Biomimicry – How Doing It Nature’s Way Will Change The Way We Live

– Posted in: Garden Design, Perennials, Sustainable Gardening

The disappearance of a major natural unit of vegetation from the face of the earth is an event worthy of causing pause and consideration by any nation. Yet so gradually has the prairie been conquered by the breaking plow, the tractor, and the overcrowded herds of man…that scant attention has been given to the significance of this endless grassland or the course of its destruction.  Civilized man is destroying a masterpiece of nature without recording for posterity that which he has destroyed.  John Ernest Weaver, North American Prairie (1954)

How many of you grew up watching ‘Little House on the Prairie’ or reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series of books? The North American prairie is as American as apple pie and is an important part of our heritage.

 Biomimicry - How Doing It Nature's Way Will Change The Way We Live

Photo courtesy of Saxon Holt/Photobotanic

Description of Photo – Fragrant Blue giant hyssop or Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and Gray-headed Coneflower, Pinnate Prairie Coneflower, (Ratibida pinnata) native perennials flowering in Crow-Hassan Park, prairie reserve.

Biomimicry Innovation Inspired by Nature

When I returned from my trip to Ecuador this past fall where I spent time with the Achuar, an indigenous tribe, a friend saw how the experience had transformed me. He suggested that I read Biomimicry: How Innovation Inspires Nature. To say that it left an imprint on me is an understatement.

The author, Janine Beymus, has written a powerful book. This is how she defines biomimicry –

“In these pages, you’ll meet men and women who are exploring nature’s masterpieces – photosynthesis, self-assembly, natural selection, self-sustaining ecosystems, eyes and ears and skin and shell, talking neurons, natural medicines, and more – and then copying these designs and manufacturing processes to solve our own problems. I call their question biomimicry – the conscious emulation of life’s genius. Innovation inspired by nature.

In a society accustomed to dominating or ‘improving’ nature, this respectful imitation is a radically new approach, a revolution really, Unlike the Industrial Revolution, the Biomimicry Revolution introduces an era based not on what we can extract from nature, but on what we can learn from her.

As you will see, “doing it nature’s way” has the potential to change the way we grow food, make materials, harness energy, heal ourselves, store information, and conduct business.

Biomimicry Innovation Inspired by Nature

Photo courtesy of Saxon Holt/Photobotanic

Description of photoPurple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) flowering with Canada Rye and Brown-eye Susan wildflowers in Crow-Hassan Park, prairie reserve Minnesota

In a biomimetic world, we would manufacture the way animals and plants do, using sun and simple compounds to produce totally biodegradable fibers, ceramics, plastics, and chemical. Our farms, modeled on prairies, would be self-fertilizing and pest-resistant. To find new drugs or crops, we would consult animals and insects that have used plants for millions of year to keep themselves healthy and nourished. Even computing would take its cue from nature, with software that “evolves” solutions. and hardware that uses the lock-and-key paradigm to compute by touch.

In each case, nature would provide the models: solar cells copied from leave, steely fibers woven spider-style, shatterproof ceramics drawn from mother-of-pearl, cancer cures compliments of chimpanzees, perennial grains inspired by tallgrass, computer that signal like cells, and a close-looped economy that takes its lessons from redwood, coral reefs, and oak-hickory forests.

The biomimics are discovering what works in the natural world, and more important , what lasts. After 3.8 billion years of research and development, failures are fossils, and what surrounds us is the secret to survival. The more our world looks and function like this natural world, the more likely we are to be accepted on this home that it ours, but nor ours alone.

Virtually all native cultures that have survived without fouling their nest have acknowledged that nature knows best, and have had the humility to ask the bears and wolves and ravens and redwoods for guidance. They can only wonder why we don’t do the same. ” From Biomimicry

But due to our hubris and unwillingness to use nature as mentor, we have all but destroyed the prairie ecosystem. Only 1% of the original prairie land remains – 99% of it is gone. And because so little native habitat remains, many prairie plants and animals are now endangered, rare, or extinct.

Did you know that most of the eaten around the world today comes from only about 20 species, and none of them are perennials? Although some did begin as perennials, over the span of 10,000 years we’ve removed their perennials and domesticated them into being annuals.

Characteristics of Prairies

“1. 99.9% of the plants are perennials – which means that they cover the ground throughout the year, holding the soil against wind and breaking the force of raindrops.

Researchers have actually measured the difference between how hard rain reacts when hits the prairie vs. rows of crops. They found that you get 8 TIMES AS MUCH RUNOFF from a wheat filed as from a prairie.

