Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees

The author of this exquisite and engaging reference is a forest canopy researcher, a professor at Evergreen State University who has spent many years working in the treetops in Costa Rica. She is president of the International Canopy Network. Trees are her profession and her passion. Her goal is to expose readers to a more extensive appreciation for the place and utility of trees on our planet. To this end, she employs Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and, chapter by chapter, describes the ways that trees fulfill those needs on each level: physical, security, health, play and imagination, time and history, symbols and language, spirituality, and mindfulness.

Such an endeavor certainly has the potential to be dry and pedantic, but Nadkarni’s science is imbued with anecdote, philosophy, and poetry that lifts the reader to a higher sense of appreciation and purpose. Historical perspective, fascinating examples, and personal experience help to express the enthusiasm and energy of the author in her passion for trees.

Beginning with What is a Tree? she establishes a baseline of the physical nature and structure of a tree, classification modalities, strengths, weaknesses, taxonomy, and interaction with the general environment, including the complex web of forest ecology (including epiphytes) and forest structure. This even includes comments on Zen gardens with invisible or implied trees. The author brings us with her into the world of the tree climber, scientist, and tree lover who is spiritually connected to this life form.

In Goods and Services, description and thinking go far beyond obvious tree products. Nadkarni sends her students to the local shopping mall to find everything they can, beyond food, that was made from or with the help of trees. Who else might have come up with such diverse examples as adhesives, colognes, eyeglass frames, menthol, nail polish, coffins, vitamins, or ping-pong balls, to name only a few? More extensive comments describe some of the fascinating history and processes involved in the manufacture of some of these end products, including commentary on the long history of tree influences on toothpaste, fragrances, and turpentine.

Shelter and Protection reaches beyond obvious building materials to include the joy of treetop shelters. The protection that trees provide for our environment, on many levels, is frequently overlooked in our modern world as this precious resource is so often taken for granted. Jungle canopies protect a multitude of plants and animals adapted to their shady environment, including exotic birds, insects, and crops such as coffee. A single acacia may provide refuge in the Kalahari. Yet, the urban dweller also benefits from a greater sense of security, despite only limited accessibility to trees and plants in city parks.

From the nearly lost wisdom of shamans to the most modern chemical analysis, healthcare is intimately tied to trees and the forest. The extent and complexity of arboreal compounds have only been scantly explored, with much research still to be done. Beyond medicine, simple photographs of natural environments have been found to speed patient recovery in hospitals. Hopefully, we will be wise enough to halt the current destruction of complex forest systems and preserve the potential for further service to humankind.

As the book proceeds from the practical to the esoteric, the reader progressively gains a fuller appreciation and understanding for this precious resource and for our role as respectful and responsible stewards of our trees and forests—precious resources that cannot be replaced. Nadkarni presents her material in an engaging, often humorous, always thought-provoking way. The author’s calls to action are compelling and impress upon us the urgency of informed action—from planting the right tree in the right place to supporting global awareness and participating in efforts to benefit our planet.

In the ecological press, Nalini M Nadkarni has been proclaimed “a hero in a world where heroes don’t come around often.” You will agree with this assessment after reading Between Earth and Sky.

Lucy Warren, garden writer & consultant
San Diego, California