Monday, December 31, 2012

Shelling (and Learning) with Kids

I have channeled my inner "snow bird" and flown south to Florida for a family vacation.  One of the first things we did - stopped at the beach!  Even a couple of sick kids can't keep us from the beach on New Years Eve Day.  While sitting there and digging in the sand, we found so many different shells that all had holes in them.  I channeled my inner Dayna (Baumeister, my illustrious biomimicry instructor) and explained to my daughter that the holes in the shells were not put there in order to make necklace creation easier (as she thought), but there because another type of mollusk (shelled invertebrate) drilled down into the shell with its tongue (!) and sucked out the poor clam through the hole and ate it!  The predator in this area - most likely a whelk.
Cross Barred Venus (Chione cancellata)
Lightening Whelk
"Sea snails use a radula, their ribbon-shaped tongue, to drill a hole in the shell of the clam. While drilling, the snails soften the shells by secreting carbonic acid and inserting the siphon. The clam is then digested inside its shell as the snail gulps down the remains of what Gulf Islands National Seashore park rangers call a 'clam milkshake.'" (Credit 6)

Thinking about Migration

I have emulated the fair weather birds and temporarily migrated to warmer climates – Florida!  My family has temporarily become a “snow bird” and escaped the Chicago winter in favor of the beach and the pool, if only for a week.  And it got me thinking about migration.

The energy it takes to move a body hundreds if not thousands of miles to find food and stay warm is immense.  Migratory birds have physical as well as behavioral adaptations that allow them to complete this momentous feat twice every year.  Some birds lose over 50% of their body weight burning fat to make an uninterrupted trip.  Other species fly the same route seasonally, and certain plants even time their flowering to coincide with the journeying pollinators.  Birds that migrate during the day take advantage of thermal currents over land.  Those that migrate at night avoid predators and overheating.

Human bodies have adapted to almost every climate on this planet through fat and our brain’s ability to manufacture clothing and artificial heating, but those with the means still find a way to migrate to warmer climates, if only for a short winter break.  While our bodies are fed and warmed through the long winters, it seems it heals the spirit to visit the sun.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Teaching Biomimicry to Young Kids

I have young kids preschool and kindergarten age, and one of my favorite things to do is to show them what I do by going outside.  On a recent day in late fall, we went into our backyard and went on a critter search.  Squirrels are abundant in my backyard because of the leftover food in the garden as well as the large maple tree which dominates our small lot.  So we set about investigating and learning about the squirrels.
Squirrels and their Amazing Tails
Children learn by doing, so at first we acted like squirrels.  We brought our hands up into claws and pretended to eat an acorn.  We hopped around on two feet simultaneously.  We wiggled our rear ends.  We talked about what they ate – acorns, ideally.  In our yard, birdseed, strawberries, pumpkins, the bulbs I had planted for spring (grrr) and really anything left in the garden that we didn’t harvest.  Then we talked about what eats them – dogs and coyotes came to mind, although our dog is much too old to do more than bark at them.  Then we pretended to be a squirrel and a coyote, a glorified game of tag, which they loved!  After all that exertion and thinking, we went back inside to do a little research and drawing.  I researched, my oldest drew a squirrel from a picture, and my youngest drank hot cocoa (Chicago is cold in November!). 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Changes in the Prairie Over Time

I've been visiting our local prairie preserve for a couple of years now and the summer of 2012 was different. It was a summer of drought, and when I visited this summer, the changes were noticeable.
Prairie April
Springbrook Prairie in April 2012
In our Tallgrass Prairie biome, the grasses should have been at least up to my chest and the majority of them were at my knees.  Certain areas that weren't burned have tall stands from last year next to the short ones of this year.  There are no credit cards in nature, so if the heat and drought were too much for one season, the grasses go dormant and wait for the following season.  Unlike our economic system, there is no unlimited growth in nature.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Taking a 100 Year Nap

Sometimes it is fun to go on creative thought experiments, like what would happen to your home if you took a nap for 100 years and woke to see what it would look like without adding the human energy and capital necessary to maintain it. One day in late summer, I did just that as I sat on the driveway in my front yard watching my kids ride their bikes up and down the street.

I live in a wood frame, two-story single-family home in a downtown area of a suburb outside of Chicago. The siding is cedar and the base in the front is clad with limestone. To the east our home is a large walnut tree that hangs over our house unless it is trimmed back. At the north-west corner is another large elm tree. Both are approximately 100 years old. So, if I were to sleep for 100 years old - what would my home look like? What parts would nature reclaim and what parts would remain recognizable?

