Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Drawing a Nautilus Shell

Abstracting a natural object and graphically depicting it as an architectural object.  

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Structure of a Spider Web

It is a well known biomimicry meme that ounce for ounce, spider silk is stronger than steel or Kevlar.  But what is it about the structure of a spider silk that makes it so strong?   Is it the nano scale makeup of the silk?  Is it the pattern?  Do the patterns indicate function?  Over the summer, I've collected a couple images of spider webs as I've seen them and tried to learn a little more about what makes them so special and how we can learn from them.
Spiral orb web in the forest

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Life in and Around a Tree

We sometimes think of trees as solitary objects - lone specimens standing in a field of green.  Or we think of them in clusters of a forest, one indistinguishable from another.  But trees, like everything else, are interconnected and linked with all life around them.  I thought about this when looking at the tree in my backyard yesterday.  What life does this tree support along its vertical axis?  And what relationships do these life forms have with each other?  What can we learn from these connections?
The pride of my backyard - our Norway Maple

Monday, September 12, 2011

Studying a Flower - the Plumeless Thistle

Here is the problem with a novice naturalist walking through a restored prairie and seeing pretty flowers - I assume they all should be there!  It turns out that the pretty pinkish purple flowers I saw on a walk I did way back in July (how summer flew by!) were actually Plumeless Thistle, an invasive weed, and it was everywhere, at least near the walking path I was on.
One invasive species on another - a Japanese beetle on a Plumeless Thistle bud.  From Prairie Flowers in July. 
While walking through the prairie on bright July day, I wanted to observe the prairie species mix to see if I would find any patterns.  The main pattern I found was centered around water availability.  The highlands where there was no standing water found home for yellow coneflower, wild carrot, thistle, some milkweed, and turf grass gone to seed.  The lower areas where the creek ran through hosted cattails, grass, a spiky purple plant that looks like salvia, and some strange broadleaf species that seemed like it would be more at home on the forest floor.  Near the paths in higher elevations, I was taken by a pretty purple flower that I found and thought I could learn a little more about it. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Learning from Carpenter Ants

Carpenter Ant Colony in a Bounce House
In honor of my biology professor, Adrian Smith, who has devoted his career to studying ants, I chose to learn a little bit about the carpenter ants which until this morning and without my knowledge had built a small colony in my kid's rolled up bounce house.

I have no idea why a colony of carpenter ants would chose to build a satellite community in a rolled up bit of plastic fabric.  It must have been dark and slightly damp and that must have been enough.  It was a poor choice on her behalf.  After the destruction of their nest, the ants were obviously very erratic and grabbed their rice shaped pupae, or egg sacks, and scattered in the grass.  I watched them for a while, trying to determine if they had any idea where they were going, but they just seemed to be running for cover.  Within minutes, each and every egg sack had been picked up and was being carried by an ant in its pincers and within a few minutes, very few pupae were visible.  Ants in general are very good at concealing themselves to avoid predation, so it is difficult to follow ants in grass and see where they go.

They have a colony structure similar to other ants where a mated queen searches for a new home (my rolled up bouncer) and lays eggs that are both workers and queens.  Unmated queens can produce only males.  Carpenter ants do not actually eat wood.  They can't eat solid food because their esophagus is too long and narrow.  So, they gather aphid honeydew and tree sap and they love human food, which is probably what drew them to the bounce house.  They still damage wood, however, by hollowing it out to create their nests, hence their name.  They also have a symbiotic bacteria that biosynthesizes amino acids and other nutrients and plays some role in its nutrition.

I captured one ant and one egg sack during the scattering and used it to identify the ants as carpenter ants by its bent antennae and the shape of the pupae. The confined ant moves in an interesting way, using its antennae to feel around and its two front legs to try and dig through the plastic container I had placed it in.  The other back four legs are spread out to stabilize its movement.  I did see the ant pick up two of its four back side legs and shake them while upside down with only two side legs to hold it in place - impressive acrobatics.  The confined ant is very protective of the pupae and when it isn't carrying it around, it is resting on top of it protectively.  My research indicated that worker ants are required for the new adults to emerge from the pupae - they can't do it on their own.  And for that reason the mother in me can't let the ant die in captivity.  As much as I'd like to keep an example of this ant, I'm going to have to let it go.  I don't want an ant farm in my house and I can't be responsible for its death.  Amazing creatures - as long as they stay out of my house and it's wood.

