Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Strictly for the birds

Birds dPhotographed barely two metres from the porch of my daughter and her husband’s house in Canberra, this kookaburra, along with his mate, is a regular visitor. As the photo shows, the house borders a large tract of native bushland that is ideal kookaburra territory.

Nevertheless, this fellow and his mate are happy to spend time (and possibly take up residence) quite close to the home of a pair of admiring humans.

This is by no means unusual as kookaburras are smart birds and quickly learn that where there are humans, there are often meaty tit-bits and other treats. They are even bold enough to pilfer sausages and the like from under the noses (sometimes quite literally) of picnickers and barbecue cooks.

I still have a very early childhood memory of the kookaburra that would snatch worms from under my father’s feet as he dug the garden. Knowing when he was on a good thing, the kookaburra appeared on the garden fence every morning, quickly managing to train my parents to feed him strips of meat for breakfast.

Feeding wild birds is a very common feature of human behaviour. It is a simple but compelling Birds cexpression of biophilia, the deep-seated human desire to affiliate with other living things. Surveys of wild bird feeders in North America and Europe show that between 45 and 75 per cent of households are actively engaged in feeding birds at home. Figures from New Zealand are similar and Australian studies indicate that between 38 and 80 per cent of households spend hard earned cash attracting birds to their backyards.

The Australian figures are intriguing because in this country artificially feeding birds is a very controversial issue and is actively discouraged by many authorities. The main reasons given by opponents of the practice are:

  • Diseases can be spread at feeding areas where large numbers of birds congregate
  • Artificial feeding may not meet all nutritional requirements and cause malnutrition and digestive problems in adult birds and developmental deficiencies in their young
  • Birds can become dependent on artificial food sources
  • Artificial feeding favours the spread of more aggressive bird species to the detriment of other species, leading to imbalanced populations

But the scientific validation of these concerns is far from complete according to ornithologist, Professor Daryl Jones.

Sure, certain diseases can be spread as birds crowd at feeders, but given the colossal numbers involved, these outbreaks are very rare indeed. Certainly, some types of foods, like bread, are inadequate and potentially harmful. But for most birds, the proportion of their overall diet made up of human-provided food is so small that little harm is likely.

Furthermore, Professor Jones says, there is no good evidence that backyard bird-feeding leads to dependency. “Almost all species investigated still find and consume a diet dominated by natural foods, and only visit to our bird tables for snacks”.

One thing numerous experiments have found, however, is that even a little extra food leads to earlier breeding, more chicks, and a greater chance of their surviving to the next year. In other words, feeding typically results in more birds.

The Australian reserve about the backyard feeding of birds is not shared by bird-lovers in the Northern Hemisphere. In the UK, for example, the British Trust for Ornithology and the Audubon Society actively and passionately advocate the feeding of birds, and claim it as the act of any genuine conservationist: ‘‘If you care about birds, feed them!”. In the USA, the bird seed industry is currently worth over a US$10 billion. American households now distribute over 500,000 tonnes of seed to suburban birds annually.

Harsher winters and much less natural food and habitat, in the UK particularly, probably mean that birds in the Northern Hemisphere benefit more from human assistance than those in our neck of the woods.

But the motivation for attracting birds by feeding them is broader than safeguarding the welfare of the creatures. There are also practical, social and psychological reasons, including:

  • Birds are attractive and interesting friends
  • Watching and listening to them can reduce stress and provide pleasure
  • They help with flower pollination and the control of plant pests
  • Having birds around fosters environmental awareness and guardianship

A survey conducted by Daryl Jones and Peter Howard found, as well, that a powerful explanation offered by backyard bird feeders was what the researchers labelled “environmental atonement”. Humans had caused so much damage to the natural world, their respondents explained, that feeding the wildlife was one way of giving something back, a personal attempt to redress the balance. This powerful component of the feeding story has since been identified among feeders throughout the world.

Where does all this leave Australians who could miss out on these benefits if they adhere to the recommendation not to feed wild birds?

