Ecologist Nalini Nadkarni is an explorer of one of the last frontiers on Earth: rain forest canopies, the green world of tree-tops that is home to almost half of all life on the planet and even influences climate change. She is also the author of Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees, published earlier this year.
Dr Nadkarni is attached to Washington’s Evergreen State College, and has helped found the Global Canopy Programme, an alliance of 29 research institutions across the world. She spoke to HT about her mission.
How early did your interest start?
I’ve been climbing trees ever since I was a young girl, growing up Washington DC. My father, who was a scientist, enjoyed gardening and nature and so did my mother. It was only in college, though, that I discovered the field of ecology and decided to make a living studying trees.
Why forest canopies?
When I started studying forest ecology, I visited some tropical rainforests in Costa Rica, and realised there were many plants and animals living in the treetops, high above the forest floor, that scientists knew almost nothing about because they could not climb up there. I learned to climb mountains using ropes and harnesses, and began to explore the canopy. I found there were many important questions to be answered in the canopy.
We hear you’ve created ‘canopy clothing’. Is that true?
Yes. It always bothered me that camouflage clothing, used for hunting, or by the military, has designs that are never botanically correct. So I printed actual rainforest plant images on cloth and made jackets, skirts, etc. I’m trying to get outdoor clothing companies to sell these with an attached booklet that provides information on the plant itself and its endangered habitats, linking fashion with conservation.
Tell us a bit about your book, Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees.
It is about the many complex inter-relationships between trees and human beings. It goes far beyond ecological connections to include economic, recreational, aesthetic and spiritual connections. I also use literary references, poems and references to Indian culture like the great conservation effect that sacred groves in India have had on trees. I want to make people more mindful of the many ways we depend on trees.
So how do you go about spreading the word?
In so many ways. I write for Nature magazines, appear on TV documentaries for National Geographic. I also lecture on trees and spirituality in churches, temples and synagogues and teach legislators how to climb trees. I’ve got blind people, policy-makers, and religious groups to climb onto forest canopies to raise awareness. I organise get-togethers called Canopy Confluences, in which canopy researchers climb onto trees with artists and musicians to share perspectives. Many musical instruments are made of wood, so that is another connection. The idea is to link the ecological values of forest canopies to different segments of society.
In India, where cricket rules, would you consider using the willow for your cause?
I never thought of this, but I love the idea of connecting cricket with willow trees! I’ve tried to connect forest conservation with many other sports -skiing, golf (the inside of golf balls is derived from a gummy substance from the South American gutta-percha tree), baseball bats, skateboards, badminton racquets and the wooden floors of gymnasiums, to name a few.
Does your family share your passion for trees?
Jack Longino, my husband, is an entomologist, and studies tropical ants. He does field work in Costa Rica too, and also shares a faculty position with me at The Evergreen State College. Our children, August, 19, and Erika, 16, have come to Costa Rica with us many times. In 2001, we all traveled to Bangalore for a tropical biology meeting.
The children love India, and were delighted to meet my relatives in Goa and Mumbai. They hope to go back to visit them again.