Thursday, August 14, 2008

Feature Interview: Nalini Nadkarni

Today it is my pleasure to introduce Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, author of Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees. Nalini is a professor at the Evergreen State College and an accomplished forest ecologist with over 25 years of experience conducting research in tropical and temperate rainforests. Her specialty is the upper reaches of the forest: the canopy. You can learn more about her work at the International Canopy Network (ICAN).

JLB - Nalini, welcome to Arboreality! Thank you for taking some time out of your busy schedule to chat with us.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to start with a little background. Please tell us, when / how did the idea for Between Earth and Sky first sprout? What motivated you to wrap your arms around such an enormous subject as the connections between trees and people?

NMN - In some ways, I have been thinking about this book since I was a young girl climbing trees in her back yard. In fact, I wrote a “self-published book” when I was 12 years old on tree-climbing, called “Be Among the Birds”. I produced only one copy! I grew up with a deep love of trees and nature, and chose to pursue the academic of forest ecology to deepen my understanding trees. Along the way, however, I recognized the power of poetry, literature, and art to convey important ideas, and so I incorporated them into my book. The actual launch, however, took place when I was teaching an interdisciplinary class at The Evergreen State College, called “Trees and Humans”, in which my students and I explored the many relationships between humans and people in a systematic way. I realized that although it is an enormous subject, as you say, if I could organize it and synthesize it, it might be a good contribution to the existing literature on trees and their conservation.

JLB - What were your original goals when you set out to create Between Earth and Sky? Now that the book is complete, have your goals for the book changed?

NMN - My original goals were to create a book that crosses disciplinary boundaries to document the many ways humans and trees interact. Initially, I conceived it as a book rich in content, with facts and figures that would “convince” readers that trees are important and worthy of being conserved. However, as the work progressed, I realized that I needed to give myself permission to move from a strictly “facts” base orientation and instead tell stories about trees, about people and trees, and most of all, about my own life in order to be more effective in my goal of moving people toward mindfulness.

JLB - Of all the research and outreach that contributed to this book, could you tell us what were the biggest, or most unexpected bits of learning that you personally took away from the project?

NMN - The most important thing I learned was about my own motivation to understand and protect trees. As I wrote the book, collected stories, and examined my own connections to trees, I realized that it was my childhood interactions that have most contributed to my sense of wanting to protect them. As I describe in the very first chapter, when I was a young girl, I found that trees were places where I felt safe and protected from the bewildering world of grownups. They were my refuge. Over the course of my forest ecology career, working in trees on four continents, I am fully aware of how much trees need protection and refuge from humans. That, I now realize, is the motivation for my drive to protect trees – not only their huge importance in maintaining stable climate, a supply of oxygen, and biodiversity.

I know you’re a smart cookie with extensive scientific knowledge (and a vocabulary to match). How have you crafted your book to be more interesting and accessible than an “academic tome”?

The process of making my writing more accessible was a difficult one! I have been writing scientific articles and books and speaking to academic audiences for over two decades, so that is the “default mode” I fall into when I write. I had to be very conscious about writing on a more personal and conversational level without falling into the trap of being either too sappy or too sloppy. One critical piece of the process of writing the book was to have many eyes pass over it in the form of a generous set of readers who could point out the parts that fell into the pedantic or the maudlin before I sent material to the editor.

JLB - What were your favorite parts of this project? Are there any sections of this book which are most dear to your heart?

NMN - Although the writing of the book had its times of frustration, loneliness, tedium, and low confidence, there were many high points. I loved the creative moments when an idea from a scientific work about some aspect of trees would be echoed in a contemporary poem, or when I made an original connection or metaphor that really worked. I very much enjoyed the doing of the work with my collaborators and editors (particularly Jade!), who helped in finding and sending pieces of information my way. I enjoyed getting a previously intractable sentence “just right”. I loved hearing the tree stories people would offer me when they learned about the topic of the book. The section of the book I enjoyed writing most was about trees and symbolism, as I learned so much about how central tree symbolism is in so many cultures, which indicates the importance of trees themselves.

What were your biggest challenges in creating this book? Are there any sections that you want to develop for a second edition (or volume)?

My biggest challenges was in organizing it all. There is a HUGE volume of information, facts and figures, images, and stories about trees. Perhaps more than any other part of nature (maybe rivers and mountains are on a par), trees have evoked thinking and writing and art. I struggled with filtering out what seemed the most interesting and compelling, but still feel insecure that I have left critical pieces out. I would like to work more with trees as inspiration for art – music, visual art, poetry, literature. That would be a logical follow up, not only to enumerate the pieces of art that have been inspired by trees, but also what those products tell us about the nature of the relationship between trees and people.