Well, the choice may not be quite as black-and-white as it might appear. For one thing, many of us may be able to have bird-attracting gardens that have these basic features:

  • A variety of pollen, seed, fruit and nectar-producing Australian native plants
  • Plants of different textures and heights that provide shelter for a range of species sites

Your bird-friendly garden could also include one or two nesting boxes, water pond or birdbath – all safe from predators like the neighbour’s cat!IMG_0975

There may also be some place for bird feeding that is responsibly managed according to these guidelines:

  • Feeding stations are placed out of the reach of cats and other predators
  • Stations are cleaned daily and food removed after an hour
  • The time of day when food is provided is varied
  • Good quality food is used such as commercial nectar mixes or seed mixes (The cheaper supermarket seed does not contain sufficient nutrition for birds)
  • Only sliced meat is fed to meat-eating birds and only after careful consideration has been given to the impact that these birds will have on smaller birds
  • Feeding is ceased when more than 20 birds have gathered at the same station
  • Pets are fed indoors or remaining food is removed so common Mynas and other birds can’t share it
  • Providing food for the birds is made an occasional treat and not a daily event

I confess that I once tried unsuccessfully to set up feeding stations around my lawn to attract more regular visits from Rainbow Lorikeets but I am now content to let the flowering native trees and shrubs in my garden bring them. IMG_1426 cropped

It’s about time

My Internet provider has just supplied me with a free replacement modem intended to speed up Internet traffic to and from my computer and thus save me time. The old modem was working fine as far as I was concerned but I was pressed to make the switch.

AQH3419.TIF

AQH3419.TIF

Isn’t this typical of technological development in our society? All of it is oriented towards increasing speed and saving time. If the truth be told, much of our way-of-life today is shaped by a pre-occupation with speed and “clock” time. Speed helps us to fit more into the day and respecting time enables us to schedule all that we need, want or are obliged to do.

But not all societies share our regard for clock time – what the Ancient Greeks referred to as chronos. In Nepal, for example, especially in the rural villages, the daily schedule is much more likely to be shaped by the timeliness of activities and events than the hands anddr A typical pastoral scene numbers on a clock. This is understandable in an agrarian society where daily activities are indissociably tied to rhythms set by the sun, seasons, crops, and animals. Conformity to these rhythms takes precedence over meeting clock-regulated schedules. Smart Western visitors to Nepal quickly learn to accommodate to the reality and elasticity of “Nepalese time”.

In significant ways “Nepalese time” is closer to the second notion of time that the Ancient Greeks had. That was Kairos, which is time that is referenced to events or activities or more precisely the “right” or opportune moment for such things. As is said in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible,

To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that what is planted… and so on.

In all, there are 26 events or activities listed in the Ecclesiastes passage but I doubt that the list was intended to cover “everything”. There are quite a number I would be happy to see added to the list – all to do with nature. A time to walk (sit, meditate, swim, cycle, canoe, ski tour etc) in nature, for example, a time to experience challenges in nature; a time to find peace in nature, a time to seek healing in nature;

and a time to slow down in nature.

Writing about friluftliv, the Scandinavian tradition of embracing an open air life, Hans Gelter speaks of “slow experiences”. Many in modern societies are caught up in high-tempo family and working lives where finding the time to do all that has to be done is difficult. In such a regime, the risks of unhealthy fatigue (the kind that leads to burnout) and stress are great, not only from the frustration of not getting the main jobs done but also from little things – the disruptive hassles that cumulatively can also be very wearing. “This speedy life”, says Gelter, “has resulted in the longing for an alternative to such a hectic life, a search for ‘slowness’, for an opportunity to get a break to breath and regain energy”.

He adds: “Urban stressed-out people are searching for ‘slow experiences’ designed to temporarily ‘stop the speed’ of the hectic everyday life”.

Perhaps the most effective slow experiences are the ones that appear to suspend time altogether. These are the ones that involve personally meaningful activities that completely absorb us and give us deep joy. They are the activities that provide the experience of “flow” that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes. In a state of flow, self-awareness almost disappears and there is no consciousness of time.

All manner of activities can do this, especially ones that are freely chosen and are personally very meaningful. Art, sport and hobby activities are commonly associated with the experience of flow.

Nature provides ideal settings for “flow” activities. There are several reasons for this, a very importantIMG_0346 resized one being that natural settings help us to have the “being away from it all” feeling. In natural settings also, we are much more likely to be “fascinated”, that is, to have our attention captured by the sights, sounds and other sensory stimuli around us. More than any other context, natural settings help us to withdraw and slow down.

Hans Gelter is a strong believer in the power of nature to provide the kind of restorative slow experiences that urban dwellers are needing and seeking. To test his belief, he conducted a study in which 221 people undertaking field trips in nature were asked to have a short solo experience. They were asked simply to sit silently in a natural setting. After 10 minutes, the participants re-joined their groups and wrote down how the solo experience was for them – their thoughts and feelings during it.

