A Brief Review of
Between Earth and Sky:
Our Intimate Connections to Trees
by Nalini Nadkarni
Review by Chris Smith
It is a shame, I believe, that the word “treehugger” has come to have a negative connotation in our age. With little or no reflection, almost anyone can start to name off reasons to appreciate trees. And now Nalini Nadkarni, in her recent book Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connections to Trees, has catalogued a host of diverse ways in which trees are assets to humanity. Nadkarni draws from a lifelong love of trees that began with her childhood fondness for the eight maple trees long the driveway of her childhood home and stretches through her academic career that has been devoted to tree research. Structuring her work around a slightly modified version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, she offers here a rich cultural exploration of trees. The best part of this book, however, is the extensive anthology of poems about trees (a collection of well-over 50 poems, in part or full) that is interspersed throughout the book.
The book’s first and longest chapter is devoted to a question that many of us might be tempted to take for granted: “What is a Tree?” Here, Nadkarni surveys the basic structure of a tree from canopy to roots, including a fascinating section on the epiphytes – plants that grow on trees. In this chapter, she also explores the language that is used to describe and classify trees and forests. After defining what a tree is, Nadkarni begins her ascent of Maslow’s hierarchy by overviewing the “goods and services” that trees provide. She proceeds upward, until she arrives at the final category “mindfulness,” her adaptation of Maslow’s “self-actualization” (a change, which I might add, seems to be more holistic and more palatable to Christian theology). The best chapters in the book are the three consecutive ones in the middle on “Health and Healing,” “Play and Imagination” and “Connections to Time.”
This is a significant book and one that should be read widely by those who care about environmental justice; its best parts are the tree-related poetry and Nadkarni’s personal stories of her experiences with trees. Unfortunately, however, the overall feel of the book is a bit stiff – Nadkarni’s deep passion for trees gets diluted somewhat by its presentation via the rigidity and cliché of Maslow’s hierarchy. Although the author’s discussion on the significance of trees in Christianity is a bit thin, the book as a whole could offer much rich material for a theological reflection on trees: from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Eden through the cross to the eschatological tree of life in the New Jerusalem, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (Rev. 22). I, for one, could get really excited about such a book! (Note: About 15 minutes after I wrote this review, I saw that Alan Jacobs is presently writing a book on trees! That will be one to look forward to!)