Design Should Follow Not Oppose the Laws of Life

Having designated the living Earth as the context for our thinking and for our ideas of design, it seems a logical next step to rejoin Charles Darwin in asking questions which we quoted in the last chapter. What, indeed, are the laws of life? Since our present concern is the design of future settlements, it is all the more relevant to examine Darwin's question in the context of what is, and what is necessary for life as we know it to continue. Just as the Gaian reality, the metapattern, exhibits characteristics of a living being, understanding the patterns and laws of the given living world, in as much as is presently possible, is fundamental. Within such a context biology is the model that mirrors most closely the workings of the natural world. Our second precept of design is therefore that biology is the model for design. With this in mind it seems appropriate to turn to the natural world with a biologist's eye and see what can be gleaned for our purposes from careful observation and analysis.

i. The cell is the basic unit and building block of life. As such it is an OURr complete unto itself. This is most easily pictured by bringing to mind ftjadof one-celled creature frequently perused in introductory biology








Symbiotic Evolution in Nature

. sr<. the most popular usually being the amoeba. Like all other simple an: primitive organisms, it is self contained. It carries out, at the micros-ch. >\ el. all the basic attributes of life, including food gathering, feeding,

• -f.iun. respiration, purification, and reproduction. The same is as true if i c.i m our own kidneys, a butterfly's wing, or a sumac leaf, as it is in the ,tn:ti ;«endently inclined amoeba.

11. The cell participates directly in the fundamental functioning of ;:n- - r.oie organism. There is a high degree of interaction and cooperation i<r * rcn cells. At the dawn of life on Earth, evolution was triggered when n "Treni kinds of organisms invaded or enfolded each other to produce — >:«>ite organisms ranging from fungi and lichens to the higher plants ire animals. Over eons of time the cooperation and interdependence be--v—r". formerly unrelated organisms has grown ever more complex. Basic I :», ;> ,iical functioning has been the bringing together of normally dis-* r^anisms, the combined activities of which create new organisms. r_K .«mitantly, many of the ancient, less complex precursors of present life « r—like bacteria, spirochetes, and blue green algae, still persist as inde-ite-oem entities. As such they continue to play a basic and major ecological

- i«t :r. the overall metabolism of the planet.

iii. The fact that organisms are at once complete, independent and it j: nomous, yet interdependent with other life forms, is a paradox to basic ixc However whole and complete its structure, no organism is an island ir: ;"self. Nature depends upon connections through different levels of tm . -jcal organization. The connections are always immediate and near > There is an unbroken continuum from cell to organism to the larger eco-

and beyond to the bioregion and on again ultimately to the whole Further, although, through differentiation, related cells become rrinbins that range from insects to trees, ancient biological patterns are 1« >: abandoned but maintained through vast reaches of time. In this way i^T^re is extremely conservative-and this characterstic is a unity that per-TTrrite- all of life.

iv. The ecosystem is the next level of organization and is analogous .ir. organism, the differences being that the boundaries are less distinct,

..'n length between the components longer, and the couplings looser. An stem is an interacting system of living organisms and their non-living ^. .iTonraent. In a sense, the environment is the home within which orgasms live. A pond is one of the simplest ecosystems to visualize because it is : ctained in a bowl of land and its boundaries are easily discerned. An eco-

- scm can also be defined in terms of contained relationships-the ecosys-

tern of the food chain or the relationships of the essential gases which are controlled by organisms are examples. When a pond is exposed to sunlight, the algae give off the the oxygen essential to the survival of the animals. The bacteria and animals produce carbon dioxide which the algae and other plants need in order to live. Populations of smaller fish are kept in check by predators. Predators in turn are regulated by even larger predators like herons as well as by their own reproductive biology in that they produce fewer offspring. To make an anthropomorphic evaluation of such an arrangement as dog-eat-dog would miss the deeper meaning of nature. Just as all of us must live to eat, all life forms consume others yet also have a function beyond their own particular existence. In the end, all life is eaten or decays, that new life may be born and the larger life continue. Whereas organisms are outwardly defined by a particular structure or surface or architecture, such as bark or skin, or scales, topographically ecosystems are defined by the diminishing or outer limits of the relationships. While the definition of boundary in a pond is contained by the banks, more often one ecosystem, like a field, will blend into others like that of a wood or a neighboring lawn. An ecosystem is not just an assembly of creatures but, because of the integrity of its structures and the mixed relationships, it is a definable entity, a meta-organism. Just as relationships in animals are expressed through a central nervous system, an ecosystem like a pond expresses relationships as a gestalt—as the sum of its parts acting in dynamic concert.