Most (96%) wrote positively about their encounter with nature, many expressing gratitude for the experience and reporting feelings of happiness and freedom. The most common (66%) observations were about the impact of the experience of mood as expressed in terms like calm, relaxation, stillness, quietness, peace, harmony and restoration. Almost as common were thoughts about sensations – the sights, sounds, smells of the surroundings and the increased awareness of details.

Although this was not a rigorous study, the results are totally consistent with the findings of many formal, peer-reviewed investigations. It is particularly interesting that a mere 10 minutes spent alone in a natural setting was sufficient to alter people’s moods, mental rhythms and time sense.

 

Hans Gelter’s study is mentioned in his chapter in Nature First: Outdoor Life the Friluftliv Way, edited by Bob Henderson and Vikander and published by Natural Heritage Books, 2007

Imagine this scene –

  • a rock ledge overlooking a six metre almost vertical drop to a small rocky creek bed
  • a doubled climbing rope, anchored to a large tree, falls from the ledge to the creek
  • Julia, a largish, middle-aged woman in a climbing harness, is attached to the rope and is striving vainly to lean back in the harness and let the rope support her
  • a second person, obviously an instructor, is gently coaching her to trust the equipment, to keep her legs straight and to let the rest of her body slowly slide to the abseiling position
  • a third person (also an instructor) is at the foot of the drop holding the rope in readiness to help the woman control her descent
  • after struggling for several minutes to overcome her fear and let herself lean even a few degree backwards, the woman suddenly loses patience: “This is bloody ridiculous. Make me do it Les. Bully me!”

Yes, I am the Les to whom the order was addressed. The amusingly ironic thing is that Julia, a well-known political activist, human rights champion and all-round formidable campaigner was certainly NOT a person to be bullied. Needless to say, I disobeyed and resorted to plan B which involved a shorter and gentler rock face on which Julia could build trust in herself and her equipment.

Julia was one of the 500 or so people that passed through a beginning bushwalking and camping course

Backpack workshop

Backpack workshop

for adults with which I was heavily involved for over 25 years. Guided by the principle of “gradualism” (as distinct from the “into the deep end” approach), the course took people through a series of activities, beginning with an

This the way you build a fire

This is the way you build a fire

 

indoor introductory workshop and culminating in an overnight, moderate grade, full-pack bushwalk in the Blue Mountains National Park.

“What has abseiling to do with basic bushwalking and camping?” you ask.

“Nothing”, I once would have said, but my mind was changed by a chance occurrence on the very first presentation of the course.

This is what happened. With a view to underscoring the message that safety in outdoor activities is largely of one’s own making, my co-leaders and I hit upon the idea of illustrating the principle in a demonstration of abseiling. There was no intention to do other than show the course members safety procedures before and during an abseil. But when we had finished the exercise, one of the participants said, “I’d like to have a go at that”. And he did – successfully and without fuss – and, in doing so, encouraged almost everyone else in the group to follow his lead.

The group that returned from the abseiling site was noticeably different from the one that walked there an hour or two earlier. Morale and camaraderie had surged and one sensed a heightened motivation for the course and for bushwalking more generally. The sentiment seemed to be, “If we can manage an abseil, bushwalking and camping will be a breeze”.

Just a matter of walking backwards - down a cliff

Just a matter of walking backwards – down a cliff

This change was not lost on my co-leaders and me. It was clear that the abseiling “demonstration” had to be a fixed part of all future courses – to be conducted in the same way with the move “to give it a go” coming from the participants (which, quite remarkably, it always did).

I am sure that Julia was fully aware of the value of giving challenges a go. She knew intuitively what she stood to gain from walking backwards down that drop. On another occasion during the course, she had this to say (in her characteristically forthright way) to us course leaders:

There should be more courses like this for older people. Everything is done for the young these days. We have to stop older people bringing down the shutters.

Her urging not to bring down prematurely the shutters on life has stayed with me – indeed inspired me – ever since.

Nature-based activities, including those like bushwalking or hiking that are not usually associated with “adventure”, are especially good ways of keeping the shutters wide open.

  • They take us into a world that stimulates our mental faculties and emotions, sometimes very powerfully;
  • They increase our openness and resilience to novelty and the unexpected;
  • They help us to discover mental and physical resources within ourselves that we may not know we have;
  • They nurture friendship, foster empathy and co-operation in personal relationships;
  • They can help us to re-frame and resolve personal problems and issues – and even to give added meaning and purpose to life.

