It began with a painting, a biologist and an idea to disprove the widely-held axiom that trees are static. The biologist first affixed a paintbrush to a tree branch, set it to a canvas and watched it sketch. She then multiplied the length of that tree’s stroke by every branch in its crown. In the course of a year, the biologist learned, the tree would move 187,000 miles ”” or seven times across the globe. This seemingly immobile thing was actually in constant motion.
The drawing and its implications would ultimately spark a program that has infiltrated some of the most impenetrable prisons in the nation, attracted international attention, and earned a spot on TIME Magazine’s list of best inventions. Called the Nature Imagery Project, it transports the soothing elements of nature into supermax prisons to help ease the psychological stress of solitary confinement.
The project is rooted in an idea that even the most static entities ”” like trees, like inmates in solitary confinement ”” have the capacity for change. “Prisoners seem to be these people who will never change,” said the biologist, Nalini Nadkarni, a professor at the University of Utah. “They will always be violent, always a burden on society. But if we can change our perspective, we can see that people can move even if they seem stuck.”