Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Diversity as Strength: Learning from our Prairies

This article from AskNature.org seems particularly relevant this week as we heal from the deadly and divisive events of the weekend. It may seem strange to draw parallels between plant and human communities to learn from them, but by studying our native tallgrass prairies we learn that fostering diversity within a community is its source of STRENGTH and key to its long-term RESILIENCE.

“But when the work of one species is hampered by drought or other conditions, another species in a diverse and multi-talented community is likely to thrive and expand its activities. It is this ability of species to compensate for one another that allows the system as a whole to function steadily over the long term.” (Baskin 1997:24-25) Read more here!

So how can we learn from nature to foster diversity within our own communities? We welcome your constructive thoughts on how we can help our communities be more resilient by learning from nature's diversity strategies.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

August iSite: Our Place in the Woodland

Woodland near Railroad Track
It is part of my regular routine to walk my dog and sometimes run through a small patch of forest near the railroad tracks in my town. This small 50 acre woodland is bordered by a railroad track, a river, and single family homes. It is home to mostly maple trees with more than a few black cherry trees of various ages and sizes, from 100 year old grandmothers to a forest floor of saplings. There are few if any oaks to be found in this stand, largely because this park is located on the east side of the river, a location typically shielded from the prairie fires that blow from the west. The woodland also houses typical suburban critters from squirrels and bunnies to skunks, raccoons, and even coyotes. It also houses quite a few insects from mosquitoes that love me to black gnats that fly into my eyes. Ah, the web of life!

This is a managed woodland. The forest preserve keeps up the trails and removes invasive species. This area, and others nearby, also serve our community in another way: they are a part of the overall flood control strategy for our nearby downtown. In times of heavy rain, particularly in the spring, parks such as this are allowed to flood so that the river doesn't damage the valuable economic interests downtown.

So in this small tract of woodland surrounded by suburban low-density housing, humans and non-humans interact quite a bit. I could draw a diagram of the web of life that exists here, but my curiosity lies in the functions this ecosystem performs.

Water Cycles
I mentioned the flood control functions this ecosystem performs. Not only does it slow the flow of water that falls from the sky with its varied layers of vegetation, but it also slows the flow of water runoff from northern developments by allowing additional land for the river to cover in lieu of the valuable real estate downtown. The water stored is filtered through the soil and hummus layers and feeds the underground water table. Adjacent properties could assist with this function by building rain gardens and other forms of green infrastructure to help keep water on site where it falls.

While the biodiversity I mentioned above isn't as high in terms of number and depth of species as a woodland in a more rural location would be, it is much higher than the typical turf grass and trees landscapes adjacent to it. This area becomes an oasis for local fauna to find shelter and food when they cannot otherwise. Biodiversity is key to resilience over time, and our human habitats can begin to foster diversity by learning from ecosystems too.

Carbon and Climate 
This suburban oasis of a woodland helps to cool the ambient temperature of the surrounding area. The temperature is noticeably cooler, not just from the shade of the trees but also from the transpiration of plants which adds water vapor to the air. Trees shade themselves, harness energy, purify the air, and provide shelter. They also sequester carbon in their trunks and roots. Each of these ecosystem functions help provide a livable environment for a variety of life - including humans. The next step is to create buildings that do the same! And green architects around the world are doing just that.

Material Cycles
Woodlands are great examples for material cycling in nature - after all, there is no landfill for them to store their waste! All materials are cycled in nested closed loops (see Rachel's post here), and while doing so create conditions for life to thrive because of readily available nutrients and stable soil. Imagine if the materials we use to construct human habitats were held to the same standard and fit with the nature of the place, were designed for deconstruction, and readily recycled on site. That would truly set a new standard of practice for our built environment.

Community Connections
This is a fairly isolated patch of woodland with hard borders such as railroad tracks being very difficult and dangerous for humans and wildlife to cross. But what if this oasis could be connected to other woodlands and prairies with wildlife corridors and vegetation-rich landscapes, thereby improving the biodiversity and interconnectivity of the land? And else can we learn from ecosystems to improve connections between human communities as well?

Understanding our Deep Roots
When brought together, we can begin to understand the ecosystem standard that our native ecosystems, such as this woodland, set. Our challenge is then to find ways to emulate nature's standard in our built environment, creating human habitats that perform at least as well as the ecosystems they inhabit.

Learn more by visiting the Deep Roots Initiative page of our website!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

July iSite: Deciduous trees and the disposable economy

(cross-posted via facebook, by Rachel Hahs)

After having a discussion with my daughter yesterday about why trees have green and then red or yellow leaves, I couldn't help but think about the process of deciduous trees dropping leaves and growing new ones in the spring. I've also been thinking about the circular economy, and the fact that in nature, cheap abundant materials are actually disposable and cycled within an ecosystem. 

