Biomimicry: the secret lessons we can learn from the natural world

Earthworms are smooth, efficient 
excavation machines.

Earthworms are smooth, efficient excavation machines.

Opinion: This is going to be a deep, dark story; one that plumbs the depths of all things stinky and best forgotten.

Soon after moving into our new abode, my darling Juuls frightened me severely with remarks that the water in the shower wasn't running away as quickly as she'd liked and the toilet wasn't as flush as it should be.

Best to investigate, then… with drainlayer and underwater camera gear creating brilliant closeup images of things you'd never want to see before dinner (or before bedtime, for that matter).

The diagnosis was worse than expected: multiple root invasions into ancient clay pipes and a series of strategically distributed blockages in a prehistoric system, stretching for – what seems – hundreds of kilometres.

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With just me on the spade and shovel, I had plenty of repetitive and boring time, losing weight and mulling things over in the brain. It was a stretch of cold, foggy, late autumn weather – planes weren't going anywhere in Christchurch. It was also an eerily quiet soundscape with just the brilliant song of bellbirds showing how effectively nature communicates in almost zero visibility.

The other sound was the constant dripping of water droplets from the eucalyptus leaves. Many of those droplets ended up on my neck, of course, but it made me realise how great nature is at harvesting moisture from fog, by getting it to condensate on the leaf surface and deliver it via a constant drip system right onto the root zone where it is needed.

By now you'll get the picture that if we pay attention, there's a lot we can learn about how nature operates, how it goes about its business and how it has – through evolution – developed some real clever technologies.

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Biomimicry is the term that covers "learning from nature" and I catch myself constantly in awe of this free consultancy service and inspirational reservoir of fabulous ideas. After all, only well-adapted species have survived in nature's 3.8 billion-year-old R&D lab – the not-so-good ones have gone extinct. Simple as that!

I found narrow tunnels in the top layers of the soil, where mice live and play. It's the Canterbury version of Brambly Hedge, if you like…

There's no doubt that these small furry mammals utilise old, decayed root systems to create a cosy, underground network from which to forage in our garden for seeds, invertebrates and (I believe) ripening tomatoes!

It was no surprise to find these tunnels empty of mice, seeing we've had a few good frosts already. The mice had migrated to the human houses and as I found out, completely invaded our ceiling space. Now that's adaptation. Thank goodness for mousetraps!

The only creatures that successfully hibernated in the old, hollow root systems were native skinks. These cold blooded reptiles know how to survive out there by lowering their heart rate.

When I got to the clay pipe segments that had some impressive root invasions, it suddenly dawned on me that if we are to take biomimicry seriously, we need to change the way we mine the Earth. Our mining operations often disturb whole hillsides and ruin complete ecological systems, whereas plant roots grab molecules here, some ions there and transport them through a biodegradable, vascular system to the top parts of the plant. Just saying!

Earthworms were plentiful wherever I dug. They, too, mine the soil by swallowing it and absorbing the nutrient-filled organic matter on which they depend. At the same time, they produce fertile casts and aerate the soil, while delivering the organic matter way down in the soil's lower layers.

These guys are smooth, efficient excavation machines, making their way through the most solid of clays. I watched them narrowing their head to a fine point, then pushing their body forward with the tiny, glass-like spines that protrude from the segments. That tiny point needs far less energy to push into clay than a blunt round body end… and that suddenly made a lot of sense to me. I was working with a rather wide spade in thick, moist clay. Hard work indeed!

So, what about using a much narrower digging implement that penetrates the clay with ease? The trenching spade I bought will be one of the best investments ever, I reckon, for the task at hand and for planting all the botanical delights in the future.

Here's to following Nature's best ideas! 

 - NZ Gardener


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