Lessons in deception from Charlotte and her webs.

Last night, I watched an excellent documentary about education entitled We Are the People We’ve Been Waiting For. And while I found it enlightening, inspiring and at times sobering, I was (as usual) most moved by footage of a large exhausted polar bear scrambling onto a sheet of ice. It’s not that I’m unmoved by images of teenagers lost in a system which doesn’t work, not at all. It’s just that my response to animal suffering is visceral. The button which if pushed causes my eyes to well up and my mind to run through the cascading crises we’re facing as a species. Yet Nature is also the salve for that pain.

Last weekend, I spent some time in Otari Bush in Wilton. I’d not been there since primary school, which is utterly ridiculous considering it’s 10 minutes drive from home, consists of 100 hectares of native forest, 5 hectares of plant collections and an 800-year-old rimu.

The reason for the trip was a biomimcry excursion with a small group of friends. During the conversation that followed an introductory talk I gave recently, I suggested that as a way of learning from nature rather than just about it, I’d like to get a group of us together and head off into Nature. So we did.

We spent quite some time simply hanging out with the 800 year old rimu. Gazing up at its height. Pondering the function of its sweeping spiral form. We sat in the sun gently digging up the earth at its feet, with leaves and twigs, to uncover busy little insects. And we discovered a very cool spider’s web.

Peering at the base of the rimu, woven between pieces of bark, was an oddly ‘rough’ web. The silk seemed thicker than usual, tinted blue and the weaving was obvious, almost clumsy. But on closer inspection, we discovered a much finer, denser web both behind and in front of it. Why might that be?…A clever trap perhaps?

Look closely at the photo below and it appears as if the thicker, slightly wonky web is in the foreground. But what you can’t see in this photo, is that in front of it, is a very fine, sense sticky web. If it fools us, it may well fool others.

There are basically 2 approaches to practicing biomimicry. The first is to head off into nature and find organisms or eco-systems which you find particularly fascinating, identify the adaption that you find so interesting and consider how that could be applied to human design. The alternative is that you have a particular design challenge and you consider how nature would do whatever it is you want to do i.e. the question becomes “How would Nature…?”

So, if we were to take our clever little spider friend (let’s just call her Charlotte) and her web, the thing I find fascinating is her strategy of different types of web. How might that be applied? I’m working on that. If my design challenge was ‘How would Nature deceive?’ Ms Charlotte has a lesson here for me.

Actually Ms Charlotte has a couple of lessons for me. While the first may be about how to deceive, the second one is about optimism. It’s easy to become disheartened by the challenges we’re facing as a civilisation. But as Janine Benyus (founder of the Biomimicry Group) reminds us, right outside, the Earth is still a very competent place, it is incredibly resilient and in the shimmering silken threads and spiralling trunks Nature has lessons and solutions for us.

A lost cat & A beside note.

The witching hour. 6pm. The high risk period when Mum would need a drink. When she couldn’t get alcohol, she would work her way through a block of cheese. Something, anything, to alleviate the high anxiety. These days she can’t get wine, so she obsesses about her cats. One in particular. Piddle.

Poor Piddle, an extremely elegant little Occicat, who went through a phase of piddling as a kitten and the name stuck. However Piddle is now wonderfully self-sufficient. She usually disappears for a day or so on the full moon, spends time roaming across the nearby golf course. She always comes back. But these days, every day, at 6pm, Mum goes outside and calls and calls and calls. Then she comes back inside and tells her caregiver that she is worried because ‘Piddle is hungry, lost and alone‘.

But Piddle is not the one who is hungry, lost and alone.

There’s no ‘medical proof’ of this of course, but my theory (and while I don’t have a psychology degree or a medical one, I have a lifetime of experience) is that as Mum becomes more childlike, she is becoming more open with her feelings. And while she can’t, has never been able to, will not ever say ‘I am hungry, lost, alone’, I know that this has how she feels. And this has how she has felt for a very long time.

The hunger, of course, is not a hunger for food, but a hunger for a very different type of nourishment. A sense of fulfillment. While she is not physically lost, she lost her way many years ago. And while she has constant company, my lovely mother feels that she is alone.

The anxiety, an almost constant presence of worry, preceded the alcohol dependence and the dementia. I have no doubt it started before I arrived on the scene. According to New Zealand’s Mental Health Foundation, New Zealand has a high prevalence of anxiety, mood and substance abuse disorders, exceeded only by the US for anxiety by the US, Ukraine and France for mood and only by the Ukraine and US for substance abuse disorders.