2. Perennials are  self-fertilizing and self-weeding. 30% of their roots die and decay each year, adding organic matter to the soil. The remaining two thirds of the roots overwinter, allowing perennials to open their umbrella of vegetation first thing in the spring, long before weeds can struggle up from seed.

3. Diversity is also the cheapest and best form of pest control. “Many pests tend to specialize on one host plant species, so when there’s a diverse mix, pests have a harder time finding their target plant.

4. The signature of a prairie is its four classic plant types: warm-season grasses, cool-season grasses, legumes and composites. Cool-season grasses come up early, set seed, and then bow out of the way, allowing warm-season grasses such as big bluestem to rule the rest of the season.”  From Biomimicry

We have left less than one-tenth of one-percent of our prairie.  The rest of it died to make Iowa safe for soybeans. Loren Lown, quoted in Grassland: The History, Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie, written by Richard Mann

Photo courtesy Saxon Holt/Photobotanic

Photo courtesy Saxon Holt/Photobotanic

Description of photo – Castilleja integra Wholeleaf Indian Paintbrush, orange red flower, meadow wildflower with native fescue grass Festuca arizonia in Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado

There is no describing [the prairies]…They inspire feelings to unique, so distinct from anything else, so powerful, yet vague and indefinite, as to defy description, while they invite the attempt.  John C. Van Tramp, Prairie and Rocky Mountain Adventures (1860)

Why should we care about preserving and restoring prairies? Below is a list of prairies’ benefits – simply stated.

13 BENEFITS OF PRAIRIES

They are never complete lost or destroyed – even in a catastrophic situation –

Their perennial root systems ensure next year’s re-birth

There is no net soil erosion

There is no devastating pest epidemics

They have no need for fertilizers

They offer a system that survives on sun and rain

There is no need to cultivate the soil or plants seeds

They emit no damaging waste

They recycle all of their nutrients

They offer a cheap and organic pest control through plant diversity

They hold the soil against wind and rain

They conserve water, acting as a sponge when hit with big rains

They adapt

The prairie, in all its expressions, is a massive, subtle place, with a long history of contradiction and misunderstanding.  But it is worth the effort at comprehension.  It is, after all, at the center of our national identity. Wayne Fields, “Lost Horizon” (1988)

NOW IT’S YOUR TURN. What do prairies mean to you? What are ways home gardeners can help re-store them to our landscapes?

* A big thank you to Saxon Holt of Photobotanic (and Gardening Gone Wild) for his generosity in sharing his photos for this post. To see more of his magnificent photos, visit Photobotanic.

 

Fran Sorin

Fran’s book, Digging Deep: Unearthing Your Creative Roots Through Gardening, now considered a classic, was groundbreaking when published as no one had written about gardening in the context of creativity, spirituality, and transformation.

In addition to being a recognized garden expert and deep ecologist, Fran is a broadcaster, journalist, Ordained Interfaith Minister, and Soul Tender.

Google+ | LinkedIn | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest

Previous Post:

Comments on this entry are closed.

Patrick May 3, 2013, 4:17 pm

As an inhabitant of the prairie outside Kansas City, we see the urban sprawl as it goes west and fear the loss of more of our beloved prairie. One fearful consequence of the loss of prairie land laden with milkweed has been truly significant decline of the Monarch butterfly population. There was a 60% reduction in just the last year. But the increasing acreage of GMO glysophate-resistant corn and beans in the heartland is also a huge contributing factor.

Gardeners can help by utilizing milkweed into their home landscape. If one wants to see the tallgrass prairie in all its splendor, go hiking in the Konza Prairie Reserve 10 miles south of Manhattan, KS and Kansas State University (Go Wildcats). Nearly 9,000 acres of virgin prairie home to over 600 species of flora is the largest reserve of prairie land in the United States. The reserve is a joint effort of KSU and The Nature Conservancy.

Donna May 3, 2013, 10:00 pm

Wonderful and informative post Fran. So much is eye opening if we only keep our eyes open. Allowing gardens to function is what I see as important. By this I mean letting the plants feed the wildlife and the wildlife keeping each other in check. I have been amazed reading lately how truly active plants are in their own defense. Science is learning so much from nature and a lot of it it is due to necessity of the times in which we live.

Fran Sorin May 4, 2013, 4:01 am

Hi Donna – Observing nature is one of the best ways of learning. If we would just follow nature’s lean and not impose our will on the land, all living things would be much healthier and more in alignment. Fran

Fran Sorin May 4, 2013, 4:10 am

Patrick –

I shouldn’t be surprised by the 60% decline in the monarch population in just this past year.