More photos here.

Being Present

Photo by Amy Coffman Phillips.  
Have you ever tried to just sit and be still for 25 minutes?  Without thinking about anything in particular?  Or without really moving?  Well, I tried.  And it's hard.  On a recent trip to the Springbrook Prairie Preserve I completed a BPCP iSite where I was to "Sit and Be Here."  Being present is so hard to do, especially for someone so used to multi-tasking.  Sitting still and observing is a form of meditation, and I found it extremely relaxing but also irritating. 

It felt relaxing because I was alone, my children were being cared for by our babysitter, and I had the luxury to just sit down and look at a field of green and yellow prairie flowers.  That experience alone made the time worthwhile.  But the multi-tasker in me wanted to be doing something else at the same time - walking or running so that it would count as my exercise for the day; naming the grasses, birds, and bugs I see and remembering the ones I couldn't name; thinking about what I see and practicing my biomimicry translation skills...  I find it almost impossible to turn off the part of my brain that tells me what I am doing now is not as important as what I should or could be doing.

After "quieting my cleverness," I came away from the experience with a feeling of vitality, both of the prairie and in myself.  The prairie looks like plain grassland to many people, but by sitting down and just observing I know that this place is alive in ways I never imagined.  I saw a black crow perched on top of a grass swaying in the wind.  I heard bugs buzz by my ear and saw butterflies, moths, and dragonflies - and a few mosquitoes.  I heard the grass rustle against each other and I saw critters scatter.  Hundreds of species call that patch of grassland home and by sitting down to observe them, I became a part of that system.  I felt renewed and connected to something much larger than myself.  And it felt great.  I will continue to return to the prairie and other environments and I will practice my skills of sitting and being fully present.  I hope that one day I will be able to accomplish the task.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reading the Sky

Photo by Amy Coffman Phillips
How much of fifth grade science can you remember?  What are the different cloud types called?  My knowledge was tested today on the most gorgeous day we've had in months when I was lucky enough to be at the Morton Arboretum with my friend and our kids.  The children's garden was complete chaos with every child in the five surrounding communities all congregating there for the day, so we decided to climb a little hill and sit and watch the clouds.  I have fond memories of staring at the clouds on a pretty day and trying to guess what shape they were making.  My daughter humored me a bit in between trips running up and down the hill and found a snake that the cirrus clouds created (I thought it looked like a spine).  My friend found a stingray made of puffy cumulus clouds.  And I seemed to find mostly fish of different sizes and shapes, a group of cumulus clouds that looked like airplanes flying low, and one space ship.  A psychologist has probably developed a way to analyze what we see in clouds as some type of Warshak test, but I prefer to leave that at the surface.  

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

July's Prairie Flowers as Design Inspiration

Today was a beautiful sunny day for a bike ride through the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve.  It was hot today.  Very hot.  But the flowers in the prairie were in full bloom, and I was curious about the plants I found there.  What are their names?  Where do they grow and why?  Is there anything we can we learn from them that could influence design?  To try and answer these questions, I took a collection (which doubles as an interesting wildflower arrangement) and have attempted to classify a few of the flowers I picked.  I did a little research on the natural history of each and then have extrapolated a few questions as to how each plant may inspire design.  What questions do you think the plant could help us answer?  

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I fell in love with this tree

I went for a walk in the Morton Arboretum today, looking at tree bark. Yes, tree bark. For my biomimicry coursework, I have certain prescribed iSite assignments where I go out and observe nature. One of them included looking at tree bark and the differences between different species. This was on my mind after a conversation I had with Dr. Robert Fahey, a forest ecologist on staff at the Arboretum, about tree bark and its (marginal) insulative values. He spoke about Oak forests and how the rough bark fissures that Oak trees present actually create air pockets that help insulate the tree from fire and extreme cold.  It's cork-like texture also traps air pockets, adding insulation.  He was quick to mention that the cell structure of the live phloem has more to do with a tree surviving cold than the dead bark, but it was an intriguing idea for me and I resolved to contact a plant physiologist soon.  Dr. Fahey spoke about the the chemistry of bark and how some species create chemicals in their bark that protect the tree from predators. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