And you have more than my word for all of this. Susan, a course graduate who became one of my regular bushwalking companions, was kind enough to let me record some of her thoughts about the benefits she derived from walking in nature.

This is a summary of what she said:

  • From the physically challenging walks, she gained a sense of accomplishment and heightened self-esteem. The camaraderie that came from sharing challenges with others fostered a sense of belonging and of being accepted by the group. Interestingly, she had valuable periods of alone time even when walking with and in the security of a group.
  •  In addition to increasing her existing friendship network, she also saw her socialising in bushwalking as an important part of maintaining connections and engagement in her more senior years.
  •  Susan valued the non-competitive nature of bushwalking and appreciated very much the way the activity could encourage caring attitudes and behaviour.
  •  Her bushwalking also strengthened her sense of purpose in life and her desire to keep well (“I do not want to be a little old lady with osteoporosis”).
  •  Not surprisingly, Susan admitted to having a “craving” for nature, revelling in its beauty, tranquillity and peacefulness.    
Susan and friends

Susan and friends

 

Before the “miracle” happened, Michael was a seriously underachieving and troublemaking “rank outsider” at Kambrya College, a Melbourne secondary school. He is featured in a recently telecast documentary about the remarkably successful strategies Kambrya is using to transform its culture, academic performance and community standing.

Michael with a Kambrya assistant principal

Michael with a Kambrya assistant principal

We meet Michael first as a member of Darrabi, a class formed to cater for year 9 boys with serious behavioural and learning issues. Like most of his classmates, Michael joined Darrabi with negative attitudes about himself, learning and the school. Despite the best efforts of his class teacher, he along with most of his classmates failed to respond to the Darrabi program, despite its laudable emphasis on one-on-one attention, respect, expectation raising and confidence building. Academic performance actually went backwards and a couple of serious behavioural meltdowns, one being a classroom break-in involving Michael, finally compelled the teacher and one of the school’s assistant principals to devise a relatively radical remedial strategy.

Although few if any of boys had done any bushwalking, the two staff members elected to take them on a four-day full-pack (20kg) hike in Wilson’s Promontory, a very beautiful coastal wilderness area.

Michael was not at all excited by the prospect. “At the time they told us, I said, ‘No damn way’ ”, he laterwilsonspromb reported. “I had never walked further than going to the shops or going to my mate’s house – that’s two kilometres”, he also recalled.

The 62.5 km walk challenged the boys mentally as well as physically. They had to dig very deep at times, arriving at the campsite after dark on one occasion. There were blistered feet and fatigued muscles in abundance but also displays of endurance and helpfulness. Around the campfire at the end of each day the teachers were able genuinely to commend the boys for their efforts, resilience and support of one another.

The physical and mental challenges of the walk, the immersion in nature, the camaraderie that developed and the patient encouragement and counselling from the teachers had an astonishing impact on the boys. They finished the four days with a new and more positive image of themselves and their capabilities. This is what Michael had to say about the experience:

Physically it [the four-day walk]sucks, but I feel so proud of myself

If you can get to do a 62.5 km hike without crying, you can do anything.

 These are the remarks of a boy who had grown in self-respect, confidence and resilience. Indeed, for Michael, the experience was life changing. He returned to the regular Darrabi program with a commitment that brought not only academic success but also made him a “better person” (his own words). Such was his transformation that he wanted to share it for the benefit of others. In his speech marking his graduation from the program, he said, “I want to show other kids how Darrabi has helped me”.

But there is more to his metamorphosis. The boy, who was once called a rank outsider, who once broke into a classroom, who once was a menace to himself and others, was selected for the prestigious leadership position of Sub-school Captain. It is hard to find the words to describe Michael’s delight on learning of his election.

Michael and his classmates had received and benefited from “wilderness adventure therapy”, even though the teachers responsible may not have used that particular label for the experience. But the experience had all the hallmarks of an adventure for the boys – perceived by them as risky (even though the actual level of risk was very low), physically and mentally challenging and an unfamiliar outdoor location. The walk took the boys on the archetypical hero’s journey that is re-told in countless legends – a venture into a novel world, valiant struggles against mental and physical challenges and a fulfilling reward at the end.

All manner of nature activities can draw out the hero in people. A day-walk along a wide bush track can be a hero’s journey for one person as much as a full-pack trek in trackless terrain could be for another. What matters is not the activity as such but its meaning to the individual.