Great suggestion for home gardeners to use milkweed in their landscape….and for the reminder of yet another damaging consequence of the increasing acreage of GMO glysophate-resistant corn and beans in what was once prairie.

Since I won’t be hiking at Konza Prairie Reserve anytime in the near future, I’ll check it out online- 9000 acres of virgin prairie – it sounds extraordinary.

Being a prairie dweller, you speak with authority Patrick – I appreciate your input. Fran

Debbie May 4, 2013, 5:15 am

We have a two acre lot in NW Illinois, not specifically tall grass prairie but I like to think its an example of how a typical US home can coexist with many prairie type plants. We have milkweed, monarda, compass, bluestem, echinacea, goldenrod, thistle and plants I haven’t identified yet. A friend once told me there were no Mosquitos in Galena…Ha, I thought, there’s Mosquitos everywhere. But we don’t. I’d like to think its because of all the birds swooping across our meadow. We’ve used butterfly weed, joe pye weed, queen of the prairie, grey coneflower and various grasses throughout the flower beds closer to the house to blend with the meadow. We still have a few typical plants (a constant fight over two rose bushes have the rabbits winning) closer in but by inter-mixing the natives with selected perennials we’ve tried to find a garden that looks nice, uses less water, has no need of pesticides and provides a habitat for birds, insects and butterflies.

ann May 4, 2013, 6:11 am

USDA now has discontinued most payments for Conservation Resources on Prairies and has budgeted more for SNAP, entitling all to nutrition in our country. Seems that this is a plan that cuts off the nose to spite the face. Where will nutritious food come from after nature is gone from the vast prairies of the west?

James Golden May 4, 2013, 6:58 am

This is an exciting and hopeful post, and I certainly want to read Biomimicry. The loss of the prairies to industrialized, monocultural agriculture is an enormous, incomprehensible loss, and the damage can probably never be repaired. I want to believe biomimicry can offer solutions to help save the world. But I also remember 99.5% of the species that ever existed are now extinct, fossils for us to study or perhaps life forms that left no trace at all. Can we beat the odds? But we live for hope. I’m reminded of another hopeful book, Rambunctious Garden by Emma Marris. Perhaps there is a more positive spirit stirring.

Mary May 4, 2013, 5:30 pm

Great suggestions. The biggest place I believe you need to start is in the classrooms. From elementary through College. Most of the Elementary teachers I have spoken to are not in touch with outside, plants or environmental issues other then recycling paper and keeping germs at bay.
Starting on a small scale one or two pilot schools in the “plain” states or private schools and then introduce that program on a larger scale, is my suggestion. I live in Ohio and we offer at our nursery some of the natives along with the cultivated, but year after year we sell very few natives and mostly cultivated plants. In fact we hear commits such as that is too much like the native “weeds” we can’t put that into our landscape jobs.

Fran Sorin May 6, 2013, 3:53 am

James – It can be disheartening when you look at the endangered and ‘extinction’ lists. BUT-if people like you who care raise awareness and set an example by how you live, I believe that it’s not too late. Visualize the earth the way you dream it to be ~ and keep it close to your heart. Thanks for your comment. Fran

Fran Sorin May 6, 2013, 3:56 am

Ann – The decisions made by the USDA are paradoxical and lacking in any type of long term thinking. Thank you for bringing this information to my attention. Fran

Fran Sorin May 6, 2013, 4:01 am

Hi Mary –
It sounds like you could be a beacon of light to go into classrooms and could talk with students on the purpose of native plants and how conserving our land as ‘prairies’ effects them – How about it?

Fran Sorin May 6, 2013, 4:06 am

Debbie – Lucky you with 2 acres in NW Illinois – would love to see photos of your garden. You are right on target suggesting that homeowners can incorporate prairie type plants into their garden easily and with great results. It sounds like you have created a water wise, hardy, beautiful, habitat for wildlife and you and your family. Thanks for sharing. Fran

Mary May 6, 2013, 7:00 am

Fran,
Would love to go into the class rooms and “plant the seed” for more natural lanscapes and lifestyles.

Fran Sorin May 6, 2013, 9:08 am

Fantastic – I always found that working with elementary school kids was a lot of fun – they are still so open – Let me know what happens:) Fran

Gareth May 6, 2013, 1:35 pm

Wildflower meadows or praire’s are one of the truly great free things in life and need respect and care!!

