When the University of California Press offered me a review copy of Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees, by Nalini Nadkarni, they didn’t have to ask me twice. I have a particular interest in the relations between humans and nature, and a huge soft spot for trees. It was trees, specifically lodgepole pine, that set me on the path towards the study of ecology. When I learned, at the age of 12, about how they retain their lower dead branches so that ground fires can be conducted up to their cones, which require heat to open, I was hooked.
Similarly, Nalini Nadkarni was hooked by the maples growing outside her childhood home, which she climbed every day after school as a refuge from the hazards of family life. How fitting that she ended up climbing trees for a living, working as a forest canopy researcher in both temperate and tropical rainforests.
Between Earth and Sky is not Nadkarni’s first book on trees. The first was Be Among the Birds: My Guide to Climbing Trees, which she produced at the tender age of nine years old! Her enthusiasm for trees seems only to have grown since then, and her current book is an attempt to share that enthusiasm with others in the broadest possible way.
Like a tree the book is vertically structured. It’s roots explore the many ways trees provide for our basic needs: foods and materials; shelter for people, livestock, and crops; medicines and healing; and play for children of all ages. In these chapters Nadkarni includes quite a bit of scientific background to explain the properties that make trees so valuable to us. The trunk of the book looks at how trees live in our consciousness, as markers of time and change, and as powerful symbols in art, culture, spirituality, and religion. Since the science of trees is familiar territory, this second part of the book was the most interesting to me, and I wish it had been longer. No doubt whole books could be (and perhaps have been) written on the subject.
The crown of this book is “mindfulness,” which Nadkarni defines as “the need to be aware of and compassionate towards one’s surroundings.” I think the author hopes that by presenting such a wide variety of ways of looking at and valuing trees, readers will be moved to participate in efforts to preserve the trees and forests around them, some of which she describes in the final chapter. Nadkarni herself does this primarily through her scientific work, but has doubts about whether this is really very effective. I’ve had the same doubts myself, and in fact have concluded that if science really could save the planet it would already have done so. We know well enough, and have for some time, that we shouldn’t destroy forests and rangelands, pollute the air, water and soil, and fish the oceans until they empty. I think the best hope for nature comes from nurturing our life-giving connections with nature through sustainable livelihoods (such as the Greenbelt Movement, which is mentioned in the book), and especially through the arts, culture, spirituality, and religion.
The last chapter of the book mentions a project in which Nadkarni was the scientific advisor to a modern dance troupe (Capacitor) that wanted to create a piece about the tropical rainforest (Biome; see also below). After the first performance, she noted that “people seemed far more inspired than I had ever seen them at a scientist’s lecture or conservationist workshop.” Such is the power of art. As much as us scientists would like people to just understand all the rational reasons why we should stop cutting down forests so fast, I suspect that there really are very few people who can be reached that way (and they probably already are or soon will be scientists!). My own view is that art and organized religion are the environmentalist’s best allies, not graphs and charts. Nadkarni is a model for this approach. Not only has she featured poetry about trees throughout this book, she has initiated projects to bring artists to the rainforest canopy, and has given lectures on trees in houses of worship. That is the work that I think will bear the most fruit, and I wish her all the best in it!