Prior to settlement, my home was a part of a larger swath of oak woodland adjacent to a tallgrass prairie, so I can imagine that through drought cycles inherent in our climate, this type of vegetation will gradually overcome some of the introduced landscaping plants so prevalent in our neighborhood.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Deeply Listening to Nature

For this iSite, I was to work on improving my listening ability - but not in listening to other humans (though that could always use some work).  I was to listen to the creatures around me on a particular place in time, defer judgement, set aside distractions, and be present.  In this instance, in the woods while camping in British Columbia.
Wildlife Tree
I started out thinking about my stomach moving and the scratch of my pen as I wrote in my journal.  I heard waves crashing at an adjacent shore and birds honking and tweeting all around me.  I began to stare at a "wildlife spire," otherwise known as the stump of a 4' diameter Douglas Fir which had become a colony of life for moss, lichen, insects, micorbes, etc.  I thought about how the destruction of one life led to life for countless others smaller than the original.  I thought of Shiva, the Hindu God of destruction that is also the bringer of life and saw the beauty in its decay.  Life is opportunistic.  It grabs resources when it can.  And Life finds a way.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

My Favorite Place (in Nature)

I wrote the following notes to myself when I was camping on a remote island near Salt Spring Island in British Columbia on a recent biomimicry trip:

Pitching a Tent in an Enchanted Forest
"I have always felt at home in the forest.  While humans should always be aware of predators, they are few and far between in the little woods behind my house where I grew up, so I've felt at home.  I go running through the woods near my home where I live now and I love the smell of wet wood and the moist protection of the canopy on a hot day.  While I love being in the forest, I had never gotten the chance to actually remote camp in one until this trip.  The "camping" I had always done before then was usually car camping with showers or even staying in a cabin, which is not camping at all but it is a compromise I make with my husband.   
The area where we set up camp was out of a storybook fairy tale where "old man's beard" lichen coated the live and fallen limbs where everything was covered in a blanket of green.  The forest floor was a mosaic of pine cones, leaves, twigs, and all the abundant life that lives in the soil.  The tree canopy protected us from the dew and kept us much warmer than the plains adjacent to our site.  Deer chewed on fallen apples no more than 20' away from us without fear and we had our small community of friends with dreams of making the world better for all of Life's creatures.  It was a magical place full of life and connections and I hope to bring the inspiration of those connections back with me to Chicago." 
It's interesting to note the idea of cover and canopy as protection.  The tree canopy provided protection from the dew for those of us below, which kept us warmer on a cold September night.  And our tents had emulated this function by creating a drop cloth above the actual tent enclosure.  The dew hits the top cloth and rolls off, keeping the tent enclosure dry and presumably warmer.  It's fun to see how we emulate nature sometimes without even trying.  We just know it works!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

(re)connecting with the genius of our place

Springbrook Prairie, Naperville llinois
One of my favorite things to do is go on long bike rides through the prairie – the sights, smells, and sounds of natural environments reconnect me with why I have dedicated my career to creating sustainable environments.  Getting outside allows me the freedom to explore and observe and inspires me to think of new possibilities.

As someone trained in the science (and art) of biomimicry, I have learned to look to natural environments as more than beautiful vistas and peaceful respites.  I’ve learned to look to them as a mentor through which I can learn new ways of thinking about the problems we face.  Through this lens, we can look to leaves as inspiration for more efficient photovoltaic cells, spider silk as inspiration for strong, light-weight materials with benign manufacturing, termite mounds for bioclimactic, adaptive architecture, and our native ecosystems for lessons in creating resilient businesses and communities.  Biomimics across the world are looking to nature for inspiration, harnessing 3.8 billion years of experience, and finding innovative solutions to the problems that we face.  You can do this too.

This fall, go outside as much as you can.  Observe and reconnect with the reasons you chose to work in sustainability, and begin to look to the “genius of our place” as inspiration for new ways of thinking and creating.  From observation comes inspiration and innovation.  The possibilities are endless!

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Learning about Erosion Control from Lake Michigan Sand Dunes

How can we learn from beach grass and sand dunes to inspire more effective erosion control?

My Journal Entry on Beach Grass, abstracted

Color Filters - with children!

My children and I went for a hike with our friends on the Lake Michigan dunes in Door County, Wisconsin, this summer.  It is fantastically gorgeous there.  The water is crystal clear and you can see 10’ down – likely further but I didn’t swim out that far!  The light on the sand beach is gorgeous and there are many birds to wake up to.  There are also many trails to hike, so we did!  We decided to hike the dunes, which were forested, which was bizarre.  I don’t typically think of sand-based forests.  But walk we did.  There was a beach in the middle of the 1.5 mile hike, which gave our arms a break from carrying kids and gear.  Little legs don’t walk that far.  

