Sometimes walk slowly, and let your feet feel the path and appreciate the wonder of trees. Who knows, a thoughtful, meditative trail walk may spark the curiosity of someone in your family to ask good questions, and maybe become another scientist who researches ways to conserve the beauty and ecology of forests.  

Are these trees cooperating? Competing? Photo by Karin Johnson
Are these trees cooperating? Competing? Photo by Karin Johnson

If you’re curious about the life of trees, like me, there are some wonderful articles on this website you might want to check out.  “OAKS!  Red? White?  Feed Thousands, Rule the Waves” by Dorothy Rapp or “Dormancy – How trees survive the winter” by Dave Shepherd.