As the story of Michael and the other Darrabi boys illustrates, outdoor adventures can have positive, powerful and enduring effects. Studies of formal and informal wilderness programs including Outward Bound have consistently found that wilderness activities, especially ones of longer duration (two to three weeks), produce noticeable improvements in independence, self-esteem, personal sense of control and other personal attributes that strengthen self-belief and confidence. Interestingly, there is evidence that such benefits are likely to be greater for adults than for young people.

It is my conviction that one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to have a “wilderness adventure” or two in our lifetimes. There are plenty of organisations that can help you do this. Outward Bound immediately comes to mind of course, but there are other options including joining a group or club that is engaged in engaged in outdoor activities such as bushwalking, canoeing and canyoning. And, if you are prepared to spend a little time getting yourself walking fit, why not think about a supported walking or trekking holiday in Nepal, India, New Zealand, Canada or Patagonia? You may

Why not put yourself in a picture like this?

Why not put yourself in a picture like this?

find that the wilderness adventure you have will do for you what an Outward Bound program did for the woman who made this remark:

It [the program] gave me the opportunity to take a risk. It strengthened my sense of self. It gave me a feeling of purposefulness, self-respect, and strength that I never had before. When you are confident in yourself, it affects every aspect of your life.

 

I admit that I am not qualified to write about this topic, but my guest blogger, artist Natalie Maras certainly is – and a great deal more besides. The range of her work as a sculptor is extraordinary but unified by a deep commitment to communicating the essence of her subjects. That essence includes the “patterns of life” that scientists are busily uncovering (and often having difficulty describing to non-scientists) – Natalie has the distinction of being the first ever artist-in-residence at Australia’s prestigious Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Herbarium which is part of the National Research Collections. 

Collage jpg

After just an hour or two talking with Natalie and admiring her (sometimes quirky but never frivolous) creations, I knew that readers of my blog would be fascinated to meet her through her own reflections on art and its relationship to the natural world.

***

‘Hello children! My name is Jacques. I love the sea.’

I was a primary school student sitting cross-legged on the floor in our school assembly. I could hardly contain my excitement at clapping eyes on the man who was addressing us in person from the stage. He had a weathered face, spoke entirely in French, and to my delight he wore his characteristic knitted beanie. To me, he appeared as though he had stepped straight out of the photographs in my favourite books.

‘It’s Jacques Cousteau!’ I whispered hoarsely to my neighbours. ‘Cousteau! Can you believe it – here! You know… deep sea diving, aqualungs, submarines…?’ Their unknowing eyes plunged me into hush.

Apart from my frustration that day at being unable to share my utter joy with my peers, I felt something else. My childhood hero was a man who loved the subject of his lifelong studies. He was it seemed to me, with my childish eyes wide open, overflowing with love. ‘I love the sea. Do what you love. Never give up my dear children. I wish you all, from my heart, good luck!’

These days, I am in my late thirties, a professional artist and on a daily pilgrimage to the same primary school with my three now young children. I am privileged to demonstrate for them, and for many others with whom I now cross paths as an artist, the importance of doing what you love.

‘Are you an artist because you want to be famous some day?’ the assemblies of primary school children ask me… No. I just love a mysterious thing and like Jacques, I want to spend time with it. I sculpt in love with learning, and I carry the baton of pursuing what I love.

Bentwing Swift Moth

Bentwing Swift Moth

I love exploring the underlying patterns of life with my hands and with my imagination. In my studio work, I discovered that the mysterious underlying structures that appear in pollen grains repeat in viruses and bacteria and also vibrate at cosmic level among the stars. The pattern of musical notes when played through sand appears in sacred and primitive architecture as well as in flowers and turtle shells and receding water. The cycles of accretion and erosion in biological soil crusts are identifiable in seeds and in my own bones. Tracing these patterns of nature takes me into ancient time and far into the future, deep underwater, broad around the globe and high into the cosmos and well into myself. I am an artist because I grow in that endeavour, in love.

Pollen group

Pollen group

Someone once said of art that nothing great could ever be made by simply copying nature. I have been fortunate to meet the works of great technicians of botanical and wildlife art. I have exhibited among some of the technicians- at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney and most recently at the South Australian Museum. In museums and galleries around the world I have also encountered the works of many long-passed famous and anonymous artists and craftspeople. I agree now that merely copying nature is not an aspiration held by the world’s greatest artists. The greatest artists aspire to, and do, strike the Source.