Walking in the Woods with Kids

Jacob in the St. Louis Canyon at Starved Rock
I went on a hike with my husband and two young kids through Starved Rock State Park in Northern Illinois this weekend. The park is a series of canyons that were formed when the glaciers melted, forming a series of rock walls, 50' + waterfalls and sand basins from disintegrating sandstone. When I told my 4 year old daughter that we would be going on a hike to a sand mountain that they could climb, she was beyond excited. So excited, in fact, that she was so focused on getting there that she wasn't really able to enjoy the journey to our destination. Not surprising for a little kid.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Genius of Place: Lichen in a New England Forest

Lichen are plants and fungus that create a mutualistic relationship greater than the sum of their parts. What can we learn from them?

Common Greenshield Lichen. Flavoparmelia Caperata. Photo by Amy Coffman Phillips

Natural History
How does the lichen fit into this forest?

Walking through the forest for my first iSite in the Harvard Forest, I came upon this beautiful lichen growing on a red maple tree. Up close, it looks like flattened lettuce or cabbage growing in these romantic formations, an example of a foliose (leaf like) lichen. And lichen is unique because it is not one organism, but a symbiotic relationship between two organisms: fungi and algae. To form a lichen, the fungus either encloses the algae in fungal tissue or penetrates the algal cell wall in order to harness their photosynthetic abilities. The fungi form the structure and then recruit algae to come live with them, and the algae benefits from the protection the fungi provide as well as their ability to capture water and nutrients. The mutualistic relationship between these two organisms (although sometimes commensalistic or even parasitic depending on the species) is greater than the sum of its parts because it allows both organisms to survive and thrive in areas they would not be able to alone. Their relationship creates benefits for the ecosystem as a whole as well because as rain water falls down the bark of a tree, it gathers nutrients from the lichen which feeds nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil, and then by extension, the tree and other plants.

Lichen exist in most every ecosystem on the planet from arctic tundra to deserts. While they have adapted to many different climates and conditions, they are also sensitive to environmental disturbances, such as air pollution because they are not deciduous and absorb nutrients from the atmosphere, rain and dust rather than roots. For these reasons, they are bioindicator species for air quality as well as ozone depletion and metal contamination.

Lichen also grow in unique structures, different than those that fungi or algae use alone. They are built in layers. The outer layer is a conglomeration of fungal cells that form a protective cortex. Below this layer is a layer of algae embedded in a densely woven layer of fungal hyphae or the long branching structures of fungi,. Below this layer, the third layer is comprised of densely woven fungal hyphae without the algae, called the medulla. The fourth and bottom layer is called the lower cortex and resembles the top layer and is also composed of densely packed fungal hyphae and rootlike rhizines which attach the lichen composite to the structure on which it grows. Because these roots are for structural stability and not nutrient gathering, lichen have the ability to grow on surfaces that other organisms cannot, such as tree bark and bare rocks.

Different types of lichen reproduce in different ways, typically asexually through spores but vegetative and even sexual reproduction occurs in different species. In the case of this lichen, it is similar to an isidia in that it sends up shoots that break off for mechanical dispersal of genetic information. Lichen are able to desiccate and survive long periods with very little water, entering into a state of suspended animation, ready to rehydrate when water becomes available. This ability allows them to survive long periods of temperature extremes, radiation, and drought in harsh environments.

What are the deep patterns we can take away from the lichen?

  • Mutualistic communities of organisms create conditions that are better for themselves as well as the organisms around them, and this symbiosis allows them to withstand conditions together that they would not be able to alone. 
  • The fungi develop the structure on which the algae grow. Fungi create a densely woven structure of tiny branches that embed and encapsulate the algae in order to harness their photosynthetic abilities. The organism bodily structures of each organism change in order to accommodate their partner, and they cannot survive alone. 
  • Lichen absorb nutrients from the air and water through their cell walls. When environmental disturbances occur, the algae absorbs these contaminates molecularly and is destroyed, killing the lichen composite. For this reason, lichen are a good bioindicator species and signal environmental disturbances we cannot yet perceive.
Design Principles
How can these strategies naturally influence design innovation?

