Nalini Nadkarni Is Walking in a New World
The biologist thought that a traumatic fall to the forest floor would end her life as she knew it. Instead, it opened her up to an even more vibrant existence.
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Nalini Nadkarni told her story to producer Cat Jaffee for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
There were these three faces of my female graduate students looking at me with extremely grave concern. I knew that something big had happened to me, and to my body, and to my life at that time, at that moment. And I looked around at the stumps that were surrounding me and I thought, Wow, they look a lot like tombstones.
It was a moment of there’s gonna be a before this fall, and there’s gonna be an after this fall, and I didn’t know what that after would be.
I use mountain climbing techniques to get to the top of trees to study the plants that live up in the treetops. I’m a small brown woman. I love life. I love people. I love solitude, and I love my connection to nature, especially trees. I think they’re the most magnificent beings on earth.
It was early in the morning in the Olympic rainforest on the extreme west coast of Washington State. The trees are very old, they’re very big, and they’re covered with moss and lichens.
I was there with three graduate students of mine. And my students were very excited because they hadn’t climbed before, but I’ve climbed trees for the last 45 years, carrying out research on the ecological importance of canopy-dwelling plants and animals in rainforests.
We always take great care where we put our lines, and we want to make sure that the rope goes over at least two branches. We had it all spread out, and then I set off on climbing one of these big trees. They were about 200 feet tall with big, spreading limbs.
I put on my harness and clonked it shut. I checked my carabiners, I checked all of the gear, and I started ascending the rope. I was about 50 feet off the ground, I was getting to the branch I wanted to get onto to set up the plots that I was going to set up, and I threw my leg over the branch.
I’m a scientist, so I’m always thinking about plots and study design and so forth, but I’m also a person who loves trees. So that moment of being alone in the canopy is always a special one. Not just like, Oh, what scientific thing am I gonna describe or define or discover, but who is this tree and who am I to this tree and what is this tree to me?
I was just sort of thinking about those things, almost like a spiritual connection for that moment. And I leaned forward on my rope, which was holding my weight. Then suddenly, there was no tension in the line, and I found myself hurtling off the branch and fell 50 feet to the forest floor. And you think that because that is one of the densest forests in the world, that I would’ve hit some of the branches that would’ve slowed my fall. But I fell, as my graduate students later said, like a silent sack of sand, and just landed on the ground.
I was unconscious for about seven minutes, and then when I awoke, I was lying on my back looking up at the canopy instead of down at the forest floor.
I really didn’t know anything until two days later when I woke up in the ICU of Harborview Medical Center, which luckily has this fabulous trauma center.
I knew what the before was of being this successful academic professor, and publishing papers, and getting proposals, and having graduate students, and giving public lectures, and being a National Geographic explorer, and getting academic rewards. That was me then, but I had no idea what was gonna be me in the future.
I had exploded five vertebrae, broken nine ribs, broken my pelvis in three places, lacerated my lung, and broken my fibula.
But I got great medical care and within a day my daughter, my son, and my husband came to Seattle and were by my side really for all of my early recovery.
Over the weeks, my graduate students visited me. I had all kinds of friends who visited me, colleagues came, and I realized that one of the most critical things in recovery. Whether it’s an accident like mine was, or whether it’s the loss of your pet, or whether it’s a heart attack of your neighbor, or whether it’s a broken engagement, what matters most is the web of relationships that you have that carries you through.
There would be times I’d be in a grocery store and somebody would come up to me and I was wearing that stupid collar and limping around, and this woman would say, “Well, oh my gosh, it looks like you’ve had a terrible accident.” And I’d go, “Yes, yes, I certainly did.” And she’d say, “Well, let me tell you about my terrible accident.”
And at first I thought, Oh my God, I don’t need to hear about any more trauma. But what I realized finally was that I did need to hear about her trauma. I did need to hear about her accident, because it made me realize I wasn’t the only one who had experienced something that had stopped them, that had made them ask, “What was I before, and what will I be in the future?”
So I started listening and seeking out those encounters, because I realized, although I couldn’t fix them and they couldn’t fix me, what we could do for each other was hear each other and listen and sympathize and empathize as well as we could.
I’m kind of back to physically doing what I was able to do. But I’ve changed a lot internally, I think. And part of that was due to my relationships, because when I was lying on that bed in the hospital and thinking, Oh my God, what if I never write another grant proposal again, what I didn’t realize was that my friends, my colleagues, and my family didn’t care a dime about whether I would ever write another paper, they just wanted to get me back. And that was this huge lesson for me. Because pretty much all my adult life I’ve been on what I think of as riding this bright red arrow that will take me higher and faster and better with more achievements and more accomplishments, so that people will think, Oh my God, she’s really hot, she’s really worthwhile.
But then you’re lying in a hospital bed, and you can’t even stand up by yourself, and people are still saying, We love you, then you start believing it.
So for me, the big moment was not the fall, it was the discovery that my value as a person was not what I achieved.
Even though it’s been seven years since I fell out of that tree, that moment of the fall is far longer than a moment. I remember when I was lying on that forest floor thinking this is the moment of before and after. And that moment of that fall was a moment, but I’ve seen how its impact has expanded. Its momentness has expanded to every single minute, every single moment of the way that I’m living my life now. And so when I meet someone who’s had a disturbance of some kind, yes, you have to take in the hard parts of that, but there are some generative things about that, and you’re gonna be arriving not at the original state you were, and you’re not gonna be at the disturbed state that you were. You’re not gonna be crumpled on the forest floor, but you’re never gonna get back to that original state, and that’s OK.
You’re gonna come back to some third state, and it’s neither the original nor the disturbed. And it’s neither better nor worse than either of those. It’s just different. And if we can embrace that and accept that and look to that as a time of growth, a time of shift and of change that would not have otherwise happened, then I think we can see the disturbances that are inevitable. Unpredictable, but inevitable in our lives.
I’m a better person because of it. So I have to, in some ways, thank that rope that failed, that brought me from the canopy to the forest floor. Now, I’m walking again in the new world that I find myself in.
Nalini Nadkarni is a professor of biology at the University of Utah. She’s a mother, a wife, and a researcher. She’s known as the Queen of Canopy Research and is the author of Between Earth and Sky: Our Intimate Connection to Trees. You can learn more about Nalini at her website, nalininadkarni.com.