A naturalist who doesn't love the outdoors

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In addition to my continued opening to the biomimicry movement, I'm presently reading "Naturalist," E.O. Wilson's autobiography — I was moved, in part, to pick it up recently because I knew that he would be closing the GreenBuild conference last month with Janine Benyus, the biologist who is credited with coining the term biomimicry and who, with Dayna Baumeister, founded the Biomimicry Guild.

Before they sat together, Wilson and Benyus each addressed the very large crowd separately, and she opened her remarks remembering the "microwilderness" behind her house in suburban New Jersey, and how she used to spend as much time as she could out there, observing and communing with the organisms who lived there. Very quickly, she conveyed her love for that place, and the sorrow and offense she felt when the bulldozers came to start phase two of her subdivision.

The story dovetailed (note bio allusion!) very neatly with the tales Wilson tells in his book at greater length, the substance of which he acknowledged when they came together on the stage couch. Both these people went out of doors and fell in lifelong love. I can't relate. I played out of doors too, climbing on rock faces and playing war in the brush in places that also have since fallen to the dozers' blades, but I somehow missed the forest for the trees. They were just there, and so were the animals — musta been. But they didn't capture me.

(I've often said that three standard doses of religion were born into our family, but somehow they all went to my sister — she moved to Israel after college and has followed a pious path since. The same thing happened with our love of the outdoors, except my brother got all three: He walked the Appalachian Trail by himself, he went to National Outdoor Leadership School, Outward Bound, took a graduate degree in forestry, led the land trust in his town for years, is still at home in the woods. Me? Almost nothin'.)

But in the recent past, under the influence of people like Benyus, Baumeister, Wilson, and Michael Pollan, I’m beginning to understand nature not only as something pretty, or interesting, or restorative to others, but as the seat of wisdom and the key to human survival. This begins with the astoundingly obvious fact that every one of us is a part of nature. Of course of course of course we are, but somehow I haven't seen that — and for sure, I'm not alone. The guy on talk radio I wrote about a while back exemplifies a certain segment of humans, but more to the point, the Bible tells us so:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth. -- Genesis 1:26

Them and us, from the very beginning, led down the separate path by our abilities to write and reason. But just because we can think doesn't mean we're not subject to physical laws — it just allows us to think that we’re not. So far as I know — though clearly, I’m barely a biologists’ groupie, never mind a biologist — no other organism considers itself apart from nature, never mind enshrines it in one of its guiding dogmas. (I guess we'd need Dr. Doolittle to find out, or at least Simon and Garfunkel.)

The next truism of nature that has been lost to the vast majority of us is that “life creates conditions conducive to life,” which is Benyus’s mantra. The easy example is the beaver, which comes into a new pond and builds a dam, creating conditions conducive not only to its health but to the benefit of the ecosystem. But do humans create conditions conducive to life? Sometimes, sure, but ever since the first industrialist realized he could make more money if he just threw his noxious leftovers into the river, we’ve been far more likely to take the quick buck and let someone else worry about the poisonous side effects.

When we generate trash, it sits in mountains that leach chemicals into the groundwater and greenhouse-gas-goliath methane into the atmosphere. When, say, an apple tree discards its blossoms, they decompose into the earth and help the tree bloom again the next year. It’s hard not to be impressed by such obvious comparisons of nature’s wisdom vs. human folly.

But I was still thinking of biomimicry as “just” a really cool, really clever way of approaching building problems until I heard Baumeister during her GreenBuild session, which I wrote about previously, as she talked about “adaptive systems.” “Think of a mature redwood forest, all the resources are tied up in the structures. Everything’s interconnected. It’s in a conservation phase. Next is the release phase — it could be a fire that destroys the forest, or the stock market collapse. It releases all the resources. It’s basically a free-for-all. But the beauty of this is that the phase that follows in reorganization. This is the time to take these resources and build a new vision. Then you get into the growth phase,” she said.

So nature’s solutions aren’t limited to making an Olympic swimmer faster, or mimicking photosynthesis to make solar cells, or observing earthworms and snakes for lessons in flexible piping. No matter what we face, other parts of the natural world have already been there; the smarty-pantses at the top of the food chain just need to know where to look. Insights such as these are converting me into a nature-lover, if only of the type still fairly rooted to the sofa.

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