At Wednesday afternoon’s plenary address, ASLE conference attendees were mesmerized by Nalini Nadkarni‘s remarks about the science outreach she does as part of her work with forest canopy ecosystems. As a scientist who studies treetops from the treetops, Nadkarni has brainstormed a handful of innovative ways of bringing ecological insights to people who normally wouldn’t venture into the trees she studies. Whether preaching in places of worship, teaching prisoners how to study moss, or marketing a “TreeTop Barbie” to spread an ecological message to young girls, Nadkarni is energetically committed to spreading her environmental enthusiasm with non-scientists.
The folks who make up ASLE are a tree-loving bunch, so Nadkarni was pretty much preaching to the choir: we didn’t need sermons or Barbie dolls to get us interested in forest canopies. But what I found most interesting about Nadkarni’s various methods of reaching out to non-scientists of all ages and backgrounds was the way she relied upon nonverbal means of engaging her audiences. At one point in her address, Nadkarni shared drawings made by an Innuit man who had never seen much less climbed a giant redwood; Nadkarni also shared her collaborations with composers, rap singers, and modern dancers, all of whom used their creative skills to communicate the ecological vision Nadkarni had turned them onto. Some folks (like those of us belonging to the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment) like to read, write, and talk about environmental ideas; other folks, though, like to make or listen to music, dance, or draw. Nadkarni’s creative, inter-disciplinary, and impressively engaging approach to turning people onto environmental ideas gets them physically involved in the work of conservation. She’s not paying lip service to green ideas: she’s bringing people to their feet and to the trees to get them involved and interested in the work of forest ecology.
As the Lorax was wont to point out, someone like Nadkarni needs to speak for trees, for the trees themselves have no tongues. But merely speaking for trees isn’t enough, either. The Lorax concludes with an emotional appeal: unless listeners to the Lorax’s tale care “a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better; it’s not.” Simply talking about trees isn’t enough, and neither is listening: you have to care about trees “a whole awful lot” to make any sort of difference. On the whole, people (at least regular, non-bookish ones) don’t care much for books, ideas, or words alone: it’s difficult to hug a book or feel the warm embrace of a concept. If part of our mission as environmentalists is to get people to care “a whole awful lot” about trees, forests, and the like, we have to hit people somewhere other than their head. Art, music, dance, and the simple act of climbing a tree all engage people on an emotional, visceral, and/or physical level: you have to get out of your head to climb a tree.
(If you want to hear Nalini Nadkarni’s presentation, you can access it here and here, along with the question-and-answer session here.)
I mention Nadkarni’s more-than-verbal approach to sharing ecological research with non-scientists because yesterday morning, after breakfast but before the a-ha moment I experienced at the morning plenary session, I was feeling Conference Overload. In my everyday life back in Keene, I have ample opportunities for silent solitude and avoid anything remotely resembling “networking.” It’s not that I don’t play well with others: I can and do interact socially when the moment and mood so moves. But ever since childhood, I’ve had no problem entertaining myself: I can and do play well on my own. So given the choice between, say, a conference meet-and-greet and the chance to explore a new-to-me place with camera in hand, I’ll be sorely tempted to choose the later. I enjoy social interactions, but like Thoreau, I often find I think best when there’s a healthy distance between me and the people I interact and converse with.
In other words, I’m a writer and thinker who thrives on silence and solitude as much as community and conversation…and conferences are designed to encourage the latter more than the former. Conferences are a place where people come together to share ideas, and for some conference-goers, the excitement of this interaction causes a slumber-party-like adrenaline rush where conversations and cameraderie last far into the night. I, for good or ill, am not that kind of conference-goer. I’m the kind of person who needs to simmer ideas in silence awhile before figuring out (in my head or on paper) what I’m trying to say, really.
Yesterday after breakfast and before the morning plenary session, I was feeling starved for solitude. Having already discovered that my brain isn’t built to absorb an entire day’s worth of presentations, I’d given myself permission to skip several sessions for sanity’s sake: I figured it was wiser to concentrate on absorbing the panels I really wanted to attend rather than trying to guzzle everything on tap. But still, yesterday morning I found myself bridling at the thought of more panels, more presentations, and more people to process. It was as if I’d already hit Information Overload, and the conference had barely begun.
One informal agreement I’d made with myself when I signed up to attend this week’s entire conference was to try to keep my usual breakfast ritual: first eat, then write. Yesterday as I scribbled several pages in my notebook, I found myself wondering why I felt so cranky about being surrounded by intelligent people and their engaging ideas. Have I really become so much of an anti-social hermit, I wondered, that I prefer being holed away with my laptop, writing, than actually interacting with flesh-and-blood humans? Or was there something about my conference experience that was flawed or faulty: was there, in a word, something I could fix to make conference-life in Spartanburg just a bit more Lorianne-friendly?
In investigating the odd sense of malaise I felt being surrounded by people, I thought of other writers who were similarly solitary. Thoreau, as I already mentioned, cherished solitude, considering three people a crowded house. May Sarton, who lived alone not far from Keene, often complained about loneliness but was honestly relieved whenever she returned to her house after a book-signing or other social event. Both Thoreau and Sarton, I suspect, found themselves fueled by quiet time, their artistic strength coming from a contemplative place, not an active one. As I wrote my post-breakfast pages sitting alone in a cafeteria dotted with clusters of chatting conference-goers, I felt more akin to Thoreau and Sarton than anyone I saw sitting around me. If quiet “downtime” is what I need to re-group and then write, why should I feel guilty about my loner ways?
And yet, I’m not a “loner”; I just occasionally like to be alone. One of the things that occurred to me as I sat writing was the relative lack of structured solitude I’d spent since arriving in Spartanburg: I hadn’t taken any time to intentionally settle into silence. It’s one thing to be silent because the situation demands it; it’s another to make a conscious choice not to speak. Unintentional silence is a shy, lonely person alone at a party hoping someone will introduce themself; intentional silence is an otherwise outgoing person making a conscious decision to unplug, briefly, from the social scene. I don’t consider myself a shy, lonely person, but yesterday I was feeling an acute need to unplug. In the blur of traveling to and then settling into a busy conference, I hadn’t taken any time to de-compress, returning to my senses by consciously returning to the present moment.
And then I remembered the huge, multiple-branched magnolia tree outside the Old Main Building at the center of the Wofford College campus. Part of why I was so personally moved by Nalini Nadkarni’s presentation–and part of why I feel as comfortable alone as I do with other people–has to do with my odd childhood, when my best friend was a tree. The neighborhood where I grew up had few children for me to play with, so I spent a lot of time engaged in quiet, self-entertaining pursuits such as reading. The maple tree that stood in the courtyard between my family’s and our neighbor’s house–the same tree that is inextricably connected with my first memory of death–was my childhood companion and confidante, sheltering my childish thoughts as I lay dreaming below. Is it any surprise that a child who solaced herself with books, solitary games of make-believe, and a single sheltering maple would grow to love trees and books about them? Is it any surprise that a child whose best friend was a tree would acquire a Thoreauvian temperament?
The Buddha sat beneath a sacred fig, and yesterday I sat beneath a towering magnolia, the leaf-carpeted parlor under its branching boughs providing a quiet place for me to return to my breath. Reading, talking, and writing about trees is fine and good, but sometimes you have to listen to what trees have to say. Trees have no tongues–the Lorax was right about that–but that doesn’t mean trees have nothing to say and share. Trees are short on words but long on wisdom, so you have to quiet your inner chattering self to hear the murmuring message they’d utter, wordless, to your receptive soul.