Issue #61, Learning from Nature
An Apprentice to the World
Writer at Work
An Apprentice to the World
There is all the difference in the world between looking at something and living with it. In nature, one never really sees a thing for the first time until one has seen it for the fiftieth. It never means much until it has become part of some general configuration, until it has become not a “view” or a “sight” but an integrated world of which one is a part; until one is what the biologist would call part of a biota.
—Joseph Wood Krutch, The Desert Year
When we commit to a particular place, a certain element of choice is removed. We are free to dig in, and allow ourselves to be mentored by the life around us. We begin to see the world whole instead of fractured. Long-term strategies replace short-term gains. Routine opens the door to creativity.
—Terry Tempest Williams, The Open Space of Democracy
When she arrived in Montana in 1990, writer Janine Benyus was worn out and broken. She had spent the previous year in an all-out sprint to meet two book deadlines. During the exhaustive grind, a relationship of thirteen years had ended. Most devastating of all, though, was the death of her beloved mother.
Soon after her move, Benyus laced up her boots and began hiking the Bitterroot Mountains, which rim the edge of a large valley in the westernmost part of the state. Thirty dramatic canyons score the mountain range at regular intervals, as neatly as a baker’s knife divvies up a massive roll of rising dough.
Drawn by a desire for healing, Benyus explored one canyon after another, under forests of ponderosa pine and quaking aspen, along streams that were white with the bridal froth of rushing water. “I would just hang over waterfalls,” she recalls, “and imagine myself as an empty vessel with that water pouring through me and letting all my grief come out, being flushed and then filled with all the ions and the power of the water.”
Benyus was certain that whatever the future might bring, the Bitterroot Valley would be home for the rest of her life. But she had no clue how dramatically the valley would change her life. It was here, in her adopted backyard, that she would apprentice herself to the natural world, developing and field-testing some of the fundamental ideas she would lay out in her 1997 bestseller Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. The book, which explores how the forms, processes, and systems of nature can inspire sustainable human innovation, launched an international movement and sent the author crisscrossing the globe as a renowned thought leader, consultant, and teacher. In the ensuing years, she cofounded two organizations that focused on biomimicry education as well as business consulting.
These days, Benyus’s work takes her from Riyadh, Durban, and London to Amsterdam, New York, and Mumbai, but she calibrates the coordinates of the heart in Stevensville, a rural community about thirty miles south of Missoula. For more than a quarter-century, she has lived there on an eight-acre parcel of land, with her long-time partner, Laura Merrill. Benyus refers to herself as a “sticker,” a term coined by the writer Wallace Stegner to describe people who “settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.” If there’s any doubt about this claim, you only have to watch her alert blue eyes scrunch into quarter-moons of merriment or her trim, wiry frame pace the yard with excitement as she introduces me to its many occupants. It’s mid-May, and the trees and pond on the south end of the property are as hopping with life as the Full Moon Saloon in downtown Stevensville on a Saturday night.
“This is my favorite time of year,” she says, “but I say it softly because I don’t want the other seasons to hear.” Adult Canada geese, their bearing as regal as the queen of England’s, float effortlessly in the pond, thronged by flotillas of downy goslings. Western painted turtles have hauled themselves onto flat rocks, angling the heavy cargo of their shells into the full light of the afternoon sun. A pile of wood chips at the base of a nearby tree betrays the recent jackhammering of a pileated woodpecker. Red-winged blackbirds flit from the willows into the cattails, where, earlier this spring, they wove their nests into the growing stalks. One after the other, they mark the boundaries of their nesting territories with their signature oak-a-LEE calls. Soon, Benyus says, laughing, the yellow-headed blackbirds will arrive and displace the red-wings, “like New York taxi drivers yelling, Hey, move the car.” Suddenly, she points to a solitary sandhill crane overhead, a gaunt pterodactyl-like species Benyus had never seen on the property until this spring. It sails a familiar arc over her house, dropping behind a berm to the north to feed in a neighbor’s field.
In another month, as the Montana summer heats up, she and Merrill will begin swimming in Turtle World, the pond that has become legendary among Biomimicry fans for Benyus’s finely rendered account of how she successfully applied biomimicry to one of her own design challenges. They’ll float among diminutive fairy shrimp, dragonflies, snails, and diving ducks as a kingfisher chirrs disapprovingly from a branch overhead. They will take turns gliding over the upwellings of ice-cold water from the underground springs that feed the pond. Like the animals that share their land, they will make their own seasonal rounds, slowly reacquainting themselves with the particulars of home.
It wasn’t always like this.