  • Empower individuals within an organization to collaborate and share resources in order to create restorative communities. 
  • Encapsulate harmful substances in a membrane for safe storage at room temperature. 
  • Grow fibers at the nano scale that will self-assemble into prescribed patterns. 
  • Design smart materials that passively absorb air- or water-based compounds in order to indicate changes in the system.

Design Application Ideas
What are potential innovations that could result from this natural inspiration?

  • Store food at room temperature by encapsulating it in a tasteless, edible membrane that prevents spoilage. 
  • Preserve vaccines at room temperature by encapsulating active ingredients in a dissolvable membrane.
  • Design passive air quality monitors that absorb harmful chemicals or pathogens and change color to indicate their presence. 
  • Design water quality monitors that test for chemicals or pathogens by absorbing and changing color to indicate their presence.
Biomimicry Professional Certificate Program

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Vernal Pond

Vernal Pond at Harvard Forest
I am at the Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts, for my second Biomimicry session in the temperate deciduous forest and today we took a walk in the forest. To say I loved it would be an understatement, but I'm a forest lover. This is a picture of a vernal pond, or a pond that fills in the spring and then drains gradually. The Harvard School of Forestry took a sample core and was able to trace 9,000 years of history in this area from evidence that this Hemlock forest was once a Maple forest to evidence of Native American under story controlled burns. Probably most interestingly, because this is a seasonal pond and fish cannot live in it, there are no natural predators for amphibians such as frogs to lay their eggs here. Oh, and its gorgeous.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Elevating the Lowly Dandelion

Dandelion Sketch
Today my kids and I were walking around our neighborhood and started picking dandelions.  I picked a bouquet for my daughter, Ellie, and gave my son Jake one that had ripened into a ball of white fuzz.  My one year old son tried to blow the fuzz off of the stem, with a little success because most of it ended up on his lips.  My four year old daughter and I sat down and started picking the yellow dandelions flowers apart.  I had never spent much time actually looking at these ubiquitous wildflowers other than to pull them from my yard, but it was pretty fun to do it with a four year old. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

McDowell Grove Forest Preserve

Fallen Limbs at the Forest Preserve in Spring
I took a walk in the McDowell Grove Forest Preserve by my house today. I had never been to this area before and I'm so glad I visited for the first time in spring. There weren't any real flowers to speak of but the floor was a carpet of green. I know in a few months, I won't be able to walk through the fields like I did today because the grasses and under story brush will be too high.  

There were fallen branches everywhere, creating a natural clearing. I don't know if it is normal for so many branches and trees to lie on the the forest floor or if there was some event that caused the branches to fall. One fallen log had a reddish moss growing on it but the majority did not. I wonder what was different about that log - the age, type of bark, moisture content of the wood? I'm guessing the latter, but I'd love to bring an ecologist to find out next time.

Pattern of a Tree Limb

Tree Limb Observational Sketch
On a walk through the forest preserve today, I thought about the growth of tree branches.  Seeing so many that had fallen to the ground, I wondered about their structural integrity.  Upon further reflection, I think the downed limbs had more to do with flood damage to the roots than to any defect in the branches themselves.  But, it got me thinking about how a branch grows out from a tree and sends out leaves. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Tracking Changes Over Time

Magnolia bush in my backyard
my backyard is a constructed ecosystem.  but even so, i've tried to keep it as naturalistic as possible by minimizing turf grass, adding bushes and planting beds, and introducing edible plants into the landscape to encourage wildlife (but not in my fenced off vegetable garden).  so, despite it's constructed nature, it is still natural.  and since it is my backyard and i spend a great deal of time there, i've decided to use it as my iSite for tracking changes over time.