Though I know there are lesser human copies of nature, which can bring tears to human eyes, to me, human aspiration counts. That aspiration marks human potential and marks the artist. To me if an artist produces copies for a copy’s sake, they are no better than a primitive natural architect – be it moth, ant or termite. After all, a single spider web, dewy in early morning sunlight, will conjure emotion. A single crystalline flake of frost on grass can wondrously steal the words from human lips. Nature presents things of beauty all around us, but this is not art.

I also accept that nature often cannot be copied- it sets a standard far too high for humans to reach. That moth, ant or termite actually outdoes the human maker. A humble caterpillar can weave such a cocoon as to put the cleverest human hands to shame. I have in my studio the remnant of a deep-sea sponge, Euplectella, whose spicules of flexible optical fibre defy the most advanced NASA engineering. The Baya Weaver bird has at least a dozen knots in its repertoire to make the most magnificent nests, which cannot easily be replicated. Twice as an artist in residence (at CSIRO) and guest artist (at the ANU) among scientists, I learned first-hand the limits of sophisticated scientific perceptions and technology.

Sometimes the most experienced artistic hand, or even the most naïve hand, is graced to convey a

Weedy Sea Dragon

Weedy Sea Dragon

universal pattern of life. I say ‘graced’ advisedly. Making art, as I know it, (and caution, dear reader, I have not passed through formal art school!) involves long and careful training in seeing things- from the inside and the outside. It also involves long and careful training with different materials, each with their nuanced behaviour (affinities, hostilities and different states in different conditions). As with our oldest friends, it takes time to know materials and accept their limitations, quite apart from our own. Then there is training to ensure that hands and eyes work together harmoniously allowing space for the artist’s ‘voice’ to enter and more importantly… to exit. Sometimes talent and inspiration arrive spontaneously and ferociously bypass concerted technical efforts. Art can arrive by ‘accident’.

By now I understand in my practice that the training I have accepted as my calling is long and arduous and has nothing whatever to do with fame and fortune. I do not seek to copy nature for its own sake. I do not copy nature because I dare to imagine that I am good enough to do this. I copy nature in an effort to refine my perception so that I resonate with influences intended for me. I can accept that I was not intended to understand some aspects of life. Some things will forever remain beyond me. For now, nature sets the best standard to which I can aspire as a sculptor, until grace arrives.

Tragic carpet

Tragic carpet

*** 

To follow Natalie and her progress, visit http://findiflooshki.com/ or email findiflooshki@gmail.com

 

The genius of nature

In Japan, this remarkable object could well be a wedding gift not because of its obvious delicate beautyIMG_0294 cropped but for what it signifies – love that lasts a lifetime.

Known as Venus’ Flower Basket, it is actually the skeleton of a sponge (Genus Euplectella) that is found on the ocean floor, at a depth of 100 – 1000 metres, off Japan, the Philippines and other western Pacific countries including Australia.

Looking more like a vase than a basket, the skeleton is made from glass produced by the sponge itself from silica it extracts from the surrounding sea water. Yes, this simple creature is able to convert dissolved silica into glass as genuine as any that human technology can produce from sand and quartz.

Not only that, the sponge fashions that glass into a structure that has the rigidity to withstand the huge pressures of deep water. It manages this by combining amazingly efficient microscopic building blocks called spicules (Think of three spikes intersecting at right angles to one another) into the geometrically elegant network that you can see in the photo. Fragile as it may appear, the resulting structure is incredibly strong and resistant to cracking. Architects and engineers have studied it in search of ways to build more robust buildings, especially skyscrapers.

Engineers in the field of fibre optics are also looking to the Venus’ Flower Basket for guidance, and in particular at the hair-like fibres at the base of the skeleton. These fibres anchor the sponge to the ocean floor. They also act like optical fibres transmitting light along their length. The intriguing thing is that they do this better than the industrial fibre optic cables currently available for telecommunication and other applications. Additionally, the sponge’s fibres are more flexible than the man-made variety. What is more, the sponge makes its fibres at very low temperatures using natural materials – a process scientists hope someday to mimic because the existing manufacturing process requires very high temperatures and has other limitations.

Beautiful as the skeletal Venus’ Flower Basket is, it pales in comparison to the living animal, which actually glows in the darkness of the ocean depths. The sources of this light are bioluminescent bacteria that live in the cells of the sponge. Attracted by the glow, male and female shrimp larvae enter the central cavity or atrium of the sponge, happily staying there to feed on the left-overs and waste from the sponge’s diet of plankton.