When Benyus and Merrill bought their land in the 1990s, the pasture on the far west side of their land had been packed hard and grazed down to dirt over the years by horses. In a one-two punch, invasive knapweed had elbowed out most attempts by the prairie grasses to stage a comeback.
Then, of course, there was the pond. Area old-timers recalled its glory days as a hub for breeding water birds. Yet within a few years after moving in, Benyus noticed that waterfowl actively avoided it. The reason: the pond’s open water had filled in with duckweed. This floating plant, whose small ovoid-shaped leaves are a nutritious browse, had formed such thick mats on the water’s surface that it prevented waterfowl from landing and feeding.
Benyus got out a wheelbarrow, put on her “swamp boots,” and began harvesting the duckweed. But the more she hauled, the more it seemed to grow. She tried installing barriers along the shoreline that would keep the plant from spreading to the deeper water in the pond’s center. Still no luck. After consulting her county extension agent, Benyus was advised to nuke the duckweed with herbicides. When asked to suggest a more natural solution, the agent just threw up his hands.
At the time, Benyus was deep into the writing of Biomimicry, a project that was a marked departure from her previous books focusing on ecology and animal behavior. The practice of biomimicry, she posits, “is learning from and then emulating natural forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more sustainable designs.” Her reporting covered a wide range of cutting-edge research: academic engineers who studied how a photosynthesizing leaf could inspire new solar-energy technologies, agronomists who tracked the dynamics of the tallgrass prairie as a more sustainable model for growing food, and industrial ecologists who looked to natural ecosystems for ideas on how to increase the efficiency of business practices and minimize the toxicity of manufacturing processes.
The pond gave Benyus her own real-world biomimicry challenge close to home. Too often, she was realizing, people resort to narrow, engineered solutions—like nuking duckweed with herbicide—to problems that are far larger and systemic in nature. These shortsighted approaches often cause more problems than they solve. So Benyus posed her own biomimetic question to the challenge of duckweed control. She wondered: What would nature do in these circumstances? How would nature design a healthy pond? Furthermore, could studying the dynamics of a healthy pond ecosystem help her heal the damaged one in her backyard? She decided it was time to take a break from the computer to “become a biomimic instead of just writing about them.” So she hopped on her bike and pedaled to a pond on nearby Forest Service land that could offer her a few pointers. It was “clear, loud with the squabbles of nesting birds, a healthy balance of vegetation and open water,” Benyus wrote. What did this pond have that hers lacked? For one thing, the shoreline was fringed with grasses and willows. And the water was far colder. But the biggest clue came when a cottonwood leaf sailed in and out of view on the surface of the water. The healthy pond had a current, which indicated that it was fed by springs, an explanation for why the water was so crystalline and cold to the touch.
She surmised that her pond had also been fed by springs but that they had “suffocated under layers of topsoil roiling in from the fields.” She observed in Biomimicry: “The topsoil was prime for eroding because years of overgrazing had weakened the thick sod. One thing led to another, and the pond silted in, becoming a tepid bowl—perfect for duckweed but not, ironically, for ducks. If I wanted to keep the pond open to breeders and have duckweed only in the cattailed edges again, I would have to find that forgotten spring, free it, and then stop the source of silting.”
So Benyus launched her canoe and began searching for cold spots. Sure enough, she located an upwelling. When she dredged it, up came Montana gold: a geyser of mountain snowmelt. Within a few hours, the nuisance duckweed had drifted over the pond’s dam, and “my pond was sparkling, and the wood ducks in the sloughs of the river below me were feasting,” she observed.
Benyus realized, however, that unplugging the stream was its own form of remedying an isolated problem with a narrowly engineered solution. To ensure that the spring would continue to flow cold and clear, Benyus knew she would need to mend the ruptures in the larger network of relationships on her land. So she turned her attention, next, to reseeding native plants in the pasture to help hold the soil so that future “flood events would not continue to suffocate the spring,” she writes in Biomimicry. That also meant stabilizing the banks of Willoughby Creek, a small hop-across stream that trickles through the pasture. “We knew we had to put some processes back in place,” Benyus explains, “to somehow be part of the cycle that creates conditions conducive to this being a river corridor again, even though it doesn’t look like it now because it’s all agricultural.”
So she and Merrill planted a gallery of trees, including willow and cottonwood, to jumpstart the regrowth of the riparian forest that once protected watercourses like Willoughby. Benyus recalls how they felt the first time a bird landed in one of these trees. “We thought, Well, we got something right. We created a place where birds could look around, perhaps roost at night, or rest from the work they’re doing. We asked ourselves, Could we possibly have done something positive, after all the negative?”
