This post is part of a series from the TED 2009 conference held in Long Beach, California from February 4-8th. You can read other posts in the series here, and the TED site will release video from the talk in the coming weeks or months. Because I’m putting these posts together very quickly, I will get things wrong, will misspell names and bungle details. Please feel free to use the comments thread on this post to offer corrections. You may also want to follow the conference via Twitter or through other blogs tagged as TED2009 on Technorati.
Nalini Nadkarni likes to climb trees. Really big trees. She studies forest canopies in Costa Rica, climbing trees like the Giant Strangler Fig.
The contrast between the forest floor and canopy is stark – the floor is cool, constant, and largely empty as it’s extremely dark. The canopy, on the other hand, is more like an open field, and there’s an amazing diversity of species. Her husband studies ants in tree canopies – of 10,000 taxonomized ant species, 4,000 live exclusively in forest canopies. Species have been named after her, her husband and their children.
But her focus is epiphytes, plants with leaves that are adapted to absorb nutrients from mists and fog. These are mainly mosses, and they help generate rich arboreal soils. By stripping epiphytes from canopy roots, she’s been able to study the regrowth of these species – it takes more than 25 years to regrow parts of the canopy soils.
Canopy forests are incredibly important for the sequestration of carbon. And these forests are under threat – there’s a market for these mosses in the floral industry. Nadkarni has been trying a variety of promotional approaches to call attention to the problem. She’s started the International Canopy Network, a non-profit designed to promote forest survival.
The ICN uses wonderfully unconventional tactics. She has sewed a series of “treetop barbie dolls”, repurposed Barbie dolls that wear tree-climing clothing and carry books about the forest canopy. She’s worked on “canopy confluences”, bringing artists into the trees, and yielding sculptures by Bruce Chao and a dance piece called Biome by Capacitor, an amazing modern dance trouple. (A segment of that dance is below.)
Perhaps her most amazing work is focused on cultivating moss for the floral industry to prevent trees in the wild from being stripped. She’s working with inmates in Washington State prisons, encouraging them to learn about mosses and study which grow the most quickly. This has turned into a series of science and sustainability programs in the prisons, including letting prisoners grow rare Oregon spotted frogs… in captivity, she jokes.