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TED2010

Nalini Nadkarni: Life science in prison

February 11, 2010

Nalini Nadkarni challenges our perspective on trees and prisons -- she says both can be more dynamic than we think. Through a partnership with the state of Washington, she brings science classes and conservation programs to inmates, with unexpected results.

Nalini Nadkarni - Tree researcher
Called "the queen of canopy research," Nalini Nadkarni explores the rich, vital world found in the tops of trees. She communicates what she finds to non-scientists -- with the help of poets, preachers and prisoners. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Trees epitomize stasis.
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Trees are rooted in the ground in one place
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for many human generations,
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but if we shift our perspective
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from the trunk to the twigs,
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trees become very dynamic entities,
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moving and growing.
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And I decided to explore this movement
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by turning trees into artists.
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I simply tied the end of a paintbrush onto a twig.
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I waited for the wind to come up and held up a canvas,
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and that produced art.
00:42
The piece of art you see on your left
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is painted by a western red cedar
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and that on your right by a Douglas fir,
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and what I learned was that different species
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have different signatures, like a Picasso versus a Monet.
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But I was also interested in the movement of trees
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and how this art might let me capture that and quantify it,
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so to measure the distance that a single vine maple tree --
01:01
which produced this painting -- moved in a single year,
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I simply measured and summed
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each of those lines.
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I multiplied them by the number of twigs per branch
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and the number of branches per tree
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and then divided that by the number of minutes per year.
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And so I was able to calculate
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how far a single tree moved in a single year.
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You might have a guess.
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The answer is actually 186,540 miles,
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or seven times around the globe.
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And so simply by shifting our perspective from a single trunk
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to the many dynamic twigs,
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we are able to see that trees are not simply static entities,
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but rather extremely dynamic.
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And I began to think about ways that
01:43
we might consider this lesson of trees,
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to consider other entities that are also static and stuck,
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but which cry for change and dynamicism,
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and one of those entities is our prisons.
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Prisons, of course, are where people who break our laws
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are stuck, confined behind bars.
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And our prison system itself is stuck.
02:01
The United States has over 2.3 million
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incarcerated men and women.
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That number is rising.
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Of the 100 incarcerated people that are released,
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60 will return to prison.
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Funds for education, for training
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and for rehabilitation are declining,
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so this despairing cycle of incarceration continues.
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I decided to ask whether the lesson
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I had learned from trees as artists
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could be applied to a static institution
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such as our prisons,
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and I think the answer is yes.
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In the year 2007,
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I started a partnership
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with the Washington State Department of Corrections.
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Working with four prisons, we began bringing science and scientists,
02:40
sustainability and conservation projects
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to four state prisons.
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We give science lectures,
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and the men here are choosing to come to our science lectures
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instead of watching television or weightlifting.
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That, I think, is movement.
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We partnered with the Nature Conservancy
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for inmates at Stafford Creek Correctional Center
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to grow endangered prairie plants
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for restoration of relic prairie areas in Washington state.
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That, I think, is movement.
03:08
We worked with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife
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to grow endangered frogs -- the Oregon spotted frog --
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for later release into protected wetlands.
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That, I think, is movement.
03:18
And just recently, we've begun to work with
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those men who are segregated
03:23
in what we call Supermax facilities.
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They've incurred violent infractions
03:27
by becoming violent with guards
03:29
and with other prisoners.
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They're kept in bare cells like this
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for 23 hours a day.
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When they have meetings with their review boards or mental health professionals,
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they're placed in immobile booths like this.
03:40
For one hour a day
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they're brought to these bleak and bland exercise yards.
03:45
Although we can't bring trees and prairie plants
03:48
and frogs into these environments,
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we are bringing images of nature
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into these exercise yards,
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putting them on the walls, so at least they get contact
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with visual images of nature.
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This is Mr. Lopez, who has been in solitary confinement for 18 months,
04:01
and he's providing input on the types of images
04:04
that he believes would make him and his fellow inmates
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more serene, more calm,
04:09
less apt to violence.
04:12
And so what we see, I think,
04:15
is that small, collective movements of change
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can perhaps move
04:20
an entity such as our own prison system
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in a direction of hope.
04:25
We know that trees are static entities
04:27
when we look at their trunks.
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But if trees can create art,
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if they can encircle the globe seven times in one year,
04:34
if prisoners can grow plants and raise frogs,
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then perhaps there are other static entities
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that we hold inside ourselves,
04:43
like grief, like addictions,
04:46
like racism,
04:48
that can also change.
04:50
Thank you very much.
04:52
(Applause)
04:54

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Nalini Nadkarni - Tree researcher
Called "the queen of canopy research," Nalini Nadkarni explores the rich, vital world found in the tops of trees. She communicates what she finds to non-scientists -- with the help of poets, preachers and prisoners.

Why you should listen

Nalini Nadkarni has spent two decades climbing the trees of Costa Rica, Papua New Guinea, the Amazon and the Pacific Northwest, exploring the world of animals and plants that live in the canopy and never come down; and how this upper layer of the forest interacts with the world on the ground. A pioneering researcher in this area, Nadkarni created the Big Canopy Database to help researchers store and understand the rich trove of data she and others are uncovering.

Nadkarni teaches at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, but her work outside the academy is equally fascinating -- using nontraditional vectors to teach the general public about trees and the ecosystem. For instance, she recently collaborated with the dance troupe Capacitor to explore the process of growth through the medium of the human body. In another project, she worked with prison inmates to grow moss for the horticulture trade, to relieve the collecting pressure on wild mosses. The project inspired in her students a new reverence for nature -- and some larger ecochanges at the prison.

She's the author of Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees.

The original video is available on TED.com
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