v. Nature is not static. The natural world lives in flux and understands change. In a wooded area an abandoned lawn left to itself reverts to a meadow and then, within brief decades, to a woods. During this period, technically termed ecological succession, structural changes take place. The landscape becomes more diverse, stable and often less vulnerable to perturbations. In contrast more humanly derived systems, most of our towns and cities for example, indicate a frame of mind that could be called early successional. Structural relationships are defined and fixed at the outset and the pattern is hard to change as conditions change. We tend to build, destroy, rebuild, destroy and rebuild again. Too often we lock ourselves into inflexible designs which inhibit maturation in a given society or community.

iv. The bioregion, beyond the ecosystem, is the next over-riding structural unit, forming a cluster of ecosystems arranged topographically and climatically to produce a distinct region. A bioregion is easy to recognize but hard to define. It can be framed by a great river valley, by mountain

Succession in a Small Pond, Sequence Measured in Decades

ranges or a coast. Usually it is categorized by distinctive vegetation and climate. Yet even a bioregion is not an island unto itself, for it blends outward to join with others to comprise a biographical province. The hardwood forested land east of the Great Plains extending southward from southern Canada almost to the Gulf of Mexico is one such great province. Such provinces in turn interconnect and blend to form the Earth's canopy—until eventually we again come around to Gaia.

vii. All life shares the same basic information. Humans, frogs, and mushrooms, all are built of the same matter laid down in slightly different combinations. Modern biology is revealing the language of the genes, the code which provides the informational or instructional framework for the unfolding creature. The informational attribute of nature brings home the realization that life cannot be analogous to a machine. Working with living material is completely different from working with lifeless subjects. Preparing a window box, designing a cluster of buildings, or reshaping space in a vacant lot can create unpredictable results. If a window box is innoculated with a few handfuls of forest soil, and contains flowers, herbs, and vegetables, if it is occasionally watered with water from a wild pond, it will unfold according to its own instructions. It will function as a magnet for unexpected forms of life and be delightful and informational as well as useful. There will be wildness in it. Something comparable happens when buildings, parks, and perhaps even towns are designed from ecological rather than purely technological blueprints. There is a qualitative difference that we can feel.

viii. Time, in nature, is more complex than time as we experience it. It is marked by the seasons which are linked to the time of year and contains life spans that may range from minutes for some microorganisms to centuries for certain trees. Beyond this is ecological time, called succession, which is usually measured in decades—although the range here can be enormous too. Beyond the ecological time is evolutionary time, usually measured in time frames ranging from centuries to millions of years, which describes the appearance, changes, and often the extinction, of life forms. Finally, we reach geological time, which overlaps with evolutionary time. This huge yardstick measures major physical events such as the formation of mountains and the drifting of continents, as well as the major climatic epochs.

We say that time is ecosystem-specific in regard to succession. Time marks the rhythm of the relationships within the ecosystem. Some microbial communities it contains may experience time in hours; the forests may measure successional time in centuries. As ecosystems unfold, succession d> to change, maturation, and increases in diversity and complexity. Suction is described in stages encompassing "birth", "rapid growth", a phase -n uctural richness, maturation, and finally, decay. Even forests grow The orderly progression toward the full expression of place is depen-nt on climatic, geological, and edaphic or soil factors, and on external r.e> such as fire and prior human presence.

Succession is a powerful conceptual tool for thinking about, design-even reshaping communities. It allows us to cope creatively with change i even to steer it. In nature change is a creative force. We can use the same Tr iples in design. In an ecosystem, succession incorporates an increase in . er>itv from a few simple organisms to a population of inhabitants highly •;ved in complex associations. Such diversity increases the number and, re importantly, the kinds of relationships, thereby lessening links of rig-iependency by spreading them throughout a more complex communi-Diversity leads to increased stability, protection from external change, -etv. and overall system efficiency, which in turn results in greater order i information flow. The ordered complexity that is created embodies two ributes that scientists rarely discuss in their analyses, harmony and beau-These are not ephemeral qualities. They have meaning that speaks di-\\ to us.

At New Alchemy the imperative that biology should be the model r design was a given almost from the beginning. Aware, even in thosejust e-OPEC days that we were a petroleum-addicted society, we were deterged to design food producing systems based on renewable sources of er^v. As we proceeded with our intent of growing food using ecologically >cd techniques, one fact soon became painfully apparent. On Cape Cod, -.:ch in the last century was largely cleared for farming, so much so that ■> <reau on his tour of the Cape remarked somewhat acerbicly on its dearth ■■."od. the Gaian impulse is still undaunted in its determination to grow Te>. Whenever human vigilance is relaxed in lawn or garden a pattern of .session is initiated that is clearly intended to reestablish a forest. Forests e che dominant landscape for the entire northeast, in fact, but ironically ■r inclination of agriculture, subsequent to that of the Native Americans, > been based on destruction, rather than the preservation or modifica-r.. or forests. In defining our longterm agricultural philosophy for New chemv. we decided that the biology of the forest would be our design xtel.