Thoughts on a Tulip

Backyard Tulips
i decided to focus my attention on my backyard for a couple of iSites this week, for a couple of reasons.  1) i love my backyard and have put a lot of effort into making it beautiful and 2) i'm getting seriously close to my next trip and the deadline for all of my assignments - and my backyard is very convenient.  and the tulips are out and beautiful this time of year.

so, tulips.  while outside, i studied my tulips looking through the lens of multi-functional design.  when thinking about this, i divide the tulip plant into three parts - the bulb root, the leaves, and the flower.  i'll focus on the flower because we don't plant tulips for the foliage or the bulb.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sound Mapping the Morton Arboretum

For this iSite, I did a sound map at the Morton Arboretum.  By closing my eyes, I made a map of every sound I heard.  I was also supposed to see if any of the sounds were related or responsive to one another. 

Sound map by Amy Coffman Phillips
The Morton Arboretum is a beautiful place, but it is a constructed landscape.  Artificial and beautiful.  I tried to find as natural of a place as I could, so I walked down a field and found a natural creek to sit by.  The main thing I heard while I was sitting there listening was the sound of water falling over a rock in the creek and the sounds of people.  Apparently, a lot of people think to welcome spring at the Arb too.  There was a lot of human based activity - cars, bikes, too many airplanes overhead.  The human voices were responsive to one another, but not so much the cars.  I could hear a lot of birds.  Cardinals and a bird I'm pretty sure was a finch.  I also heard rustling of small animals in the leaves. 

When I opened my eyes, I saw a pair of ducks swimming in the creek and building their nest, pair bonded for the mating season.  Frogs in the distance calling out for mates.  Birds likely doing the same thing.  Mating season at the Arb.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Cantilevered Tree

Cantilevered Tree at the Naperville Riverwalk
For today's iSite, I was to test my skills of observation by drawing an object and then trying to draw it again without looking. 

Walking along the Riverwalk in my town, I came across a tree that has grown horizontally off the riverbank. It's roots have grown horizontally and are strong enough to cantilever the tree 30' over the riverbank. The tree is truly an amazing feat of natural engineering. It will fall eventually, but so will everything. For now, it has found a way to survive and stand out from the rest of the trees - gaining access to solar resources that others cannot reach. Life will find a way.

Business as an Ecosystem

Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve, Sanibel Island, Florida

Using Sanibel Island as my test model, I've thought about this question.  
Sanibel Island is a barrier island off the gulf coast of Florida.  Th
e coastal salt marsh ecosystem is formed on the inland side of Sanibel Island and is a water-based ecosystem that has adapted to tidal fluctuations in water levels.  Mangrove trees and oysters form land masses and inter-tidal areas that are the nurseries for the sea and the rookeries for many birds and mammals.  

What can we learn from this ecosystem and how can it influence business practices?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sketching System Interactions

This iSite took place on an ecology tour through Tarpon Bay on the Ding Darling Natural Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel Island, FL.  A biologist, Brianna Coffman who turns out to be a distant unknown cousin of my dad (it's a small, interconnected world), led our tour with incredible knowledge and insight about this coastal marsh ecosystem.  In addition to the insights learned from the boat, our tour guide also gave us knowledge about how marine life interacts below the sea, interactions I've sketched below.  

Marine Life Interactions at Sanibel Island
(sketch by Amy Coffman Phillips)

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sanibel Coastal Ecosystem

As a part of my Biomimicry Professional program, we do numerous iSites.  iSites are part of our practice of (re)connecting with natural environments and they involve going out and observing nature in order to deepen our understanding of her and through reflection and sketching, reconnect with life and strengthen our vision of a world empowered by nature's genius.

Jacob chasing birds on Sanibel Island
While on vacation in Florida, I did an iSite translating what I saw on the natural beaches of Sanibel into an engineering diagram of energy flows.  I noticed that all normal energy flows are cyclical - each organism's waste creates an input of energy for another.  The energy my son expended chasing shore birds is not accounted for on the diagram below, but I think it should be.  

Energy flows of a coastal ecosystem

The Laughing Gull on Sanibel Island

Laughing gull on Sanibel Island
We just returned from our vacation to Sanibel Island and Ft. Myers, Florida and it is so nice to get a break from the cold winters in Chicago. As a part of my work on the Biomimicry Professional Certificate Program, I get to do site observations called iSites. During this time, I have the luxury to think and observe nature while trying to tune out distractions - not always easy for a mom with two small kids. For this iSite, I was to imagine my life as an organism I observed, and the seagulls on Sanibel Island are ubiquitous.