Learning from Nature

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When I think of the woods, I’m reminded of the interdependence and interconnectedness of all living things and with Earth Day coming this Thursday, April 22, it’s been on my mind a lot lately. This annual event brings awareness to the importance of taking care of our planet. We are reminded that if we don’t take some bold steps to protect what nature has given us, Earth will not be able to sustain us.

And yet …

And yet the forests that provide us with oxygen are burning. These include forests that you wouldn’t expect – places like the Mojave Desert and Siberia. The birds, butterflies, bees and other pollinators are dying at an alarming rate. The oceans are becoming uninhabitable.

The thing is, as we learned in the early days of the pandemic when people stayed at home – remember those photos of the clean air in Tokyo and the clean canals of Venice? – nature is incredibly resilient. But, it can only take so much.

So, we can learn a lot about interdependence and interconnectedness just by watching nature. Not just between humans and nature, but between humans and humans.

I think you get the idea that our life is dependent on a healthy ecosystem. Our fate is intricately connected to the fate of nature. However, our survival is also dependent on how we co-exist with each other.

Nature provides us with so many reminders of the necessity of interdependence. Trees, birds, insects all communicate with each other to increase their chances of survival. The howl of a coyote and the gobble of a turkey are not just ways of expressing themselves, they are an integral part of species continuity. So today, I want to focus on some particular examples from nature that we can adopt for ourselves.

Giant Sequoias, ancient oaks and hundred-foot-tall Ponderosa pines don’t get there by themselves. They endure drought, disease, infestation and even forest fires by depending on a complicated network of relationships. Saplings bide their time, waiting for the canopy to open up as other trees fall. Danger is communicated through the release of certain scents. Nourishment is shared through a complex web of mycelium (fungal threads) underground. Insects and fungus help break down fallen trees so they can return to the soil, providing nourishment for others. Wood snags, those piles of dead branches and wood, provide habitat for critters. Suffice it to say the health of forests is dependent on the entire forest community. For more information on how forests communicate, read one of my favorite book, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, by Peter Wohlleben.

Have you ever looked up at a flock of geese flying in formation and wondered why – and how for that matter? Well, for migrating birds like geese, flying in formation allows them to conserve energy, about half as much as if they were flying alone as a matter of fact. Much like driving behind a big rig causes drafting and saves you gas, birds benefit from flying in the updraft from birds in front of them. In fact, that’s why if you continue to watch, you’ll see the bird in front change places with one behind them. What about the murmurations of starlings, what’s that all about? Murmurations, which can include tens of thousands of birds, usually occur when a predator is nearby. There’s strength in numbers and I can only imagine the confusion it creates for the predator. The birds move in one unit because each bird is influenced by the movement of all the others around it, the starling community.

Bees and many other insects are very social creatures. Bees, in particular, have a complex community, each with their own task. They work for the benefit of the community at large to provide continuity to the colony. Generally speaking, the colony is divided into three castes, the workers, queen and drones, each one a necessary part of its survival. Each one has an important role to play and all coalesce for the good of their society.

These are just a few examples, and don’t even get me started on interdependence between species. Generally speaking, survival in nature is dependent on differences, and the ability to cooperate despite those differences. Our survival is also dependent on those same factors. So, the next time you find yourself getting worked up over differing opinions, take three deep breaths and embrace your differences. Our species depends on it.

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