In analyzing the structure and functions of New England forests, we :ne up with an impressive list. Forests control erosion, moderate seasonal pulses in hydrological flows, buffer climatic extremes, and provide fuel, food, and wildlife habitat. To conceptualize a farm that reflected the image of the forest, the primary break with current agriculture was that the main source of energy would be the sun rather than petrochemicals. Our agricultural forests evolving with time would move naturally through succession, from cleared areas to forest. To remain most viable the farm could not be static but will mature gradually to a state comparable to that of a climax state in nature. Conceptually our farm begins at the bottom of the numerous fish ponds, and extends upward through the water to the ground cover formed by the vegetable and forage crop zone where livestock graze. It then rises through the shrub layer to the canopy formed by the trees that produce fruit, nuts, timber, and fodder crops. Following this plan we are hoping to maintain the farm in a dynamic state of ongoing productivity while it continues to evolve ecologically in the direction of a forest.

There are several instances of analagous research in other bioreg-ions. In the Great Plains the prairie is the model for Wes and Dana Jackson at the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas.1 They are searching for and breeding perennial grains, including rye, sorghum, wheat, and corn that would fit into the ecological structure of a natural prairie. These new plants would take care of themselves as the prairie plants do. In the Sonoran Desert bioregion of the southwest, the oustanding work of Gary Nabhan of the Southwest Crop Conservancy Garden and Seed Bank is following a comparable course, in the image of the desert.2 He is grafting his knowledge of Native American desert farming practices with modern ecological research to create a sustainable agriculture adapted to the pulses, climate, and soils of the desert. Although the continent separates us, the successional strategies we employ are the same as those used at the Land Institute and the Southwest Crop Conservancy. Only the exact agricultural form grows out of a regional ecological imperative.

When, in the evolution of New Alchemy, we became interested in proceeding from the agricultural landscape to the integration of agriculture and architecture, again biology was the model. We asked ourselves: What is the smallest contained living system that works completely on its own? Our only answer was the Earth. Inevitably, the life science of biology became the model for our first bioshelter. Looking at the question of how the Earth works we realized the need for an equivalent to the atmosphere to act as a solar collector. It was obvious that Buckminster Fuller had been working with atmospheric architecture in building his geodesic structures on the Earth's great circle arches. We first chose, therefore, a geodesic c -. - ,;re with a thin transparent membrane or skin to serve as a collector -oar energy. The question then became: Where does the energy go? In nr of the Earth the answer is, obviously, into the oceans, without which rs r Eanh would be totally unliveable mostly because wild oscillations in di-.emperatures of desert area would be unmodified by the seas. We cal-""i.: :r\i that, as seventy percent of the Earth's surface is water, we would ap-sr vmate that relationship in the bioshelter. We dug a subsurface pond to m- a buffer for swings in temperature.

The next item on our agenda became a bit more complex, for we t interested in having our small body of water mimic the workings of nr :«;eans. The ocean remains healthy and viable because of upswellings, iki :~e Peruvian Current and the George's Banks, which rise the surface ■»it-- ••• ::h nutrients from the colder lower depths. To simulate the working- : i the ocean we used components which would also serve the dual iiinrjon of providing us with a food crop. We introduced mirror carp, tKtr^ which have such a powerful swimming motion that they stir and lew -i---m the water as they swim—which causes the lower water to rise to the sai-Lbce and come into contact with the warmth from the sun. The oceans :echniques for filtering as well as mixing—great blue whales are ani:r_c the most impressive examples. Our equivalent was to introduce it»: pond a miniature version, the tilapia or St. Peter's fish. The basis of nr Apia's diet is the algae which we had added to the pond water, because mex ¿re the major source of gases for the Earth's atmosphere. The tilapia a».icr around the pond with their mouths open, like small whales, filtering ftr *x;er and fattening for harvest. We brought in yet another species of itssi : ? substitute for the function of the rivers in the role of bearing terres-mai r uinents to the oceans. We used the white amur, which feeds on veg-—aeoe matter like grass clippings and flower stalks and contributes these ncnftiients to the pond by passing them through its digestive tract. Collec-»wr.-« our poh culture of fish made the pond independent of the fossil fuel-ir-'ier. equipment which otherwise would have been necessary to serve the 3»irT»:>>es of mixing and filtering the water, as trapping the sun had freed XBt «ructure from the need of fossil fuels for heating. We maintained a con-mnuir* with the Earth's seventy/thirty percent ratio of water to land in this ear-i dome. In the border of land around the pond, we planted a garden •ffltiur. fluctuated in its crops with the changes in season. Although many of a»? components of that early dome have been modified in later bioshelters, the fundamental procedures of looking to the living world for inspiration and of using biology as the model for design, has remained constant.

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Getting Started With Solar

Getting Started With Solar

Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.

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