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Nalini Nadkarni on: Tapestry Weaving, Tapestry Thinking

This article is a summary of an Environmental Humanities Initiative’s lecture.  Click here for information about upcoming events and to browse our audio and visual catalogue of past events.

Nalini Nadkarni, a pioneering canopy ecologist and professor at The Evergreen State college, was invited by the Oregon State University’s Environmental Humanities Initiative to give a lecture titled “Tapestry Weaving, Tapestry Thinking.”

Nadkarni used the metaphor of a tapestry to describe how the interweaving of separate yet distinct disciplinary threads creates something greater than the constituent parts. “I think the bonus, the benefit, the reason that a scientist like myself might take the trouble to weave different threads together is that ultimately we can make stronger contributions to the earth and ourselves,” she stated. Nadkarni then described how her particular tapestry weaves threads of religion, art, and social justice with her work as a canopy biologist.

Nadkarni’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, Nadkarni realized that “there was never a conflict between Creationism and evolution. Rather there was a sharing and an understanding and even a certain sense of joy in understanding that science and religion didn’t have to conflict but rather could be extremely congruent in their understanding of nature and natural systems.”

In addition to her forays into religion, Nadkarni designs “Confluences”—gatherings that bring writers, poets, dancers, musicians, and other artists into the forest to interpret, learn from, collaborate with, and be inspired by the work of forest ecologists. For example, a dance troupe traveled to Costa Rica to learn about tropical rainforest ecology and, upon their return to San Francisco, performed a production titled “Biome.”

Nadkarni explained how these installations and events embody the artists’ values and understandings of the forest, thus contributing a new way of seeing and communicating the natural world to complement the work of science. In fact, these new mediums of communication often reach a far wider audience than most scientists are generally capable of reaching.

The passion and dedication Nadkarni 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 with inmates, Nadkarni came to the realization that “there is no one who is not my colleague. There is no one scientists can’t work with, who is not hungry for what science has to offer when we link it in some way to what is valued by different disciplines, whether it’s religion, or art, or Stafford Creek Corrections Center.”

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