Olympia's Science Cafe

    On Tuesday night, Olympia’s Science Café drew a standing-room-only crowd to its monthly program at Batdorf & Bronson. The speaker was rainforest-canopy biologist, Evergreen State College professor, and dynamo Nalini Nadkarni.
     My husband and I grabbed the last two seats in the back(tall stools normally used by latte sippers), and waited patiently while the chatty and gregarious crowd ordered up hot and steamy drinks. Nadkarni and a few others were hovering over a laptop and projector. We sipped our team and we waited. And waited. The laptop and projector were having some communication "issues." Menus were displayed, keys pressed, programs were exited, machines rebooted, connections checked, commands executed.
   “Is there a laptop in the house?” someone called.
   Amazingly, no one responded. I was surprised--there were probably 60 people in the room. I wondered if laptop owners were becoming as worried as doctors and good Samaritans about possible malpractice suits. You offer your laptop, introduce a virus, crash and operating system, and here comes the lawyer with papers claiming psychological trauma and lost wages by the PowerPoint lecturer.
   I really wanted to see Nadkarni’s photographs of trees and the forest canopy. I nudged by husband and reminded him that he had is laptop in his backpack. He walked it to the front of the room, pulled few plugs, and did a quick transplant. After a brief and futile frenzy, Nadkarni took the microphone, unflustered, smiling.
    “People have been communication for thousands of years without the use of computers, projectors, PowerPoints, and other technology. People have talked in person, face to face, using their voices to express themselves and their ideas…” and then, with more power and grace than a human being has right to possess, she took us into the rainforest, up into the canopy, and into her heart.
    Nalini Nadkarni described her pioneering work in the canopy of the Monteverde Cloud Forest of Costa Rica and, closer to home, the temperate rain forests of the Olympic Peninsula. She spoke of the biodiversity of these forest canopies—of howler monkeys, sloths, snakes, orchids, bromeliads, ferns, and mosses. There are some 500 species of orchids in the Costa Rican rainforest. A single big-leaf maple in the Olympic Peninsula rainforest hosts as many as 90 species of moss and lichen.
    Moss and lichen are epiphytes, plants that live on trees and other plants but do not derive their nutrients from them (the way parasites do). So, what nourishes this abundance and diversity of plants? Clouds!
     Largely in the form of mist and fog, clouds deliver not only water but nutrients such as nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and sodium, among them. Like raindrops, each droplet of mist or fog forms around a tiny particle—usually dust or dirt. This particle is called a condensation nucleus. It, too, is a nutrient. Rain-producing clouds provide much of the precipitation in a rainforest, of course, but it’s the shape-shifting, enveloping, bathing, hugging mist and fog that allows epiphytes to thrive.
     Without a single visual aid, Nadkarni has transported me into the cloud forest. I am suddenly in a helmet and climbing harness in the top of a tree, gazing down the green and glowing fern- and moss-covered branches. I am seeing tiny orchids, miniscule frogs in water pooling on bromeliads, the beady eyes of a howler monkey. I am on a zipline whizzing past 15,000 species of epiphytes. I am patting thick beds of moss. I am thinking of the marbled murrelet and the single pale-green egg it lays in this moss in Olympic National Park. I am in the Garden of Eden. And then I hear the words “climate change.”
      Though Nadkarni probably loses sleep at night thinking about the impact of a warming and drying climate on her beloved rainforests, she doesn’t get gloomy or preachy at this point in her talk. Everyone in the room likely owns a copy of An Inconvenient Truth, watches National Geographic specials, and knows the significance of the number 350. She does not need to convince anyone that climate change is real and happening now. Nadkarni simply asks us to use our imagination. She has so fully and effectively conjured up the rainforest for her audience that it is almost heartbreaking to undo her work, to envision a rainforest without rain, a lush green ecosystem without its sustaining mists and fogs, a tree without its community of epiphytes. It is not a pretty picture--dry, brown, parched, withering, desiccated, and silent of song.
    Before I can sink into that paralyzing sadness and global grief, Nadkarni has moved on. She is telling us about what she is doing doing doing to help conserve these forests. Oh my goodness, not only is this woman a fabulous speaker, but also a mover and shaker—using her abudant energy and enthusiasm to tackle projects that would seem to require a very large staff or several clones. In addition to her field work, paper and book writing, and teaching, Nadkarni has spent much time preaching about the biodiversity and the importance of global forest conservation. Until recently, she admits, she has been preaching to the choir--a choir or other scientists and academics with an interest in forest ecosystems. Now she is moving from preaching to reaching—from preaching to the choir to reaching out to those not in the choir—the people who don’t necessarily think about trees the same way she does…if at all.

Next Blog: Tree-Top Barbie, Polliwogs in the Penitentiary, and the Nadkarni Method for Locating Lip-Synchers, Hummers, and Others Simply Listening (or not) to the Choir.