By the time the sponge has finished growing, the top of the atrium has been sealed, trapping the now mature shrimps inside. But everyone is happy. The shrimp have a perfect “love nest” for life, a secure home and a reliable source of food, and the sponge has a couple of resident cleaners. It is even an ideal set-up for the shrimps’ offspring, as these are small enough to exit through the walls of mum and dad’s sponge and set off on their own to find a mate and make a home for themselves in another sponge.

So there you have it. Because of a shrimp love affair, the Euplectella skeleton has come to be associated with Venus, the goddess of love, and to be adopted as a symbol of a happy married life.

But Euplectella, the living creature, symbolises something of much greater significance for human well-being and advancement. As mentioned, this simple creature has found the solution to technical problems that continue to tax human ingenuity, making it both an example and a symbol of the “genius of nature”. Engineers and scientists look to Euplectella as a source of insight and inspiration, valuing and respecting it for what it can teach them.

Surrounded as we are by the products of human ingenuity and creativity, it is easy to think that the problems of existence, big and small, will be solved only by the human mind. This view ignores the reality that nature has been addressing the same or similar problems for 3.8 billion years – and producing extraordinarily efficient, enduring and graceful solutions. We are privileged to live in a very competent universe.

One of the smartest things humankind can do in the quest for solutions to the problems that face us is to first “ask nature”. Doing this is far easier than you might imagine as there is a fascinating website that can be consulted by anyone. I urge you to go to this site right now. When you are there, try sampling what the site offers by exploring this question: How does nature maintain community? Do this by selecting the following links: (1) maintain community (left-hand column), (2) co-operate and compete  (central column), (3)within the same species (central column), (4) collaborating for group decisions: honeybees (right-hand column). This will lead you to a summary of the work being done by a team of scientists and engineers at the University of Illinois looking at ways to improve human collaboration during disaster relief efforts. And where are they looking for inspiration? – to honeybees.

This is one of almost 1800 examples you can find on the site of an approach to innovation and development called bio-mimetics. As its label suggests, the approach involves the conscious emulation of the forms, systems and processes of nature.

Perhaps the best known product of bio-mimetics is the Velcro fastener. The Swiss engineer, George de velcro burrMestral, developed Velcro by adapting the system some burrs use to cling to cloth and fur.

More than a very wise problem-solving strategy for scientists, engineers and other innovators, bio-mimetics is also a way of valuing and respecting nature for everyone. An underpinning philosophy of bio-mimetics is that nature has more to teach us about living well, harmoniously, sustainably and gracefully on the planet than we could ever imagine.

Humans are masters at exploiting the material resources of nature and dangerously abusing the planet in the process. We need urgently to extend our recognition and appreciation of, and our readiness and willingness to be guided by, nature’s knowledge, genius and wisdom.

Much is being said at the moment about building STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Manufacturing) capabilities within our society. The philosophy and method of Bio-mimetics need to be at the heart of that undertaking.

The beak and head profile of the Kingfisher solved the turbulence problem for the bullet train

The beak and head profile of the Kingfisher solved the turbulence problem for the bullet train

It is also essential that society as a whole becomes much more aware and respectful of nature’s capacity to inform, inspire and guide our scientists, technologists, engineers and manufacturers. This will require, among other things, the expansion of environmental education in our schools and vastly enriched communication between scientists, especially those in the natural sciences, and the rest of society.

In a following post, you will meet a gifted artist who is using her talents to help Australian scientists share their message – something to look forward to, believe me.

 

Please do not read any further until you have clicked on this link  and discovered (or re-visited) a very different and remarkable website and blog.

Josh Gross, the creator of the site and author of the blog, has channelled his love of nature in a way

Josh hiking on Mount Ranier 2012

Josh hiking on Mount Ranier 2012

that is both unique and inspirational. More than that, he has made his blog a powerful advocacy tool on behalf of a number of species of endangered or threatened animals. Needless to say, I was both delighted and honoured when Josh agreed to write a guest post for ourgreengenes. He has entitled his post “My personal relationship with nature: loss and recovery”. You will read how he had the common adolescent experience of disengagement from nature. But you will also be intrigued and even surprised by the experiences that restored his connection and indeed took it to new heights.(Make certain you follow all the links.)    

Beginnings

My personal relationship with nature has not been entirely smooth. As a child I was enamored with the natural world, as many children are. But unlike some children I was fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to foster this connection.

Northeast Ohio, where I grew up, used to be full of wetlands. This restored pond at Carlisle Reservation is a snippet of what once was.