The most definitive confirmation that they were headed in the right direction came the day that moose began to visit their land. These enormous north-country ungulates, which seek out water for cooling and aquatic plants for food, had disappeared from the Willoughby corridor. But as the pond and creek were restored, moose began to revisit their former haunts. Benyus will never forget the first time a bull moose came calling. “All the cats came running through the cat door. Flap, flap, flap,” she recalls. “When they come in like that, we know there’s something big in the yard. Then we heard this crashing sound as if the pond was emptying out, and out comes this enormous animal flinging weeds. It’s like, Where’s Fay Wray? The whole pond was just dripping off of him.”
For three days, the moose wandered their property and dozed in the pond. During his visit, neighbors telephoned each other every half hour about his whereabouts. “Everyone was in a state,” she recalls, “as if a king or queen had come to stay.”
The moose was the ultimate seal of approval from the natural world. According to Benyus, nature is not only a mentor and a model, a teacher as well as a vast database of strategies that can be emulated to create sustainable innovation, but also a measure by which to judge the fundamental “rightness” of those innovations. Put simply: do our designs, like nature, “create conditions conducive to life”? Benyus asks. Are they life-begetting and life-furthering? Bio-inspired interventions, she observes, are like “offerings.” “You make your small offering,” she points out, “and the only way you know the rightness of your innovation—whether or not its pattern or process is hewing somewhat close to what the place needs—is when you get this incredible endorsement.”
I was thinking about the moose that night when I bedded down in the pasture with nothing but a sleeping bag between me and the Montana stars. Twenty years ago in this very spot, I would probably have slept on a bed of bare dirt. Instead, I lay back on a cushion of soft grass, whose tall spears wove a stockade of thatch around me. If the moose chose this night to step out into the field, there was enough light from the quarter-moon that, from my hiding place, I could have watched his jaws methodically working a willow branch.
I put one ear to the ground and felt the deep glug-glug of nearby Willoughby Creek reverberate through the bones of my skull. I suddenly had a deeper appreciation for writer Ellen Meloy’s description of a night she and her husband spent on a beach along the Green River: “I sense the river’s volume beside us rather than hear its flow.” The sound of the Willoughby didn’t possess the heady effervescence of the bridal-veil falls of Mill Creek that I had heard on a hike into the Bitterroots with Benyus earlier that day. No, these were waters that had rushed out of the mountains and were calmed by the gentler slopes of the valley, waters that had slowed to the pace of deep time. It was like laying your head on the heart of someone you love and listening to the primordial thump of blood traveling the arterial highways at the very edge of human hearing.
When I awoke the next morning, the rustling of my sleeping bag drew the attention of a red-winged blackbird. He flew up into the branch of one of the young cottonwoods Benyus and Merrill had planted the previous spring. He cocked his head, looked down on me with one eye, then turned to get a better look with the other eye. “I will take that as an endorsement,” I called up to him, laughing. With the rising of the sun, he was waking to the business of his day as I was to mine. Our planet is a “home that is ours, but not ours alone,” Benyus wrote in Biomimicry. I wondered if an experience just like this one gave rise to this memorable line.
Currently at work on her second book on biomimicry, Benyus is drawing once again on her experiences in the world at her doorstep. Since the 1997 publication of Biomimicry, practitioners have largely focused on one-off, organism-based innovation—for example, studying the structure of whale fins to design more efficient wind-turbine blades or finding inspiration for water-collection devices in the exosekeletons of fog-harvesting beetles. In her new book, however, Benyus hopes to enlarge the scope of biomimetic innovations by emphasizing the systems-level perspective that informed Biomimicry, citing stunning new research in ecology that could inspire the design of complex human systems. Could a city, for example, mimic the ways in which a forest sequesters carbon, distributes nutrients, or captures water? Could we develop actual metrics for measuring natural processes and use them as the basis for ecological performance standards that the built environment must meet? Could businesses be designed like the forest’s underground fungal networks, which, in the process of knitting together plant roots, create allies rather than competitors, bolstering the resilience of the whole community?
“I’ve been talking a lot these days about us being net positive producers of ecosystem services,” Benyus says, “like nurturing biodiversity, nutrient cycling, water storage, and sinking carbon deep into the soils. Could we humans stand in the middle of these cycles and be a contributor? I don’t think we’re ever going to be hero contributors. But what if we could just be as good a contributor as all the other organisms?”
For Benyus, there is no shortage of mentors. She has only to walk out her door and attend the tutorials of fairy shrimp and snails, woodpeckers and kingfishers, or put her ear to the ground and listen to the flow of the water and the grass growing.
Adelheid Fischer is assistant director of the Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University. She is also a writer who focuses on natural... read more
CNF: Your essay “The Heart” tells the story of how your brother’s wife (now ex-wife) nearly cut off his thumb. The central domestic scene... read more