As an organization, the American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA) has a knack for finding great keynote speakers. I try to attend as many tree care industry conferences as I (reasonably) can. There’s not an industry conference that goes by that I don’t see something that completely mystifies me, and the ASCA conferences are my favorites.

One year’s keynote speaker left a lasting impression.

I winced when the emcee introduced “Treetop Barbie.” I thought she easily could take that nickname the wrong way, especially since she stands only 5 feet tall and has brown eyes and auburn hair. But, thankfully, she didn’t. In fact, the first thing she told us with a broad smile across her face was, “I prefer the name ‘Queen of the Forest Canopy.'”

Her real name is Dr. Nalini M. Nadkarni, and she’s a forest ecologist at Evergreen University in western Oregon. Dr. Nadkarni has narrowed her field of study to tree canopy habitats and the plants that grow there. Her base of operations is in the Pacific Northwest, among some of the world’s tallest trees. Her nickname, she said, was given by research assistants who work beside her in the tops of 300-foot Douglas firs.

Dr. Nadkarni has been featured in National Geographic and The New York Times, and she received an Emmy for her PBS specials on forest canopies. She was at this particular ASCA conference to lecture on the importance of habitat preservation. At a conference for arborists, who should well understand the importance of maintaining healthy habitats for trees, she was preaching to the choir. What made her message pertinent, however, was that she is successful at preserving habitats, and on a grand scale.

Dr. Nadkarni explained how she turned her two passions, tree climbing and her love of nature, into a career. She acquired her undergraduate degree in biology from Brown University and her doctorate degree in forest ecology from the University of Washington. As part of her doctorate program, she set up viewing platforms in the tops of giant western hemlocks and Douglas firs. Her first canopy stations were crude rafts of borrowed planks set in place with old ropes and cables. The wealth of information she soon gathered and her jaw-dropping, National Geographic-quality photographs led to enough financial backing to build much-improved research facilities in Olympia National Park and build a second station at Monteverde National Park in Costa Rica.

During her talk, she described two practices that have stayed with me.

One was her unique approach to research. Normally, a scientist takes a theory or supposition and tests the idea through a rigorous series of experiments. Dr. Nadkarni says she does the opposite. Starting with no particular supposition or conclusion, she first asks a question that wants an answer. The answer leads her to ask more questions that lead her to more answers, and so forth.

The second practice was her habit of meticulously recording the data as she goes. By diligently quantifying the data and documenting the evidence, she distinguished her curiosity-driven research from mere conjecture. Several times during her presentation, she used graphs, photographs and diagrams to demonstrate how she reached her conclusions.

She went on to say that, for all of the press and notoriety she received for all of the fantastic photojournalism – even with the catchy nickname, she would have achieved little without proper documentation.

“It is the facts that lend substance to our work,” she said. “I’m not just another pretty face.”

PHOTO: ISTOCK

Here’s an example of these practices in action.

Little to no sunlight reaches the ground in old-growth forests. The only way for plants to find enough sunlight is to hitch a ride on a tree. With no soil to establish roots, tens of thousands of plant species, most of which had never been studied or named before, found a way to take root in the tops of trees. The first question she asked – the question that started her stream of questions-and-answers-and-more-questions – was: “How do these plants take root when there’s no soil?”

The aerial plants, called epiphytes, are not parasitic to their hosts. They have developed the ability to filter nutrients from the blowing mists and fogs. As the epiphytes live, die and decay, they build a layer of biomass around the tree limb. This rich, organic biomass becomes so fertile that the epiphytes take root, and the tree limb will sprout roots into the material. “It’s almost,” she explained, “as if the aerial plants are returning the favor of providing a habitat for their parent tree.”

During her search for answers, she made two discoveries that propelled her career into the limelight. One: She discovered that canopy ecosystems are very delicate. Two: Ferns, mosses, lichens, bromeliads, orchids and the rest of the epiphytes take a terribly long time to become established, a minimum of 20 to 25 years. She discovered this when she wanted to see what would happen if she stripped a section of epiphytes from a limb. To her surprise, she found epiphytes don’t re-grow overnight. Given the moist, fertile-appearing environment, she’d expected to practically watch the moss and ferns re-sprout before her eyes. When little happened after 10 years, it became clear that her treetops were decorated with delicate antiques.

Good timing also contributed to her success. Just as she was finding answers to how plants thrive at the tops of trees, the rest of the scientific community was answering why we should care.

Scientists from around the world were measuring increasing amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide. They also were beginning to notice the ozone layer thinning over the poles. At the time of Dr. Nadkarni’s research in the 1980s, the health of her delicate treetop plants looked to be a canary in a coal mine. Since tropical forests provide constant carbon dioxide/oxygen conversion, she found herself right smack in the middle of – or at the top of – the planet’s atmosphere experiment station.

Dr. Nadkarni’s career skyrocketed, and grants and endowments arrived weekly in her university mail-slot. She was being pulled in a hundred directions, spending most of her precious treetop time answering questions at Senate hearings, giving presentations to science foundations and speaking at conferences. She wasn’t able to do justice to the field work anymore. Feeling obligated to take advantage of her newfound status, she turned over the canopy research to her team of scientists so she could give full attention to preserving tropical forests.

With the help of a Guggenheim Fellowship, awarded in 2001, she created a whole string of environmental protection organizations. She founded the International Canopy Network, the Research Ambassador Program and the Legislators Aloft Program. The last has lawmakers climbing trees to take a bird’s eyes view of the forest. The program allows them to feel the mist on their faces. They get to experience a world where life exudes from every pore. Tree-protection laws soon followed.

Dr. Nadkarni also designed a canopy camouflage clothing line. She wrote and produced a host of books, articles and films and, she said, she shamelessly sold as many “Treetop Barbie” dolls as she could. All of the proceeds went toward forest canopy preservation.

Ever since her keynote address, I’ve made a point to document my work. Having that documentation has come in handy more than once.

Since that day, I’ve also allowed myself to ask questions, then try to answer those questions and pursue the ensuing questions until I learn what I need to know. Call it a reverse approach to inspecting trees.

That approach has allowed me the freedom to admit: “I don’t know … yet.”