When one is in love—especially with something as huge and beautiful and complex as trees—there is an urge to share this emotion with everyone, especially to those who have no opportunity to experience such feelings themselves. As my love of trees and canopy biota expanded, I sought to share my connections to nature with people who live in places where it is absent, just as a new bride might urge those sitting on the sideline of her wedding party to find a dancing partner. It occurred to me that the people who live in venues that epitomize the most severe endpoint of environments without nature are those who are incarcerated in prisons and jails, the spaces where nature is not.
In 2003, I started a research project that brought together plants and prisoners. I realized that it would be unrealistic to bring trees to inmates, but I could bring canopy-dwelling mosses inside the concrete walls to connect convicts with living, growing things that need their care. This “Moss-in-Prisons” project included prisoners in a combination research/conservation effort to counteract the destructive effects of collecting wild-grown moss from old-growth forests for the floral trade. Florists, who use moss for their flower arrangements and to pack bulbs for shipment, have created a growing market for mosses harvested from old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest. Since 2005, the moss-harvesting industry reached an economic value of nearly $260 million each year.
Ecologists have raised concerns about this expansion of this “‘secondary forest product”‘ because they have documented that these moss communities fill important ecosystem roles. They take over three decades to regenerate, far longer than what would make for sustainable harvest at present removal rates from these ancient forests. No protocols exist for growing mosses commercially, or in large quantities. If I could learn how best to grow commercially usable moss, perhaps I could create a more sustainable source of moss and relieve the pressure of wild-collecting from old-growth forests. To do so, I needed help from people who have long periods of time available to observe and measure the growing mosses, access to extensive space; and, most important, fresh eyes and minds to put forward innovative solutions. These qualities, I thought, might be shared by many people in prison.
[For more on this story by Nalini Nadkarni, go to http://www.yesmagazine.org/pea…prison-cell-20180504]