On our walk, we played the “color game,” which is the color filter isite.  Walking along a trail that is mostly dark green, we looked for other colors.  We found red berries that look like raspberries but without the thorns.  We found a bush with little red berries that I’d like to know what it is.  We talked about how the red attracts the birds and animals to eat them and spread their seeds.  We saw yellow, white, and purple flowers.  Again, I think the color is to stand out from a background of dark green so that insects can pollinate them.  Color seems to symbolize “food for sex” as the author of “Prairie: A Natural History” suggests.  The dark green leaves are green for photosynthesis and dark because it’s later in the season and the chlorophyll is aging. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Nature Square

Have you ever gone out into a natural environment and looked to see how many different type of species you can find within a given area?  Observations of small areas can give you a better understanding of the interdependence each species has both with each other and with its environment.
Nature Square at Springbrook Prairie

Thursday, March 22, 2012

My Failures in Composting

I've been keeping a compost pile going on six years now and I don't think I've ever had a good batch that I can use in my garden.  I'm so frustrated I'm about to give up.  I just had the last straw when I went to go turn over my (spinning drum style) composter and saw that I have an entire ecosystem of fruit flies flying around it.  Gladly, it's in an out of the way part of my yard, but it's a nuisance and a reminder that composting is an art, not a science.

Composting experts will tell you to have a 50/50 ration of "dry or brown" to "wet or green" ingredients. I tend to put more green ingredients, my kitchen and garden scraps, and forget to put in more brown ingredients, such as shredded bills, newspaper or leaves.  The result is an anaerobic mess that never quite cures and attracts pests.

But as much as I want to, I'm not giving up.  In fact, I'm doubling down and getting a cute little crock that will sit on my counter when I have kitchen scraps (instead of a plastic bag out the back) and I'm going to go dump a bunch of leaves in the composter.  Then I'll cross my fingers and hope that history does not repeat itself and I have usable compost by the time planting season begins.

An idea for entrepreneurs out there - start a composting service.  Green minded folks with no ability to compost (me) will sign up.  You can pick up our kitchen scraps once or twice a week, compost it, and then sell us back our waste in the form of local, organic garden soil.  I know the awesome community Prairie Crossing has a similar service in Gray's Lake, Illinois.  Someone needs to start one in my town.  But for all the reasons mentioned above, it won't be me.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Learning about Resilience from a Sea Star

Image credit:
I am continually amazed by the diversity of life on this planet. I remember walking the beaches of Sanibel Island as a child and seeing shells and seaweed in so many forms, and having difficulty understanding that these "things" aren't inanimate objects, but forms of life. They are all so unique and so unlike us, and there is so much we can learn from them to naturally inspire our creativity. On my recent trip back to Sanibel, I was particularly fascinated by the sea star, which as an echinoderm and related to the sand dollar, an organism that has fascinated my mother for as long as I can remember. Thinking about the sea star's regeneration abilities got me thinking about natural resilience, so I did a little research.

We all learned in grammar school that a starfish can regenerate limbs and even reproduce asexually from a severed arm when they are attacked by a predator (talk about leveraging disturbance to your advantage!). And this ability alone is amazing, but their structure is equally so. The five arms that reach out from a central core, called pentaradial symmetry (think soccer ball, instead of the bi-lateral symmetry that we have), has inspired architects and packaging designers with its efficient 3D enclosure. But when I looked at a real (albeit taxidermic) starfish that my daughter picked up at a souvenir shop, what I was most curious about was the texture.

The sea star is covered in thousands of bumps of varying sizes. Large protruding bumps, small recessed bumps, all which serve its radial geometry. But there had to be there for a reason other than looking good. So, I looked it up in the amazing website and found out that the holes I saw on the surface of the organism are also present at a microscopic level. The reason for these macro and microscopic holes have to do with its resilience to fracture. By creating thousands (millions?) of holes, tiny cracks that try to form in the structure of its limbs cannot become very big before they hit a hole and are stopped. Creating tiny holes also lessens the amount of material the organism must create, saving energy. True multi-functional design!

What I found through my research was that the sea star is also an indicator species. The sea star is greatly affected by water quality because the pump untreated water directly into their bodies through their vascular system. Therefor, mass die-offs of a population will indicate that toxins or contaminants have disturbed the water, such as an oil spill.

Lessons for natural resilience:
  • Create business structures that can survive, reproduce, and thrive after being severed from the main organization due to disturbance. 
  • Use material efficiently. 
  • When a system is vulnerable to one particular type of stress, look for structural or built-in ways to arrest that disturbance before it is allowed to grow too large. 
  • Create barriers to yourself and your environment. 
  • Create filters or similar structures that provide a buffer for you from the elements so that you have a chance to react before it is too late to respond. Or, create test subjects to test the elements for you. 


