The plane didn’t have an entertainment system, his computer battery was spent, his iPod was empty, and he hadn’t brought a book or anything to write with. With nothing to distract him for the eight-hour flight, he says, “I thought about this question: If you knew that whatever you do will be a success, what is the one thing you would actually want to do? The answer was I want to put a circus in the tropical [forest] canopies.”

A PhD candidate in the U-M’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, Nolte describes himself on his website as “an institutional economist” and “tree hugger” whose research is focused on “findings that help donors and implementers improve the performance of forest conservation projects.” Maybe putting on a show right there in the treetops would render them a bit more economically viable, he thought. And maybe some people would have the same transformational experience he had in Ecuador in 2001.

Back then, “I wanted to be either an actor or a computer scientist,” he recalls. “Then I realized I need both the creative and engineering side, so I thought ‘architect’ and got into the Berlin University of Architecture.”

But before beginning his studies, he spent a month with several friends at a biological station in the Ecuadorian rain forest, and “the interaction with big trees changed my life,” he says. “I started studying conservation, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

He’s made bringing trees and people together a mission. “Big trees are a really good way of changing people’s minds and getting to people’s hearts,” Nolte says. “I’m very curious about different ways of attracting people to engage more closely with nature, to spend more time in nature, to have those experiences that I feel are pretty transformational, so what I’ve been really exploring most closely is how we can open up new ways of experiencing trees.”

Nolte learned how to climb and navigate big trees and build structures in them, equipping himself to serve, in effect, as the set designer and stage manager for the kind of performances he envisioned. Then he recruited a few friends and launched Arbor Solaris to perform “flow art” (think Cirque du Soleil) in the trees. “Our events combine visual arts with performance arts,” he says, “and they’re as interactive as we can make them.” They put on three shows in forests last summer, including one at a local spinoff of Burning Man–the Lakes of Fire festival in Rothbury, a tiny village on Michigan’s west coast.

“Lakes of Fire provided a certain context, and my own ‘family’ provided all the inspiration and backing that I needed to be able to put something on in that little forest,” says Nolte. “I’m not even really a performer. I have so many friends who are so much better than me. But Lakes of Fire was one of the huge incubators that enabled me to experiment with a lot of things related to trees.”

Arbor Solaris will appear at FoolMoon and FestiFools on April 4 and 6. An April 25 show will raise money for a return engagement at Lakes of Fire and other performances this summer–see