Reflection: Nalini Nadkarni and Resilience of Humans and Nonhumans

PPEH Fellow Fatima Zahra reflects on Nalini Nadkarni's visit to Penn and conversations around Resilience, part of the Curriculum for the New Normal.

Nalini Nadkarni, a professor and ecologist from the University of Utah, shared her experiences about living in forest and observing  the canopy trees from a close proximity. Her time in the canopy forest, climbing the trees and observing the forest and its overtime changes from top of canopy trees, had inspired her to take up many collaborative and community-based  projects. By sharing her work on various projects surrounding the canopy forest ecology and personal experiences she offered valuable insights on resilience in nature and human lives. For the sake of brevity I will discuss two important takeaways from the extremely rich talk she gave on Resilience, the fourth symposium for PPEH’s Curriculum for the New Normal.

One of her main projects takes place in local prisons, where she teaches inmates about moss cultivation. To replenish the moss collected for commercial reasons, she inspired the inmates to learn to grow moss (which takes over several years to naturally grow on canopy trees). She said working towards growing moss helped prisoners to focus and find purpose while in prison as they became producers and nurturers instead of mere offenders serving their terms in prison.

In today’s society--focused on consumption and packaged food and products-- it is not surprising that mosses are procured from nature to sell in the market without focusing on sustaining forest ecology. In this regard, Nalini’s work highlights the need for addressing issues of environmental sustainability through active public outreach. When she saw a problem she took action to resolve it. She carried the mosses in her backpack and visited the local prisons to find out if they would be interested in her plan to grow mosses. She finally succeeded with her plan after several attempts. This kind of collaboration with the community, be it in prison or schools or elsewhere, gets people actively involved in contributing towards creating a more sustainable environment.

It is also interesting how Nalini thinks of resilience as a state that one reaches after recovering from a setback by transforming into a new self, stronger and better than one’s former self. She cites her own example of recovering from a severe physical injury followed by a fall from a canopy tree that she was studying. During her time at the hospital she had the time to reflect on her life and found more strength to continue her work more vigorously than earlier. This was an inspiring case in example because Nalini’s definition of resilience is contrary to the popular definition of resilience where it usually means bouncing back to one’s normal state after experiencing some type of psychological or physical setback.

I thought this new definition of resilience defined Nalini’s work. She not only observed and informed people on what is happening in the forest but also created and supported programs to support the canopy ecology to mitigate the loss of natural resources to some extent. Clearly, we need more resilient scientists and activists like her in our society. Similarly, we need to learn from the resilience of our natural environment which protects and provides us at a rate that is disproportionate to the lack of care we show for our surroundings. The onus, therefore, is on us (humans) to support our ecology (the nature) instead of just unsustainably profit off of it.

To learn more about Nalini Nadkarni's work, watch some of the TED talks she has given in the past on her prison project and canopy project


Fatima Zahra is a PPEH graduate fellow (2015-16) and a PhD Candidate in Penn's School of Education, where she is currently leading a project on farmers’ education in the northern part of Bangladesh.