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Posts Tagged ‘Connecting with nature’

This intriguing poster was recently emailed to me by one of my daughters.untitled

It is telling us that, even in the absence of modern communication technology, we can be “well connected” in forests and other natural environments.

I have two thoughts about the message of the poster. The first was how true it is!

Even before I had explored the science of humanity’s relationship with nature, I was aware from experience that being in nature fostered three kinds of connection:

  • with one’s inner self
  • with others, and
  • with the cosmos.

There is a full chapter in my book about these three connections and I have also written about them in earlier posts, examples being –

Solitude is good company

Wilderness and relationships

Nature and the hero’s journey of legend

Nature and the “higher self”

Nature is a great hostess

Nature – the great leveller and bonder

The cosmic connection

The three connections are of enormous personal benefit in and of themselves. They are also essential components of wellness – the state of being healthy and living “healthily” in all areas of our lives.

The second thought I had when I saw the poster was that, even without Hi-Fi (and other electronic technology), the trees and other plants making up the forest are also connected. Indeed, every tree and plant depicted in the poster would almost certainly be communicating with members of other species as well as with members of its own.

Some of this communication would be overground, via chemicals (and for some plants, sounds). The classic example is the release of volatile chemicals by plants that are being attacked by pests. These chemicals are detected by neighbouring plants spurring them to swing into defence mode either by accumulating chemicals that are toxic or at least noxious to the pests. Alternatively, the volatile chemicals attract predators that feed on the pests.

But the main arena of plant communication is underground via an information super highway made of fungal-networksfungi.

While mushrooms and toadstools are the familiar parts of fungi, most of their bodies are made up of a mass of thin threads called mycelia. It is now known that these threads act as a kind of underground internet linking the roots of plants, unlike as well as like. If you were standing in the forest in the poster, there could be several hundreds of kilometres of fungal fibres literally under your feet. Mycelia form intricate connections with all manner of plants, some separated by distances of tens of metres.

The networks are established as fungi colonise the roots of plants in order to form beneficial relationships labelled “mycorrhiza” (literally mushroom root) by botanists. In mycorrhizal associations, plants provide fungi with carbon-based sugars produced by photosynthesis while the fungi supply the plants with water and nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen gathered via their mycelia.

The fact that around 90% of land plants are woven into mycorrhizal fungal networks has required a radical re-think of how plants behave and how forests and other plant populations function. The idea that plants are remote, silent, self-serving individuals doesn’t hold anymore. Most plants form large and complex communities in which information, warning signal and protective chemicals as well as water and nutrients are exchanged. Some plants even help boost the immune systems of other plants.

In her ground breaking studies of North American forests, Professor Suzanne Simard,has discovered that trees actually help one another in times of need. She has observed, for example, that the more a Douglas fir became shaded in the summertime, the more it received some of the excess carbon from a neighbouring birch tree. Then later in Autumn, when the birch was losing its leaves and the fir had excess carbon (because it was still photosynthesising), the flow of carbon went the other way.

Based on observations such as these, Professor Simard argues that there is genuine communication – or “talk” as she is fond of saying – among trees and indeed other plants.

She also speaks of “mother” trees. These are older and larger trees that are located at hubs of fungal networks because they are richly connected to many other trees. Professor Simard has found that these older trees can recognise their own seedling offspring as kin and can favour those seedlings by linking them into fungal networks and even by discouraging other plants encroaching on their space.

blue-gum-forest

The iconic Blue Gum Forest, Blackheath

It is highly likely that the same kind of communication and kinship relationship will be found in forests elsewhere in the world, including Australia. Because of the low nutrient level of most Australian soils, trees growing here stand to benefit a great deal from co-operating with one another. It would be extraordinary if research found that they did not.

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Among the presents Zoe (my great granddaughter) received for her second birthday was a photobook about her recent trip to Sydney. The book was enclosed in 20 X 15 cm red vinyl covers, the front one containing a window showing the title of the book.

But when Zoe removed the wrapping from her present, the first thing she saw was the unmarked back cover. Her immediate response was one of delight. “Ipad”, she announced.

She was obviously disappointed when she realised that the “ipad” was in fact a book (although some pleasure was restored when she saw that the book was all about her).

Barely two years of age, Zoe made clear that she is already an enthusiastic member of the electronic age.

This was the second of two incidents that “inspired” this post. The first was my viewing of a short film that Josh Gosh (author of The jaguar and its allies blog) brought to my attention. Please take a moment to view  this heart-warming, informative and provocative film before reading further.

