Nalini Nadkarni is an ecosystem biologist at Evergreen State College.

Monday, 29 Apr 2002

OLYMPIA, Wash.

My day starts as most do: calling upstairs for my two children to rouse themselves for the beginning of the day. I then put on an egg to boil, a slice of toast to brown. I’ve been eating the same breakfast for the last three years, and even though the items of food are the same, I have come to learn that each day’s breakfast is a little different; the egg is a little softer, a little harder. It is kind of a training to see diversity in sameness.

After putting the children on the bus, my husband and I head off to work. We have been fortunate to share a split position at Evergreen State College. It is tough for an academic couple like us to find a professional position at the same institution, but we’ve done so after my husband has been a “captive spouse” at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens. Now we both hold positions as half-time members of the faculty at Evergreen in Olympia, Wash. The college was established as an alternative school, with an emphasis on interdisciplinary learning and teaching.

I have been studying the ecological relationships of canopy-dwelling plants in tropical cloud forests for the last 20 years. I love trees; I love climbing trees. I use mountain-climbing techniques to get up to the canopy. In today’s mail, I received a tidy packet of 100 reprints from the publishers of the scientific journal Oecologia. They have chosen to publish an article that my co-author, Rodrigo Solano, and I wrote that describes the potential effects of global climate change on canopy-dwelling plants in Monteverde, Costa Rica. The thrill of seeing evidence of a new paper published never declines — it is always a hit to see the work in printed form, and to know that others can now read about it. It is one of the best papers I have written about a topic that is of interest about the present environmental issue of global warming.

I am especially excited about this paper because we used an experimental approach. We transplanted mats of canopy-dwelling plants from the upper cloud forest, where they are continually bathed in fog and mist — to branches of the same species of trees lower on the mountain, where there is less mist — exactly the conditions predicted by those who model global climate changes. After 18 months of taking data on the number of leaves that are produced on each of four target species, we found that exposure to these drier conditions led to greater death rates and slower growth rates. Canopy plants thus provide us with the “canary in the coal mine” that we need to detect subtle changes in the atmosphere that recording of physical attributes may not give us. Anyway, I look forward to talking about these results at the climate change conference in Boston on Friday.

Treetop Barbie.

I am increasingly interested in spreading the word about forest canopies to non-scientists. This last year, I was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to “translate” canopy research to segments of the general public. One project is to market a Treetop Barbie doll. I contacted a local tailor who made the proper clothes and now my students and I are bombarding Mattel, Inc., with phone calls.

Another project is to bring artists into the canopy. I designed and constructed a canopy platform that we have installed in our 1000 acre forest campus. How wonderful it has been to bring up art and music students to the canopy. One student, Duke Brady, wrote a canopy rap song. (Download an MP3 of Duke’s song.) Another group of students did a canopy graffiti piece. Interesting how most graffiti elements are urban-oriented. This piece encompasses both urban and forest elements.

Jess Archer, a student being supported on a Research Experience for Undergraduates grant from the National Science Foundation, reports that her survey of real estate agents is getting a strong response. We wanted to know what the value of trees are from an economic standpoint. One way to find out, we figured, was to ask real estate agents how much more (or less) people pay to have trees on their lots or near their homes or businesses. Our preliminary phone calls to local agents revealed that some people will pay more — because they want them close by for aesthetic reasons — and some will pay less — because they are worried about “the needle problem” or “the leaf problem” or “the roots problem.” We sent out a questionnaire to a lot of real estate agents in the Northwest, and will write up the results for a real estate magazine.

As the late afternoon rolls around, I have to leave early today to take Gus, our 12-year-old son, to his drum lesson. He has a set of drums in his room, and he likes to just play them. Jack and I have offered to get more intense about it — providing a place for a band, inviting others over, getting a keyboard so I can play tunes, but he says, no, Mom, I just like to play drums for myself, just low-key. Whenever this comes up, I am at a loss. Having been raised as the third daughter of immigrant parents, it boggles me that Gus is happy to just dink around with something like a set of drums. When my parents paid for piano lessons, we practiced furiously each day, the piano recital lurking around the corner, something at which to excel. Our kids don’t have that drive. Maybe that’s good. Gus lives more in the present, doing things for the sake of doing them, not performing them for approval. Maybe that is something my son can teach me.