Connecting to our roots: the spirituality of trees

Nalini Nadkarni is a canopy biologist who has always found sanctuary in trees. Beyond her scientific studies, she’s extolled the spiritual benefits of being around our flora friends – a feeling that’s prevailed across many religions.

Nalini Nadkarni asks us to reimagine our relationship with trees.

Nalini Nadkarni (Submitted by Nalini Nadkarni)

Trees have been a personal refuge for Nalini Nadkarni ever since she was a kid. Nadkarni, called the "queen of the forest canopy" in some circles, has used that love to guide her through a career in forest ecology. 

But Nalini Nadkarni's interest in the forest is more than scientific. She sees trees as inherently spiritual. She delivers sermons on Trees and Spirituality to anyone who will listen, from religious communities to her fellow biologists. 

Her message is to recognize these silent sedentary companions that live with us and to be thankful for them.

Nadkarni joined Tapestry's Mary Hynes this week to share some of these ideas.

Can you tell me a bit more about the message you're delivering and how trees can be seen as being inherently spiritual? 

Well, one of the things I talk about is the mere shape of trees, their form, because that's something that everybody who has eyesight can understand. We look at trees and we can see that they are rooted in the Earth, and yet they extend their limbs up towards the sky. [Trees] are real connectors between Earth and sky, between the mundane and the spiritual, in many ways. And so I start with the form of trees, the fact that they physically occupy that space between Earth and sky. And then I talk about these religious scriptures that I read, and the fact that there are many values of trees that are articulated in the Old Testament. For instance, in the Old Testament, there are 328 references to the words 'tree' and 'forest.' 

Mist shrouds a mountainous rainforest.
General view of the National Park Tapamti in Orosi, 128km of San Jose, Costa Rica. (Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters)

Sorry, how many? 

Three hundred and twenty eight. I can put them into different categories of what value these trees provide for the people who read the Bible or the Old Testament. One of them is simply the fact that there's practical use of trees for food and for shelter. But there are also analogies that use trees as connectors to God. Like in Proverbs, the fruit of an apple tree is compared to a lover, and compared to God. The sweetness of that fruit is very much like the sweetness of God. 

In the Book of Mormon, for example, we learn about the white fruits on the holy tree that represent the love of God for the followers of that faith. And there's a pathway — what they call a rod — that the followers follow to that tree of life in the Book of Mormon. If these scriptures describe trees as being so fundamental and so important to the people who lived during biblical times or who follow the readings of the Bible, then surely we as people should understand that, or simply be aware of the gifts that the trees provide for us. I think trees need this treatment because trees are silent and they're stuck in one place, they're sedentary. So they're not like lions and tigers and cheetahs, which seem so interesting and important to people. And yet we walk by trees every day, and what they're doing, I think, is just remarkable. They're creating oxygen out of carbon dioxide, they're creating fruits and nuts for us to eat, they're providing lumber for our homes. They're providing inspiration for our artists and our poets. Yet we walk by them as if, you know, we're kind of ignoring them. And so for me, this work with spiritual communities has been not so much asking for direct action or contributions to a particular conservation group, but rather an invitation to recognize these silent sedentary companions that live on our planet and to be thankful for them. And if we can, to express gratitude for them and to create actions that might protect them. 

I'm curious about something. In addition to these motifs that seem to exist in almost all of the world's religions, as in the tree of life, the bodhi tree, different aspects of a forest or a tree being important in the holy books of the world, is there also a felt sense of this for you when you're in the forest? Is this something that sort of leaps off the page from the scriptures of the world's religions and something you experience in your body? 

Well, it is. That's such an interesting question that you bring up. You know, my own sense of religion is not so oriented towards God, as a guy who looks like the statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial. But I do have a sense of spirituality, and I kind of agree with the Dalai Lama's definition of spirituality, which is a sense of connection to other people, to other beings on our planet, like trees, and a sense of connection to self. And I know that when I walk into a forest, as I think many people do, they get the sense of connection. 

If we take spirituality as a sense of meaningful connection to something other than ourselves, I think that's the definition of walking through a forest, actually.



The top of the tree is connected by the trunk to the roots, so that the roots of one tree can actually connect and communicate and exchange materials with the roots of other trees. And I know as a human being, I feel connected to individual trees. I mean, I have a crown and they have a crown, I have limbs and they have limbs. I have a trunk and they have a trunk. And so I think there's a sense of identity and connection whenever I walk into a forest or even see an individual tree when I walk down a city street. If we take spirituality as a sense of meaningful connection to something other than ourselves, I think that's the definition of walking through a forest, actually. 

You've called trees a very personal refuge for you. And a few years back, you were hurt pretty badly when you fell from a tree in western Washington. How did that accident change your relationship with the very place that had been such a sanctuary for you, such a source of safety for you?

I'm still puzzling it out. Even though it happened six years ago. I mean, I worked for 35 years climbing trees in the tall tropical rainforest, the temperate rainforest. I've climbed thousands of trees, and my students and my colleagues have climbed them as well, without a single accident. But a rope I was hanging on failed and I fell 50 feet from the top of a maple tree and sustained, basically life threatening injuries. I was [airlifted] out and after six months of ICU and other medical attention and so forth, I've been able to get back to myself, and able to get back to pretty much my former capacity to climb trees and go running and do active things. But luckily, after I was able to sort of physically climb trees, I was able to overcome those fears because I think that sense of safety, that sense of wonder, that sense of beauty and that sense of curiosity, scientific curiosity that has always held me, that trees have provided, returned. And I found that I was not resentful or angry or overly fearful of trees. I was able then to reacquaint myself with the gear, with that sense of danger and that sense of comfort and joy and security that does come when I'm up high in a tree. So I think it was kind of a happy result. It kind of reconfirmed my love of being in treetops. 

You know, forests can be the source of immense awe, in the human being, but they are also, in many instances, very fragile. Is this a layered relationship for you? You want to protect the very thing that brings you a kind of protection. You know that brings you a kind of refuge?

I have thought about that a lot. You know, when I started climbing trees as an eight year old, climbing the maples in the front yard of my parents home in Bethesda, Maryland, on the East Coast, that was always the place that I found as my refuge. It was my world, and I loved the feeling of [my] strong limbs holding me up. I always felt safe there. And I could read a book and eat an apple, or I could watch the squirrels jump from one canopy of a maple tree to another. And I remember taking an oath, saying, when I grow up, I'm going to help trees somehow. They had provided me with my place, with a place that was safe from my brothers and sisters, and all the chores, and the homework, and everything else, and it was just such a peaceful place for me to be and to think my own thoughts and to sing my songs to myself and to dance my little dances.

I think a lot of the work that I've done in my whole adult, grown-up life, and professional life as a forest ecologist and conservationist, has really stemmed from exactly what you say, which is this layered, 'I want to protect you because you've protected me.' I'd like to afford you some kind of protection because you have lent me a sense of protection, a sense of connection, a sense of spirituality in fact. And I can't imagine anything more important than that. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Produced by Kent Hoffman. Written by Kent Hoffman and Jacob Henriksen-Willis.