I met Dr. Nalini Nadkarni over five years ago at a church service in Olympia, WA. Nadkarni, a forest ecologist at Evergreen State College, was delivering a sermon on trees – or more precisely, on human connections with trees. She is a scientist, not a minister; yet, it’s not unusual to find her giving sermons in places of worship. She presents her sermons not as a theological or religious scholar, but rather as a scientist interested in sharing information about trees and the value of trees to human communities. Such values, Nadkarni notes, go beyond what trees contribute to the economy and our physical well-being. Trees have ecological, aesthetic, and spiritual values, as well. It was this aspect of Nadkarni’s work that first intrigued me. After listening to her sermon and reading her book Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees, I knew I wanted to learn more about her efforts to deepen our understanding about trees. I was fortunate enough to obtain a phone interview with her…
EarthTalk: What brought you to study trees?
Nalini Nadkarni: This goes back to my childhood days climbing trees. After spending many hours sitting in the branches of the maple trees in our yard, I came to know them as friends.
E: How do you describe your work or what do you call yourself as someone who studies the canopies of trees?
Nadkarni: Twenty years ago, I probably would have referred to myself as a “canopy ecologist.” Today, we have a better understanding of how the forest canopy — the treetops — are an integral part of a forest community and how life in the canopy is connected to everything else in the forest ecosystem. I now use the term “forest ecologist.” I also refer to myself as a “science communicator.” By this I mean a scientist who shares information and ideas with others outside the scientific community. This is why I give sermons on trees.
E: You’ve worked with other groups, as well, in sharing information and ideas about trees. Can you talk a bit about this?
Nadkarni: Well, I worked with artists and other community groups, but some of my most rewarding work has been with incarcerated men and women. This is certainly one group of people who may need access to nature and trees the most. I started by offering lectures in prisons. I talked about how amazing trees are and about the need to protect and conserve them. The prisoners were soon asking how they could be involved in conservation. My response was to co-develop the ‘Sustainability in Prisons Project’. This project trains prisoners to grow epiphytic mosses – that is, mosses that don’t root in soil. Growing these mosses serves conservation in that farming rather than mining these plants from the wild contributes to the sustainability of the forest ecosystem. While the Sustainability in Prisons Project is good for the environment, it’s also good for the prisoners. In addition to helping prisoners gain knowledge and skills that may be beneficial to them after their release, we soon noticed that working with plants also had a calming and soothing effect on them.
E: Can you talk a little more about what you refer to as our spiritual connections with trees?
Nadkarni: This idea is rooted deep in our history. Trees are frequently referenced in religious writings from different spiritual traditions. They’re seen as symbols or manifestations of what is divine or holy. Poets and artists find inspiration in trees, and almost everyone appreciates the aesthetics of trees. Faith-based communities have been very responsive to learning about trees and wanting to protect them. In some places, we’ve mapped trees in the church yards and created small informational booklets about those trees. From knowledge grows respect and a need to protect.
E: You’ve also reached out to children with the creation of a Tree Top Barbie Doll. Can you share a little information about this?
Nadkarni: Children are the future stewards of the environment. We know this and often use animals to get them engaged with nature. But plants – especially trees – can be just as engaging. So I came up with the idea of a Tree Top Barbie Doll. This doll has the clothing and accessories of a canopy researcher. The idea is to help children get interested in trees and the way in which we are connected to trees.
E: Are there any new projects you’re working on right now?
Nadkarni: I’m currently developing something I call “Naturewear.” Many people turn to fashion or what they wear as a way to express something about who they are. To encourage people to think of themselves in a positive relationship with nature, I’m working with fashion designers to make clothing featuring images of trees and other aspects of nature. This clothing will come with a tag or card giving information about what is depicted in the image. This is just another way to communicate information to the general public about our relationship with nature. It’s a reflection of what I mean by referring to myself as a “science communicator.” Our view of what a scientist does is shifting. We’re beginning to recognize the importance of sharing information and ideas. This is what I try to do.