The deciduous tree is a great example of how a "manufacturing process" can use "expensive" materials, like chlorophyll, without disposing of them, while keeping "cheap" materials in a tight loop that feed the tree to grow again in the next growing season. This also feeds an economy of processors that are enriched and in turn enrich the tree in a cycle of sustained growth. 

We can so aspire to do the same! 

Monday, July 10, 2017

July iSite Challenge: Finding Nature's Processes

July iSite: Finding Nature's Processes
Time: 20-30 minutes
Materials: Clear mind, writing utensil and paper

In biomimicry when we talk about process, we are talking about how something is made - the "manufacturing" processes including chemistry and assembly. Human manufacturing processes often use "heat, beat and treat" - we achieve structure through energy intensive processes at high temperatures with toxic chemistry. In nature, manufacturing processes rely on low temperatures, abundant readily available life-friendly materials, and self-assembly.

For example, photosynthesis is a chemical reaction that converts radiant energy from the sun into chemical energy (sugars) using the abundant materials of carbon dioxide, water and sunlight. Another example is spider silk - a super strong material with a complex structure made with life-friendly green chemistry (aka, digested insects) in the gut of a spider!

As you did for the June iSite, find a comfortable sit spot where you feel close to nature. Observe the world around you for at least 5 minutes before moving onto the exercise.

Sketch, write, photograph or video the processes you observe around you.
  • What "manufactured" materials do you observe around you?
  • What is the general "manufacturing process"?
  • What are the "raw materials" that go into them?
  • What is the function being performed ?
  • What do you want to learn more about?
Share your July iSite with us via social media or email!

Friday, June 30, 2017

June iSite: Virginia Creeper

{cross posted from moira albanase via facebook}

For my June iSite experience, I decided to make it a family event. A car full of sunscreen, snacks, and hats brought my daughter, sister and mother to Scenic Vista in Columbiana County Ohio. While the younger two got comfy in the hammocks, my mother and I ventured down the forest trails. It was a beautiful sunny day, but the paths were cool and the air was heavy. It was not long before we noticed that it was more than tree leaves that sheltered us from the sun. Creeping vines were making their way skyward, using the tree trunks as both foundation and highway.

We identified Virginia Creeper, Poison Ivy, Grape Vines, and some mystery plant, all with different strategies for getting height. Virginia Creepers would find crevices in the bark of a tree and situate themselves in the shelter of the cranny. This would create a chaotic upward growth pattern for the vine. Poison Ivy would create thick, hairy vines that shot straight up a tree regardless of the bark texture. The mystery plant was growing in a large circle around, but not touching the tree, only reaching out for support once it was too tall to support itself. This created the ghost of a hoop skirt and bodice around the well-dressed tree. Grape vines grew on everything they touched, even collapsing a tree that had grown top heavy with vines.

We were all interested in the different techniques the plants were using and what that might mean for its relationship to the supporting flora. But no amount of sunscreen could protect us from bugs, and the hammocks were becoming more like swings. It was time to head home, and start researching for the July iSite: process!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Another isite!

{cross post from Sally Jungblut via Facebook}

I was out kayaking this weekend in Cary when I noticed something bushy in the water. As I reached for the aquatic plant, it's form went from looking like a part of a pine branch to a squishy lump of green. 

This aquatic plant is called a Myriophyllum heterophyllum. It's name in latin means "ten thousand leaves". Though native to Florida, this plant has traveled through most of the eastern part of the states and lives in most waterways and small bodies of water. What I noticed as I drew the small sprig from the water is how the branches with all it's very fine bristles created a net - a net made up of hundreds of little nets.
  • How would you use this for human use?
  • What about spills - oil, chemical, hazardous waste?
  • Filtration both in air and water?
  • What if I wanted to capture with it? 
  • Dip the design into a product and withdraw and transport?
  • What about a new grocery/storage system?
  • Wouldn't it be cool if I could attach food containers to a branch and then have it collapse onto itself to create a protective net over it?
Remember, there's still time to go out and find your own organism for the Biomimicry isite Challenge!

Monday, June 19, 2017

June iSite: Purple Cone Flower

Walking the prairie yesterday, I came across a purple echinacae - or coneflower. This plant, while native to Illinois, is not that common in native habitats. In fact, most of the plants that grow in the wild are escaped cultivars. But do they ever stand out! Their delicate pink leaves are topped with a collection of small spines, which are packed closely in the Fibonacci spiral formation, allowing for radiating growth.

I started to wonder how this radiating growth pattern could be useful for us: could the seating arrangement in a restaurant, theater in the round, or other establishment fit more people into a small space? Could it grow and contract as needed? Would this pattern be relevant to temporary disaster shelter camps as well?

There are so many questions we can ask nature. Join us this month as we explore nature's forms - and get outside with us this summer! http://www.biomimicrychicago.net/events/