The article “A Tapestry Of Browns And Greens” was written by Nalini Nadkarni, a pioneering canopy ecologist and professor at The Evergreen State College. This article describes a rich tapestry of personal stories, information, and illustrations, from science to symbol, culture, and religion. Nalini used the metaphor of a tapestry that composed of different colored threads to reflect on her life, as she also came from the vividly mixed ethnic background of her Indian/Hindu and Brooklyn/Jewish parents. She then described how her particular tapestry weaves threads of religion, art, and social justice with her work as a canopy biologist.
It started with a question from a childhood friend that makes Nalini come to realize that she was somehow different from others. Being born by her Indian father and Jewish mother, Nalini was the third child in the family with an Indian face and darkest skin out of the five. Unlike other immigrant families who seem to assimilate into western culture as quickly as possible, Nalini’s parents raised the children upon their traditional culture. They ate Indian foods, slept on mattresses on the floor, celebrated Jewish holidays instead of Christmas, and practiced both Hinduism and Judaism in the house.
However, the deep cultural differences her family embodied did not create a conflict. It set the way for Nalini to view nature, not as consisting of monochrome but many colors and textures. Nalini’s childhood experiences describe nature as protected and protector. When she saw her father in the backyard carefully transplanted young saplings from one part of the yard to another, his benevolent attitude toward nature gave her a strong ethic of protecting nature. She also learned that nature protected her, through the elm tree outside of her house that kept her company on scary windy nights. Nalini loved tree climbing, feeling the strong limbs of the trees gave her a sense that nature is a place of safety, a place that protected her and those she cared for.
Education was important in her family. Nalini studied hard to get straight A and participated in various school activities. Being well educated created another thread that she wove into her relationship with nature, the realm of the intellect and use of the scientific process to understand trees and forests. While pursuing the study of Biology in college, she began to discover the world of forest ecology and enjoyed the challenge of untangling the endless puzzles she encountered in nature. She then received her PhD in Forest Ecology and started her forest canopy studies. She struggled to convince the graduate committee to understand the importance of tree climbing.
Eventually, they helped her carve out a dissertation project, a comparative study of the biomass held within the epiphytes. Her work took place in the spectacular temperate rainforest of the Olympic National Park and the tropical cloud forests of Costa Rica for 25 years. She produced over ninety scientific papers and three scholarly books about canopy ecology. As the result of her studies, Nalini found out that small plant like epiphytic flowers that live high above the forest floor have tremendous ecological importance for the complex tapestry of rainforest ecosystems.
As her career progressed, she recognized the necessary to reach out to other sources of information outside of academia that went beyond the scientific aspects of nature, and involved understanding of medical, political, recreational, aesthetic, and religious values of nature. She began with health values by giving speeches to medical students about relationship between trees and health. She and her students create the “Treetop Barbie Doll” to encourage young women to be interested in forest science and designed tree art stickers that are affixed to skateboards to remind the youthful users that trees are connected to what provides them their daily pleasure.
To explore the political values, Nalini created the “Legislature Aloft” project, in which she invited twelve state legislators and their aides to come and discuss about forest management issues, government funding of science, the reasons for high biodiversity in the canopy, and the importance of non-vascular plants in forest nutrient cycles. To connect the urban youth with science and fieldwork, Nalini invited a young rapper named C.A.U.T.I.O.N. to come out to the field to sing about the trees, clams, and bugs to the middle school children from Tacoma, Washington, which also opened her eyes to the many colors of nature that the students saw with fresh eyes in the familiar forest of her own college campus.
Nalini’s love for trees led to her curiosity about how different cultures and religions assign spiritual values to trees. By scouring religious texts and visiting different religions’ places of worship, she discovered that Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism value trees for both practical and spiritual reasons. Furthermore, she realized that science and religion didn’t have to conflict but rather could be extremely congruent in their understanding of nature and natural systems. For 10 years of outreaching to non-traditional audiences, Nalini learned much more about trees than ever.
Although people and tree are not of the same family, we can consider ourselves as being married into each other’s families, with the challenges, responsibilities, and benefits that come with being so linked. The passion and dedication Nalini has for trans-disciplinary collaborations shone through most poignantly when she described the Sustainable Prisons Project, a program she started in which correctional facilities inmates rear endangered Oregon spotted frogs and cultivate mosses and wetland plants. While working on the project with the inmates and seeing their collective work being used to protect the mosses, Nalini came to the realization that all voices, all approaches, and all types of people can contribute to keeping the great tapestry of nature intact.
To do good research, researchers need to look beyond themselves in finding solutions and ways to include others to support their views. Nalini Nadkarni appears to be so creative in finding various resources like prisoners and others to assist her in her research to save the trees. With her great passion and perspective, she has successfully connected the academia with the external world. The reconnection of human kind with nature is essential for the understanding and evolution of this modern society.
However, it takes a lot of effort, several well-chosen words, stories and anecdotes to make the young people today change the way they think, to teach them that passion and the courage to care and extend a hand to someone who cares is important. And Nalini Nadkarni has taken this one step further. I am very much impressed by the work of Nalini especially the way she is spreading the message about canopy and its importance in ecosystems. One really needs lots of determination, courage and skill to carry out such type of work. She is an absolutely amazing and inspirational person who we need more of in this world.
Nadkarni, N. (2011). A TAPESTRY OF BROWNS AND GREENS. In The colors of nature: Culture, identity, and the natural world (Revised/Expanded ed.). Minneapolis, Minn.: Milkweed Editions. Dr. Nalini Nadkarni – nalininadkarni.com. (n.d.). Retrieved August 14, 2014.