I thought the woods and the world were connected

This post is a little unusual: it’s also written to fulfill an assignment for one of Chicago-based Prairie Lab‘s Biomimicry Immersion courses, which I attended last month in a very rainy Morton Arboretum. Life’s Principles, which are referenced several times over the course of the post, are described here. The assignment was to observe these principles in action in an ecosystem local to me.

The place I observed was in Caretaker’s Woods, part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Lakeshore Preserve. It was early evening on May 20th, cloudy, and a brisk 10C – unseasonably chilly for late May in Madison, but humid.

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Looking out and up I can see that the trees (maples and oaks) are more or less fully leaved. This makes for considerable shade at ground level; as a consequence, almost all of the spring ephemerals are gone for this year. The only early-spring flower which is still abundant is waterleaf (Hydrophyllum); their shade tolerance allows them to stake out a niche in time with less competition from other ephemerals. I wonder what sensitivity to local conditions they employ in order to emerge later, unlike ephemerals which shoot up with the first warm weather and sunny days. From the ever-authoritative Illinois Wildflowers website, I learn that they are liable to be displaced by invasive garlic mustard. In the Preserve, eagle-eyed hordes of volunteers regularly harrow the garlic mustard, so there is little to be seen.

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Illinois Wildflowers also tells me that sunlight bleaches waterleaf flowers; I don’t see much evidence of this on my walk. There appear to be as many white flowers in the deep gloom as there are purple ones in half-sunlight under the eaves of the woods. This seems like a flag for embodying resilience through variation.

In the shade and damp, fungi are sending up fruiting bodies; on several fallen logs I see large brackets of dryad’s saddle (Polyporus squamosus). They are busy breaking down the wood into re-usable constituents, part of a recycling process. As well as the fallen logs, whose nutrients are in the process of being returned to the soil, the space cleared by their fall is full of seedlings: a very simple mechanism of self-organization and renewal.

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The woods are structured into layers, from the leaf-litter up to the treetops in the open air. High above, I can hear rather than see squirrels running quickly and loudly across treetrunks. I wonder at how loud they are, and what trade-off of speed versus stealth is involved. No doubt there are fewer predators up in the treetops, but there are still hawks and owls.

Birdsong is also audible; I don’t know of what species. They are making sound on purpose; to attract mates? Stake out territory? I recently listened to an interview with scientist Shigeru Miyagawa, who has an interesting hypothesis about the wellsprings of human language: many vertebrates have an active system of signs, such as chimpanzees which make gestures to give directions to one another and have sounds for certain types of food; singing birds have songs with complex structure, but which communicate little beyond, as Lewis Thomas summarized it, “Thrush here”. Only in humans have these two strategies been combined to give rise to language proper. In the call-and-response of the songs, I seem to hear a trace of the feedback loops which hold this community of birds together.

Going over the various strategies I’ve observed, I can see the various Principles at work: Adapting to Changing Conditions (the variation of Hydrophyllum colours, the self-renewal of the seedlings sprouting in clearings); Being Locally Attuned and Responsive (Hydrophyllum‘s timing and the feedback loops of the birds exchanging song); Using Life-Friendly Chemistry (the action of the dryad’s saddles in decomposing); Being Resource-Efficient (the recycling of materials, and the shade-tolerance of the ephemerals); Integrating Development with Growth (the way that the fall of old trees allows for growth of new ones). Nothing immediately calls Evolving to Survive to mind: certainly due to my unpracticed eye, not to its absence!

In my day job as a software engineer, old code rarely does much to foster the growth of new code – really, mostly the old actively inhibits and obstructs the new. What lessons does a forest have for the long-term software lifecycle? How could obsolete code be constructively “decomposed”? I also remain, obviously, intrigued by the Hydrophyllum‘s late-early-spring strategy, and need to read more about how it does this, and think about what more general strategies for adaptation can be abstracted from it.

Thanks to Prairie Lab’s Amy Coffman Phillips for the course, and to the many University faculty and staff, and volunteers who maintain the Lakeshore Preserve in the middle of the city. (It probably helps that grad student no longer live there in tents in the summer, mind you…)

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1 Comment

Filed under Observations

One response to “I thought the woods and the world were connected

  1. Great entry! Thank you, Benet!

    I love that you observed spring ephemerals, and waterleaf in particular, as examples of being “Locally Attuned and Responsive.” Their ability to time their growth and dormancy in relation to the change of seasons (regularly occurring abiotic conditions) is a hallmark of life in this climate. Imagine if our buildings could do the same!

    I am fascinated by your observation of speed versus stealth in squirrels, which I think is a great example of Evolve to Survive (see, you did find one!). Squirrels have changed themselves over generations to outrun (or outclimb) predators, and stealth was not a requirement that was favored. The primary difference between evolution and local-attunement is time.

    I would say that old trees decomposing to make room for new ones is less Integrating Development with Growth and more Being Resource Efficient. An example of Integrating Development with Growth would be how the tree grows from a small seed, creating a dynamic balance between building the structure on which it can grow and growing simultaneously, i.e. build from the bottom up!

    Thank you for your participation and I hope to see you at the next Immersion!
    Amy

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