In Review :: Tree Intimacy

Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees
by Nalini M. Nadkarni

University of California Press, 2009, 336 pages, $24.95

Go to your local bookstore or buy online.

“To a hammer, everything is a nail.” The proverb is meant to be cautionary, a warning that it can be dangerous to see only what we look for. But a single-minded focus can also illuminate something new in the familiar. To Nalini M. Nadkarni, canopy ecologist and arborphile, nearly everything is a tree, or at least connected to one.

Nadkarni introduces herself as “an ecologist interested in understanding trees with my intellect and as a human being who cares deeply about trees with my heart.” She believes that, though we are inextricably connected to all nature, we feel our relationship to trees most profoundly.

Charismatic and accessible, trees serve as “ambassadors for the rest of nature.” Through them, we can begin to realize the depth of our reliance on nature for everything from our sustenance and shelter to the symbols and concepts that inform our spiritual thought.

To read Nadkarni’s new book, Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees, is to borrow her tree-colored glasses and look at the whole world—from kitchen ingredients to baseball bats to Chanel No. 5 knock-offs (whose popularity devastated the rainforest tree from which rosewood oil is derived)—and see not only trees, but the intricate relationships between humans and the natural world.

Nadkarni grew up with a deep affinity for the maples of her suburban yard, and, as an adult, she is still fascinated by trees. Now a Guggenheim fellow and professor at The Evergreen State College, she spends field seasons hundreds of feet aloft in the canopy of the Costa Rican cloud forest. Hers is an all-trees, all-the-time perspective, and her research into the interactions of people and trees is seemingly nonstop (she will, for example, step out of a movie theater line to question patrons about the emotions they associate with trees).

Nadkarni structures her new book on a modified version of Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” tracing the ways that trees impact our physical needs, security, play and imagination, sense of time and history, symbols and language, spirituality, and mindfulness. At times this effort can be as dry as her list of the nations whose currencies and postage stamps depict trees, but more often she points out connections that are rich and surprising.

We find out how scientists climb trees, test their ages, and measure the growth of forests. We learn about the operation of a lumber mill, the science of maple syrup, and the ecological side effects of synthetic wine corks. The book wends past medicinal plants, nature-deficit disorder, art, and religious beliefs and imagery, and toward the conclusion that trees’ contributions to human life are more important, complex, and fragile than most of us have ever realized.

Which may be why Nadkarni rejects “self-actualization,” Maslow’s term for the apex of human aspiration, in favor of “mindfulness.” What she gives us is the rare chance to stop seeing ourselves everywhere we look, and to glimpse instead the vastness of our dependence on just one small part of the natural world.

Brooke Jarvis wrote this article as part of The New Economy, the Summer 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Brooke is a freelance writer based in Maryville, Tennessee. Photo of Brooke Jarvis
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