I am thrilled to contribute my article “It’s Time” this month to the Washington’s National Park Fund blog, To The Parks! Olympic National Park is such a beautiful place with an incredible diversity of experiences, and over the last three summers I’ve had the special opportunity to backpack it with my father. This past summer I was lucky enough to travel up the Hoh River Valley to get a closeup view of the park’s namesake, Mount Olympus, and its surrounding glaciers. The experience left me breathless – in the ten years since my father had last visited, the glaciers had melted significantly. Climate change is changing the face of this park in significant ways. Check it out!
If you have seen my Instagram posts of photos taken in the Olympics, you know I’m a big fan of taking a closer look at the forests and mountains. Here’s an excerpt about our backpacking trips that I didn’t feel fit the focus of the WNPF blog post, but does explain what’s happening behind the scenes of my photos. Hope you enjoy!
My dad and I are a complementary pair of hikers. While my dad maintains a steady pace and keeps his mind on the day’s goal, I stop, struck by the light filtering through a particularly beautiful forest glade onto a carpet of the greenest moss I could imagine. Or perhaps I am distracted by a mushroom, bird, or wildflower. More often than not I can be found on the ground, taking a quick photo (or ten) of the miniature life forms blanketing the remains of forest giants. I will linger the longest soaking in the spirit of a tree “fairy ring.” But I quickly catch up to my dad who assures me, as I apologize when I find him taking a water break and fiddling with his GPS while he waits for me, that it’s no trouble. (After three years of this, it’s become clear to me he relishes all opportunities to play with his GPS device.) Our morning and evening routines are simple and filled with stories of family, a tallying of wildflowers seen that day, discussions about his latest research, or simply comfortable silence as we take in the magic.
We have found an unexpected bond over wildflowers. While he, as a scientist, likes to name them all, I, as an amateur photographer, love to photograph them all. We add to our growing list each night as we thumb through Charles Stewart’s Wildflowers of the Olympics and Cascades to see if we can remember the day’s bounty. Our longest list – over 100 different species – came from the North Fork Quinnault and Marten Lakes trails which we traveled in the second half of July in 2018. Alpine meadows and stream beds were absolutely bursting with color as their pollinators noisily and tirelessly visited each nook and cranny, sometimes trying to get one last run in before sunset and getting frozen in place overnight.
One of my favorite areas for flowers was Thousand Acre Meadow in the Dosewallips River watershed. It’s chock-full alpine meadows are graced with meandering streams lined with mosses hosting tiny alpine flowers – veritable fairy gardens! I think if I could I would spend the majority of my time on the ground in the Olympics trying to capture the way the essence of the park’s life touches and replenishes my soul.
The more I think about the challenges facing us (humanity) and the opportunities to use biomimicry for innovation in the built environment, the more I believe that we can come up with super cool solutions using biomimicry for any challenge, but unless the fundamental assumption of everyone at the design table is that our built environment is dependent upon, participates in and can support thriving local ecosystems, we will produce solutions that will ultimately fall short of embodying the shift we want and need to see in the way we live life on this planet.
I also believe that once designers come to the table with a basic scientific understanding of our entwinement with the life around us, a whole new world of creative opportunity opens up to not just design and build a structure that solves for human needs, but rather design and build a multifunctional, responsive structure that is a participant in a complex web of life. The next question then becomes, what else can the structure do?! Biologists at the design table can help work with designers to answer that question.
There is incredible thought leadership and work being done around the world to try to reconcile how we can put into words and practice these ideas of shifting a built environment designed to sit upon a landscaped into one that lives within it. The related articles at the end of this post were shared with me by biomimicry colleagues (thanks Josh Stack, Jane Toner and Norbert Hoeller!) and are on my reading list to help me wrap my head around how these ideas fundamentally change our approach and how we move forward.
My thought is, imagine if a region could get together to establish that fundamental assumption for itself – bringing together designers and decision-makers from all functions and scales of the built environment to agree that all design should strive to support fundamental ecosystem functions using local native ecosystem metrics. Each participant in this collective leadership could influence their own piece of the puzzle (playing out in various industries and scales) while at the same time considering and building in mechanisms for how their piece fits into, can respond to and support the whole. Can it be done?
At Biomimicry Chicago we are boldly imagining such a future for the Chicago region through our Deep Roots Initiative which we are kicking off with our Deep Roots Workshop April 21. We want to explore these ideas and see if/how we can put these ideas to practice. There is incredible work being done in Chicago in trying to address multiple challenges having to do with various ecosystem functions at multiple scales. We have an opportunity to come together to understand how they are all interrelated from an ecological perspective, define what is ecologically “sustainable” for the region and set an overarching framework of goals to strive for. Our subsequent measures of progress as we intentionally restore ecosystem functions in our built environment will then have a scientific basis for assessing whether or not we as a region are truly on the path toward “sustainability.”
