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Suzanne Simard: How Do Trees Collaborate?

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode TED Radio Wow-er.

Ecologist Suzanne Simard shares how she discovered that trees use underground fungal networks to communicate and share resources, uprooting the idea that nature constantly competes for survival.

About Suzanne Simard

Suzanne Simard is a professor of forest ecology at the University of British Columbia. Her work demonstrated that these complex, symbiotic networks in our forests mimic our own neural and social networks. She has over thirty years of experience studying the forests of Canada.

Access the original TED Radio Hour segment here.

Activity Guide - Printable PDF

Activity 1: System Map

Here's an example of a forest system map.
Here's an example of a forest system map.

System maps are a great way to visualize interactions. You've probably already made one before, if for example you've ever made a food web. Dr. Simard gives us a lot of really great information about what's going on in these forests, and we can make a system map to show the connections.


  • Any kind of paper. Though you may find something a bit bigger than regular printer paper may give you more space to work with.
  • Markers, colored pencils, crayons, etc. Different colors are key.

How To Do It:

  • The first step to any system map is to identify the actors and the actions. Fir and birch trees are both actors, while an action would be nutrients and carbon moving through the mycorrhizal network. As you listen to the segment, make a list of all the actors and actions you hear Dr. Simard talk about in her description of the forest system.
  • Once you have the lists, select two or three actions you want to represent. Sometimes things get cluttered when you try to draw more than that. Also identify all the actors involved in the actions you selected.
  • Start drawing! You can start wherever. It may be helpful to cross actors and actions off your list as you finish drawing them. Remember to add labels too.

Fun Modifier: Abstract System Map

System maps can be helpful tools but they don't have to be literal. They can also be more abstract or conceptual. You can modify this activity by picking one action and all the actors involved in that action, and then make a more abstract representation of what is going on. Think of it more like a cartoon.

Here's an example of a forest abstract system map.
Here's an example of a forest abstract system map.

Activity 2: Found Poem

What's a found poem? It's a poem that uses words, phrases, or quotations that have been selected and rearranged from another piece of writing or speech. You make them by first choosing words that you find meaningful or interesting and then arranging those words around a theme or idea.


  • Any kind of paper. You may find note cards are helpful too.
  • Something to write with

How To Do It:

  • If you'd like to pick your own theme to create your poem around, listen to the segment once and try to just figure out the big ideas. You can also jump into poem making with the theme we've picked: the wonder and power of underground worlds we cannot see.
  • As you listen, write down words or phrases that catch your interest or seem important to the TED speaker's ideas. Aim for at least 15 to 20 words—the more, the better.
  • Arrange the words and phrases you have selected into a poem. You might find it helpful to copy the words and phrases onto note cards or separate sheets of paper so that you can easily rearrange them. Try to arrange the words in a way that says something about your chosen theme.
  • Some helpful tips and guidelines (not rules!)
    • You don't have to use all the words or phrases you wrote down in step two
    • The poem doesn't have to rhyme, but try to create sections (stanzas)
    • Try not to add any words other than those you found and wrote down. If you're struggling to link two words or phrases, try going back into the segment and finding another word that could link them.
    • Many poems repeat words or phrases, so feel free to uses the same word more than once
    • Little known fact: all episodes of the TED Radio Hour have transcripts! You might find it helpful to read the transcript for this segment as you listen. If you're creating your poem on a computer you can also easily copy and paste your selections.

  • When you've got the poem the way you want it, add a title! Read it aloud, pin it on your wall, share it with us or a friend, or practice non-attachment and recycle it!
  • You can follow us on Facebook @TEDRadioHourand email us at

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    NPR/TED Staff