Northeast Ohio, where I grew up, used to be full    of wetlands. This restored pond at Carlisle Reservation is a snippet of what once was.

My father frequently took me to one of the excellent metro parks near my house, which are oases in the sprawling Greater Cleveland metropolitan area. There was one park in particular that contained an enclosed wildlife observation area replete with bird feeders; as well as several miles of trails. I spent many hours there watching the birds, walking in the woods, and interrogating the naturalists.

In addition to exploring my local parks, I was an avid reader as a child. The vast majority of the books I checked out from the library concerned animals. I probably read every children’s book (and a few adult books) they had about wolves. But reading about exotic creatures paled in comparison to the thrill of seeing them at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

When I was young, I enjoyed nothing more than going to the zoo. Wolves, cheetahs, lions, tigers; all the animals I was enchanted by were there. Then, sometime in middle school I visited the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo’s RainForest location for the first time. I suddenly found myself immersed in an environment richer than any I had experienced before. Obviously it was artificial, but the RainForest was real enough to capture my imagination. I can honestly say that my childhood visits to the zoo helped make me who I am today.

Distractions

My love for the natural world never completely left me. But during late adolescence it faded into the background. It is at this point in Western society that one must decide how to go about scrounging for the social construct of money. I had a dilemma: my greatest interest was wildlife but my disposition and talents strongly favored people-oriented work. At first I tried to take the natural sciences route. But I found social science courses to be much more enjoyable, as I was captivated by the mystery of why we humans do what we do. Therefore I ended up majoring in psychology, and eventually entered a Master’s program for Clinical Mental Health Counseling. But it would not last.

Rediscovery

I never forgot my first love. I always returned to natural spaces whenever I needed to think, and my free time became ever more filled with television programs that featured wild areas. The more my educational life was consumed by Gestalt and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the more I escaped into the electronic world of Survivorman and River Monsters . I also kept working for the same parks district I frequented as a child, even though I knew it was in the ‘wrong’ field. It was as if my unconscious mind was aware of something I was consciously ignoring.

Then the façade came crashing down. My forays into electronic procrastination led me to watch several documentaries featuring the non-profit group Panthera. So out of curiosity I ordered a copy of Alan Rabinowitz’s An Indomitable Beast . I do not know why, but this book affected me like few others. It left me enamored with this creature, the jaguar, and I had to know everything about it. In a fit of desperation I e-mailed Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity , asking if there was anything I could do to aid in jaguar recovery in the United States. Unbelievably, he replied.

Since I was enrolled in graduate school, Michael suggested I could use the educational resources at my disposal to locate a number of hard-to-find texts. The goal was to uncover references to jaguars outside of their commonly accepted historical range in the U. S.

This work enthralled me like nothing before; everything about it felt right. I had to find a way to contribute more to jaguar conservation in the future. Imagine my relief, then, when frantic googling revealed that there is such a thing as conservation psychology . It might actually be possible for me to apply psychological knowledge to biodiversity conservation. Not only that, but there are actually graduate programs at respected universities that can prepare me to enter this field. The stars had aligned.

For my friend Mopana, who informed me that Ladies Love Purple. I recommend you check out her excellent blog!

For my friend Mopana, who informed me that Ladies Love Purple. I recommend you check out her excellent blog!

Moving Forward

Thanks to a combination of hard work, fortuitous circumstances, and human kindness; I am set to become part of Humboldt State University’s Environment & Community program this August. Not only will I get to study the human dimensions of conservation, but I will be living in an area inhabited by both people and mountain lions (Puma concolor).

My blog at thejaguarandallies.com has also opened up new possibilities. As it turns out, I have some skill as a writer. Given the importance of communicating scientific information to the public in a way that is both accurate and engaging, I cannot help but wonder if this will become a more prominent part of my life.

Conclusion

My story contains a few key points. First of all, urban green spaces should not be taken for granted. It was my local metro parks district that first allowed me to nurture my love for nature. Second, despite their drawbacks, zoos can have important benefits. My childhood visits to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo enhanced my fascination with wildlife and taught me about the challenges they face. Lastly, every form of communication should be exploited in order to create a more sustainable future. Nature documentaries, River Monsters, and especially Survivorman served as lifelines for me when my relationship with nature became a peripheral concern. Live wildlife programs like Wild Safari Live are the future of this genre.

My relationship with nature has not been smooth, and at one point I nearly lost it. But unforeseen events helped me rediscover my greatest passion, and I finally feel like I am on the right path.

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 145 other followers