The Bees are Out - and it's March!

Photo credit:
As I sit here in my backyard on this record breaking warm day in March, I am buzzed by bees and wasps flying near my head.  While this is a startling occasion at any time, I wondered how the bees will fare when this unseasonably warm weather cools to the normally chilly spring that we normally have.  We will still have a frost, right?  And thinking about it, how do bees survive Chicago winters at all?  And is there anything we can learn from them?

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

How do you recreate Africa in Orlando?

I recently returned from my first trip to Disney World in Orlando, Florida for the first time in over twenty years and I'm exhausted, but my kids had a great time. At 2 and 4, they were rather overwhelmed, but my 2 year old son really took toAnimal Kingdom, which was the one I was most looking forward to as well. And it got me thinking - how did the designers really make it possible that the flora and fauna that is adapted to an African climate can survive in a former swamp like Orlando? I would have thought that the two climates would be too different, but as I sat outside of my room at the Animal Kingdom at night with a constructed savanna outside my balcony, they somehow did it.

Africa is so large that it encompasses the majority of biomes on the planet, from arid desert to tropical rain forest, and the animals at Animal Kingdom are from a variety of African climates, from the savanna to the forest to the swamps. But the Disney experience is only possible, of course, with heavy management and density. It is a zoo on steroids and it could not exist without heavy management - tigers sit atop a constructed hill just above gazelles, separated by a carefully concealed electrical fence. Fish swim in ponds so densely they are rarely 6" from another. Alligators climb on each other for sunny perches. And from my balcony, I would see managers driving in food for the zebras and giraffes to eat because they are too densely packed to survive by grazing.

But in it's own way, it's lovely. Although a true African safari is still on my "bucket list", it is far off in my future. And the ability to travel a few hours from my parent's home in south Florida and see large, magnificent animals is an experience I'm glad to have had - and to expose my children to. On a 25-minute safari, I saw all of this as well as termite mounds which I thought were just for show but supposedly they are real because certain animals feed off of them. And the Lion King show was fantastic! Seriously - FANTASTIC.

I'm not sure how much I learned about the world by coming here, but my kids had a good time seeing exotic animals and being outside all day. And they now love to hear me read about different animals from the First Animal Encyclopedia I bought there, so it was worth it.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ding Darling

I remember my Grandfather picking me up at the airport on our first trip to Sanibel Island.  I was 9 years old and we were missing school for a whole week to go to Florida and stay with them.  All I wanted to do was go to pool, but he insisted on driving through the Ding Darling Wildlife Reserve.  At the time, I was bored and hot in my long sleeve dress, but now that I am older, I finally understand why my grandfather was so in love with the reserve and Sanibel Island in general.  It is a barrier island that has set aside over 30% of its land mass to a nature preserve and every beach is natural and unmanicured.  It provides a glimpse of the life in the sea that we sometimes forget is there when staying at resorts.

Notes on the mangrove and horseshoe crab
On a recent trip, we went on a guided trolley ride through the Ding Darling where I learned more about the island I have been visiting for so many years.  Some of the interesting things I learned about mangroves:

  • Red mangroves grow in the lowest, wettest conditions and prop their roots up above the water to breathe through pores in their bark during low tide.
  • Black mangroves grow slightly higher up in elevation and breathe through snorkel like straws that stay above the water.  Their leaves glisten in the sun as they rid themselves of the salt from the water.
  • 50% of hurricane winds are blocked by mangroves and their roots help to dissipate wave energy
  • Mangroves store salt in vacuoles and then shed them in their leaves.

Spanish Moss

While in Florida, I couldn't help but notice the Spanish Moss (tillandsia usneoides) that hung from every tree. I wondered why it was there and what, if any, benefit it provided for the host tree on which it hung.

Spanish Moss
It turns out the moss is not beneficial for its host.  While it doesn't kill the tree, it lowers its growth rate by blocking light and increases wind resistance, which can be fatal in a hurricane.  It does, however, provide shelter for creatures such as rat snakes, bats, and jumping spiders (which are only found on Spanish moss).  It has uses for humans as well, such as building insulation, mulch, packing material, and mattress bedding.  

While we like to emphasize Nature's ability to create cooperative, mutualistic relationships, sometimes in the process of niche differentiation, resources are available and mutations present to create parasitic relationships  such as this one.  But it is interesting to note that while it is a parasitic relationship, it is not usually fatal to the host and creates benefits for the ecosystem as a whole.  