The two incidents came together in my mind as I reflected on the reality that, for children in our society, the electronic media are an inescapable and, increasingly, indispensable component of their lives. An associated reality is that the virtual and cyber worlds accessed by electronic media are luring children away from the outdoor play and nature experiences that are essential for the healthy development of their bodies and minds. Both realities, the second one especially, give reasons for concern – a particularly grave one being that our children are at risk of developing videophilia (a love of virtual reality) at the expense of biophilia (the love of natural reality).

With awareness of this risk surfacing (yet again) in my mind, I recalled the film and found myself pondering the thought that perhaps videophilia could be made an ally of biophilia – at least to some degree. It is now established scientifically that the human brain responds to pictorial and electronic images of nature much as it does to real-life nature experiences. So, why not use computers, ipads, smart phones and the like to bring nature to the minds of children in a way that nurtures biophilia?

With Zoe on hand, I decided to put this idea to a test of sorts. I sat her in front of my computer and played the film.  img_1521

She watched all six minutes of it intently, keeping her eyes on the screen even when her grandmother was commenting on some of the content.

“Did you enjoy the film?” I asked, to which she replied with her version of “Yes”.

But the real indication of the impact of the film on her came some minutes later.

Her aunty Bek arrived for a visit and immediately Zoe insisted she come to the computer and watch the film with her. This time, Zoe was the commentator, smiling and gesturing to convey her pleasure.img_1539

I am sufficiently encouraged by Zoe’s response to begin exploring the Internet for other nature material for her to watch – to supplement, I stress, not replace real nature activities.

I know that this is not an original thing to be doing. And in a later post, I will write about a father who has managed to confine most of his children’s on-line viewing to You Tube compilations he has made of videos and films about animals and nature generally.

 

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I find my back garden very relaxing and restorative. I was sitting there yesterday enjoying the display of spring blooms – orange clivias, yellow cymbidium orchids, mauve bromeliads, white rock lillies and yellow hibbertia – against the backdrop of differently shaped, coloured and textured vegetation.

My pleasure was tinged with regret because I was aware that the garden would not be mine for much longer. This prompted me to take these photos:

img_1465-enhancedimg_1464-enhanced

As you can see the garden is more informal than formal. I cannot really claim that it was planned to be this way. It is more an evolved than a designed garden, the product of intuition rather than horticultural expertise – of luck rather than good management you might say.

What I find interesting, however, is that the combination of intuition and luck seems to have produced a space that works very well psychologically for me (and others I have reason to believe). And this is really what matters.

As the pioneering psychiatrist, Carl Gustav Jung pointed out, “nature” and “landscape” (and “gardens” by implication) are psychological constructs or products of the mind. A contemporary writer on the psychology of visual landscapes, Maarten Jacobs, makes much the same point with this diagram:

psychology-of-visiual-landscape

One important thing this diagram tells us is that, as far as all natural landscapes including my garden are concerned, the “experienced” landscape is different from the “real” one. This can mean that what passes as a horticulturally excellent garden landscape can miss the mark psychologically.

This is demonstrated in a well-designed American study that compared the restorative potential of informal (or organic) versus formal (or geometric) gardens. The authors of the study did more than make a simplistic comparison between gardens at the extreme of natural and formal; variations within each of these broad categories were also compared.

The 295 male and female participants in the study represented a broad range of ages and ethnic backgrounds. They were each shown 40 photos of gardens chosen by a horticultural expert to form two sets – formal gardens from most to least and informal gardens from least to most. These are examples of the photos used:

formal-versus-informal-most-formal

Each participant ranked every photo according to four attributes:

  • Perceived restorative potential (how good a place it would be for a break when you are feeling overwhelmed, stressed or anxious)
  • Informality
  • Visual appeal
  • Naturalness (degree to which natural versus built features are present)

A sophisticated analysis of the responses revealed that the gardens having the highest perceived restorative potential were:

  •  Visually appealing
  • Informal
  • More natural than built

According to other research, features that give gardens their greatest psychological power include:

  • Unaltered terrain
  • Graceful curvilinear shapes
  • Few architectural elements
  • Many native plant species following their normal habits of growth
  • Natural looking water features such as ponds and streams
  • Partly open rather than dense vegetation
  • The absence of geometrical shapes and properties like axes and symmetry

It is no accident that these are much the same features our earliest human ancestors would have recognised and welcomed in their savannah woodland homes. It is strongly suspected that we modern humans are drawn to informal and natural landscapes because of predispositions and preferences that are inherited from our forebears and encoded in our genes (the biological factors in Maarten Jacobs’ diagram). So it is probably the case that my back garden is as much a product of my green genes as of gardening guidebooks or anything else.

 

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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

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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

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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

 

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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.

 

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