Now that Between Earth and Sky has its first chance to speak to an audience, what are your hopes? What do you most want readers to take away from this book?

My hope is that after readers finish this book, they will say, wow, I had no idea that trees are so cool, so important, so beautiful, so fascinating. I want them to recall trees that have been important to them in their youth and in their adulthood from all parts of their life. I want them to walk down an urban street and say, hey, look at the body language of that tree, what was its past? I want them to climb a tree when they are feeling scared or sad, and then feel braver and not so sad. I want them to become mindful of all of the things that trees provide, and to become mindful of all of the things we must provide trees.

As the concept of sustainability slowly enters the public consciousness and conversation, how do you see Between Earth and Sky as contributing to the discussion?

I believe that my book is a direct and powerful participant in the concept of sustainability, as it is growing into our society. The book is essentially a document about conservation about one of the best ambassadors to nature – trees. The ultimate objective is to instill a sense of mindfulness about the importance of trees and forests – the lungs of our Earth. What logically follows once mindfulness is aroused is a sense of stewardship and conservation, which are both bulwarks of sustainability.

You perform a tremendous amount of outreach work which connects you with the public and the community, both local and global. What are the most important benefits that you have expected and experienced from these efforts? How have those experiences shaped your latest book?

What I have learned from my outreach activities to diverse public audiences such as prisoners, poets, legislators, urban youth, Inuits, and modern dancers, is that I learn as much about trees and forests from them as I teach. They see the world – and trees – in different ways, with fresh perspectives, and that in turns wakes up my own eyes and brain from its entrenched past approaches. I believe that this is a theme that emerged in my book. I constantly described the different ways of seeing trees that I garnered from other audiences, with fresh metaphors and analogies. I have a proclivity to do that in everyday life, but by consciously opening the door and inviting in these new guests, I was able to see the forest and the trees in new ways, and to present those to my readers.

What’s the next step for you? I know you’re a veritable whirlwind of ideas and activity. Has Between Earth and Sky inspired any “branch-off” projects?

My next steps are to sit and listen for a while, instead of speak. I want to hear reactions and questions that emerge from readers from this book. I will also be forging ahead on science projects in the temperate rainforest canopy, to keep my scientific brain engaged, as well as moving forward on the collaborative research and sustainability projects with prisoners that has now gained substantial funding from the Department of Corrections. I am currently raising funds to go on a national tour with a modern dance company to perform “biome” a dance about the rainforest inspired by joint time in my study sites. All of these will continue to provide a rich milieu to better understand the relationship between trees and people. My ultimate hope is to establish a project called “1000 Voices of Nature”, in which I gather multiple voices of scientists, artists, children, and others from all over the world to document the importance of trees and nature to humans, and in so doing, to make a strong case for its protection.

Where can readers find you for book signings and events?

I will be signing books in major independent bookstores in the Pacific Northwest in August and September 2009: Portland (Powell’s); Bellingham (Village Books); Seattle (Seattle Town Hall, Elliott Bay), and Olympia (Orca Books).

Nalini, thank you again for the opportunity to discuss Between Earth and Sky at Arboreality, and to learn a little more about your goals and projects. You’re the type of scientist AND artist to whom we can all “look up”!


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To learn more about Dr. Nalini Nadkarni's work, be sure to explore the following:

To meet Nalini at an upcoming book signing event, visit one of these fine bookstores:

August 21, 2008
1005 W. Burnside, Portland, OR 97209

September 3, 2008
1210 11th Street, Bellingham, WA 98225

September 30, 2008
Town Hall Seattle, Downstairs, 1119 8th Avenue, Seattle, 98105
(Sponsored by Town Hall Seattle and University Book Store. Admission is $5 at the door.)

October 2, 2008
509 4th Ave E, Olympia, WA 98501

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All photographs used in this article are © Copyright 2008 Nalini M. Nadkarni. Do not use without permission.

Between Earth and Sky cover image is © Copyright 2008 University of California Press. Do not use without permission.


  1. Great interview! I love the picture at the top--so dynamic!

    I just got my copy of the book in the mail and can't wait to get started. I'll be sure to link to your interview when I post on it.

  2. Hi. Your blog is as fascinating as the interview! Have added your link to my blog for inspiration. (I am just a novice)Thanks. Dilip


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