Friday, February 24, 2012

Life on an Island

Every year, I am lucky enough to visit Sanibel Island, Florida, where my family has been vacationing since I was a child.  It's funny, as a part of my Biomimicry Professional program, I get to travel to distant lands to learn about their flora and fauna, but many times animal life is hard to find.  But when I come to Sanibel Island, within ten minutes of arriving at the natural beach, I've seen five pelicans swarm within 10' of a dolphin, studied lizards and spiders, and collected more amazing artifacts that wash up on the beach.  I'm going to start advocating that the BPro coursework take a trip to Sanibel to study the natural beaches and the amazing Ding Darling Wildlife Refuge!

Some of the many amazing forms of life I saw on one trip to the beach:

  • pink sea vegetables which freaked out my daughter
  • some squishy blob that looked like a spineless sea urchin
  • another conch breeding placenta
  • dolphins looking for food and completely unfazed by humans
  • pelicans swallowing their prey and water seeping out of their pouches
  • lizards colored to match the twigs and brown debris at the bottom of the floor
  • mangrove trees trapping sediment and living in water
  • rainbow colored fish scales
  • spiders at the center of the web doing housecleaning by removing leaves from their web
So many exciting forms of life to explore and discover!

Branching Fractals

Fractals in nature are everywhere, and I am not going to pretend to be a mathematician and say that I understand the math behind them, but I am intuitive and can suppose why they work: efficient nutrient distribution!   Also, the branches form a web that catch debris, which could be useful for companion species!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Biomimicry of the Sweetgum ball

Walking through a neighborhood in Southern Illinois, it is impossible not to notice the sweetgum balls in February - they are everywhere!  I've always seen them, but I wanted to know more - perhaps see the strategy of the ubiquitous sweetgum tree through a biomimetic lens.
The Biomimicry of the Sweetgum ball
I noticed right away the hexagons!  They had modified leaves to form the seed enclosure.  They were extremely strong and almost broke my scissors trying to cut it - I had to use a chef's knife to dissect it.   The section cut showed that there was a dense core that everything grew out of and multiple seed pods were present on each gumball, and the gumballs were everywhere.

The tree has taken a common strategy where thousands of seeds are produced in the hopes that one or two will sprout and survive.  This strategy is an optimal one for the organism because the seeds, while abundant, are not energetically expensive and it doesn't jeapordize the tree's survival to produce this many.  It reminds me of the example of the cherry tree in the book Cradle to Cradle - nature is rarely efficient, but it is optimized for survival.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

So the groundhog got me thinking... do animals adapt to freezing Chicago winters? 

Humans seal ourselves off in conditioned homes and cars, burning a lot of fossil fuel energy to do so.  But animals don't have that option.  So how do they do it?  I decided to revisit my grade school classes and relearn what I've forgotten.  And maybe there is something we can learn for design.

Photo credit: National Geographic Society 
Groundhog Day got me think, of course, about groundhogs.  As I learned in grade school, they do in fact hibernate from approximately October to March, but toward the end of hibernation (oh, say February 2nd or so?), they enter various stages of arousal to test the temperature and scope out new territory before entering into a semi-hibernated state like torpor.  The purpose of hibernation, of course, is to conserve calories when food is scarce, so the animal's metabolic rate slows and the body cools, respiration and heart rate are depressed.  Groundhogs enter into obligate hibernation, where they are aroused by internal mechanisms and usually unable to be aroused due to external stimluli. Other animals enter into facultative hibernation, or semi-hibernation, where they are able to be aroused but the purpose is the same: conserve energy when it is scarce. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Thinking about Niches - a Spanish Biomimicry iSite

In Spain for our latest BProfessional intensive, we had an iSite where we picked an organism and looked to find it's niche - how it fits in with its environment. The location of our retreat was a hilly area with lots of clay, falling rocks, and erosion.  And even without a lot of water - the area was almost considered a desert - plants were there to stabilize some of the soil.  There were quite a few plants with really gnarly roots that seemed to zigzag down the slope in such a way that I thought it could be a stabilization mechanism, much like how we spread our feet and place them parallel to the slope to stabilize ourselves on a steep slope.  I can't find any mention of this form in the literature I've referenced, but I'm sticking with my observation until proven wrong.  So when looking at the contextual limiting factors for this Rosemary bush, it would seem that its ability to thrive in unstable soil with poor nutrients and not a lot of water allowed it to carve out a niche where other organisms aren't able to survive.  And the zigzag form is one that I find interesting. This tool for natural observation is one that I find useful when trying to understand the contextual factors that influence an organism's ability to survive and be resilient against adverse conditions.