The more minds thinking about this, the better. I encourage you to feel free to share more resources in the comment thread below. Only together can we change our story!
Even if I can’t get outside, feasting my eyes on beautiful photos of the wild will brighten my mood, lower my blood pressure and give me a fresh start. When I do get outside, I love taking the time to actually look at what I used to pass by. Learning more and more about biology has planted a seed of awe for life deep inside me – the minutia of the natural world never ceases to amaze me and I love to capture its beauty. I’ve found that I’m not alone in this obsession. Get me together with kindred biomimic spirits and we’ll happily take a four-hour, one-mile hike (it’s hard to go far when you stop every few feet to explore)! How do you like to explore the natural world?
I hope you enjoy the photos I’ve been posting on my photography page with links to free downloads from flickr.com (more to come this month!). I encourage you to also check out free amazing photos from other biomimics on unwhirl.com. We biomimics love us some nature, and love to share our enthusiasm even more. Enjoy!
When I began my biomimicry journey, I apparently was in serious need of some nature time. In listening to my Biomimicry Professional application’s creative piece from three years ago, I realized it was all about getting outside the physical built environment and mindset that continues to try to trap me to this day.
Unfortunately, I have never spent more time in front of a computer than I did the two and a half years I was both in the Biomimicry Professional program and working! Yet during that time I was also required to spend time outside each week observing and keeping up a nature journal. The requirement is based in the B3.8 Essential Element “(Re)Connect.” (Re)Connect includes the idea that as you learn to slow down and develop keen and inquisitive nature observation skills, you will also develop a relationship with and respect for Life that enables you to truly learn from nature with an open mind (warning: your mind will also be blown!).
This frequent practice of nature journaling engaged me with the world around in a way I had never bothered to before, and my practice of close observation continues to this day. Whenever I visit someplace new, my way of connecting to the new place is to take photos. And while I love photography, what I love even more is that when I look for pictures, I pay much closer attention to the details than I would otherwise. As a result, I never leave with anything less than a deep respect, awe and curiosity for the life that flourishes in that place.
My recent trip to Montana is a perfect example. In a landscape dominated by sweeping vistas and big skies, I was captivated by the fall colors that all nestle together within those views. My eyes were drawn to the way that Life was preparing for the long winter, releasing seeds into the wind to prepare for spring, sucking nutrients back into the ground, and sacrificing the summer’s growth to blanket the ground with a protective insulating layer and nutrients for next spring’s new growth. Looking for all this in small detail led me to explore and photograph the world literally at my feet (including the umpteen piles of grizzly scat concentrated in a clearing on a mountain side which unsettled our nerves to say the least – can you spot it?).
But my exploration of wildlife isn’t confined to places to which I travel. This summer I also took a wander in my backyard to see what I could find and used slow motion film to take a closer look. I was lucky enough to capture an incredible video of bees behaving in a way I didn’t even know they behave – have you ever seen something like this? How cool! Makes me linger even longer every time I walk by these flowers and hear the bumble bees buzz… (and I’ve noticed they only buzz when gathering pollen in the flower, not when flying – curious).
And this absolutely gorgeous orchard orb weaver spider that builds a horizontal web and spends it’s time hanging upside down waiting for prey.
I have never seen a spider like this around here but it’s not very big and I’ve likely walked right by many others just like it. Makes me wonder, what else is happening in my backyard???
Taking the time to observe the life right outside our doors helps us to feel more connected to the places in which we live. We can begin to understand what makes our place tick and how other organisms respond to it, including seeing deeper patterns that reflect the real genius of a place. Usually around this time of year in Chicago I hear and see the sandhill cranes high above heading south (they are really noisy but can be easy to miss when drowned out by city background noise) and flocks of Canadian geese flying low overhead. The time of the evening chorus of cicadas is long gone. Squirrels are busily preparing their nests for winter. Plants are retreating underground. Bees are desperately looking for the last remaining morsels. And we are searching the attic for warmer clothes.
While a camera is my tool, I know others that like to simply sit or walk in silence in a new place to absorb the sounds, sights, smells and feel of a place, and others that like nothing better than to draw (perhaps in a nature journal). Each of these activities bring us to a place where our minds slowly let go of the torrent of thoughts distracting us from the present, and allow us to focus our attention on the allure of the sensations, movements, colors, and music of our world. In doing so, we become more acutely aware that life continues on despite our own hectic lives in which we rarely take time to breathe. All around us life does its thing on it’s own clock if we only would stop to notice and wonder.
So take a slow long look around your yard or local park and see what you can see. How do you like to slow down your brain so you can actually see the world around you? What do you notice? What makes your place special to you?