Jeffrey Willius May 6, 2013, 3:03 pm

Not sure I could tell a patch of prairie from any other meadow, but the feature of such lands that sticks with me from childhood is what I call the “sizzle” of all the insects — with perhaps a note of rustling from the plants moving in the breeze. That sound one hears there on hot summer afternoons is unlike anything you’d hear in the woods or anywhere else.

Fran Sorin May 6, 2013, 9:40 pm

Gareth — I couldn’t agree more. There are so many wonderful wildflower/native plants associations and organizations that give all of us the opportunity to educate ourselves on the subject. Thanks for your comment. Fran

Fran Sorin May 6, 2013, 9:42 pm

Jeffrey – You gave me the chills with your comment. Although I didn’t live on the prairie, living part of my childhood in Texas, I can hear those sounds loud and clear. Thanks for your take on the subject ~ Fran

KJ May 7, 2013, 2:34 pm

I would like to think with the modern incorporation of prairie or prairie-like plants into modern gardening tastes that we are seeing a greater appreciation for them. I live in the Midwest, and have seen many of the modern urban and suburban plantings utilizing prairie grasses and species such as Bouteloua, Schizachyrium, Panicum, and even the more obscure plants like Silphium and Vernonia. I hope that people start incorporating them more and more into their gardening and landscaping, and that the prairie starts returning – even if it is in just small patches of the urban landscape.

Arthur in the Garden! May 9, 2013, 5:18 am

Wonderful. People are always surprised when my weed patch begins to bloom and continues in waves into the Fall. They are even more surprised when I tell them that I never water it, too!

Benjamin Vogt May 9, 2013, 8:26 am

Thanks for this post. You know this is what I write on, blog about, speak about, and the base of my consulting business. When I show photos of my suburban prairie garden and say “1-2 days of maintenance max” or “I watered once last year” or “I pulled 10 weeds the whole summer” people are floored. Why? Prairie plants are incredibly adaptable, and as you say, good bugs come in and decimate the bad ones. I do want to say that it’s 99% of the tallgrass that is gone, something like 50% of mixed, and 30% of short grass. Short is graze land not suitable for farming, so lucky there. But we are plowing up the remnants of prairie over the last decade to take advantage of high corn and soybean prices, esp marginal land that should not be farmed at all but crop subsidies make it low risk. I’ve got two posts on the above: http://deepmiddle.blogspot.com/2012/09/the-prairie-is-our-amazon-no-one-cares.html AND http://deepmiddle.blogspot.com/2013/02/farming-away-our-future.html

Kathy Fitzgerald May 10, 2013, 8:38 am

Fran–
It’s not only the prairie habitat we can learn from. And it’s not only the prairie being threatened with extinction. Here is a link to filmmaker Cathy Fitzgerald’s ecoartnotebook about the move to legally define ecocide so that perpetrators can be punished by law. Fascinating stuff. dev.ecoartnotebook.com

George May 10, 2013, 11:35 am

Great post, I agree they are very resilient to natural hardships. Perhaps we can integrate them into our gardens, and use retaining walls to capture their beauty!

Amy Coffman Phillips May 14, 2013, 12:20 pm

I co-founded a network in Chicago called Biomimicry Chicago and our inaugural project is called “The Prairie Project” where we learn from the genius of the prairie to inspire sustainable, locally-attuned design for our region. I’d be very interested in speaking with you to learn from your perspective and maybe get you involved! Amy

Fran Sorin May 17, 2013, 8:49 am

Hi Amy- I sent you a personal note at the e-mail address you listed here. I hope it didn’t go into spam. If you want to talk further, e-mail me at: fransoringardendesigns@gmail.com. I’d be happy to talk with you about Biomimicry Chicago. Have a great weekend. Fran

Max Sebring May 17, 2013, 11:55 am

This is a great post. I’ve read that most prairie habitats are slowly disappearing because of its conversion to agricultural lands. Anyway, it’s also nice to know that there are government interventions and Non-Government organizations that help protect its preservation. :-)

Fran Sorin May 17, 2013, 12:56 pm

Hi Max- You’re right ~ non-profit organizations that protect land – often from being turned into a housing development – are important in helping to maintain a natural environment as it’s meant to be. Fran

joe May 25, 2013, 6:14 am

Yes, I have grew up in that way!
“How many of you grew up watching ‘Little House on the Prairie’ or reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series of books?” http://a-1fenceproducts.com/barbed_wire.htm

Nancy Meyer May 26, 2013, 3:42 pm

In the drawing I would be interested in any of the books. Thank You for doing this. I have lots of hens & chicks, I live in SE Iowa —zone 5b.