Recently, I read a fascinating article by a Rick Hanson PhD, a neuropsychologist on Self-Directed Neuroplasticity: A 21st-Century View of Meditation. Addressing the field of contemplative neuroscience, Dr Hanson concludes by taking the reader through a simple 5 step meditation. Becoming attuned to the breath, conscious relaxation, a feeling of safety, wellbeing and connection. What fascinates me, is that for each stage, he provides an explanation of what happens to the brain. The element of safety, struck a particular chord.

“The third suggestion focuses on feeling safe. This is a very important one, although it’s often hard for people because we have what I call “paper-tiger paranoia.” Essentially, we evolved to overestimate threats and to underestimate opportunities and resources for dealing with threats. Although that may have been a great way to pass on gene copies in Africa two million years ago, it’s a lousy way to experience quality of life in the twenty-first century. Most of us can feel safer than we normally do. I prompt people to feel as safe as they reasonably can because there is no perfect safety in life. None of us is safe from old age, disease, or death, for example, but most of us can afford to feel less guarded, less braced, and more confident in our capacities to meet life.

It sounds so very simple, but at the end of the day – and at the beginning, middle and every moment in between – isn’t that what we all want?Nourishment, mind, body and soul. A sense of purpose. To be attuned to our self, to feel relaxed, safe, well, connected.

I cannot undo a lifetime of feeling hungry, lost and alone for my mother. It took me a long time to realise that’s not my responsibility.

But she is my mother and I love her and I it makes my heart ache to think that she feels hungry, lost, alone. So next time I visit, I think I might just put a little note beside her bed which says ‘Your life has purpose. You are loved. You are safe. You are home‘…If I could, I’d sprinkle a little fairy dust and put one beside your bed too.

Dreaming of the miracle that is you.

Last month, I had one of the most vivid dreams I’ve experienced in years. The background to this dream is that here at home, we have a compost heap. And a month ago, on top of the compost there were old apples from a tree in the garden and wasps feasting.

In the dream, I saw the same compost heap but it was covered with old blankets. And while I didn’t know why the blankets were there, I did know that somehow I had to uncover it, without sending the wasps into a frenzy. Apprehensive but determined to do it, I took a deep breath and walked purposefully down the garden path.

Very quietly, gently, firmly, I took hold of one corner of one of the blanket and began to peel it away. And as I did, I heard a sudden fluttering of insects wings. I flinched. Turned away with my eyes tightly shut, expecting at any second to be stung. But it didn’t happen, the fluttering stop, I couldn’t hear any furious buzzing. So very slowly I turned back to the heap and was rendered speechless by what I discovered. For the compost – and all the wasps – had disappeared, and instead there was a clear surface made of dark shiny wood and it was completely covered with butterflies. Hundreds of them.

But these weren’t ordinary butterflies. While they were as ethereal and ephemeral as butterflies, shared the same delicate structure and were the same size, these little creatures represented every animal on earth. A miniature ark. As they fluttered one by one (rather than two by two), my eyes alighted on a tiny giraffe, a tiny elephant, a tiny lion, a tiny wolf, a tiny buffalo. All butterfly-like. Down the back of the garden on a wooden stage.

I was delighted. I felt lit up. And still felt that way when I awoke. I don’t always write my dreams down, but I did with this one and it has lingered during these past 4 weeks.

Last night, before I went to sleep, I came across a TED talk by cinematographer Louie Schwartzberg on the hidden beauty of pollination. You will find it below. Please, watch it before you leave. It’s only 7 minutes.

Today, walking home from a conversation about death with a group of wonderful people (it sounds grim, but was far from it) I found myself thinking about how miraculous life is. Recently I watched a presentation (online) given by one of my heroes, Sir Ken Robinson. In it, he suggests (and you can tell he really does find this miraculous) that we all just stop for a moment and consider how many people had to connect, down through the generations, in order for each one of us to be here. Think about your own family tree, how many people had to meet in order for you to be here.

This past month, I’ve found myself quite fascinated by quantum physics, quantum biology, astrophysics and astronomy. And so this evening, I’ve been thinking about how miraculous it is that I am, you are, not only a part of a family tree, but a part of this tree of life. If you consider the universe (I’ll admit that’s easier said than done) and imagine yourself on its outer most edge, then zoom in through space to this pale blue dot of a planet, home to an estimated 11 million species and 6.9 billion humans and the stage for a 4.55 billion year history of life on earth, how mind-bogglingly, goosebumpingly, light-a-fire-in-your-belly miraculous it is that you are here. You. Are. Alive.

Sit with that for a moment. The miracle that is you. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Feel it. In your body, in your mind, in your heart. In your soul.

How does it feel?

Let me know, I’d love to hear from you.


Don’t worry, try these 5 things and be happi(er).

A pentatonic scale is a musical scale with five notes per octave. Apparently it is very common and found all over the world. The brilliant Bobby McFerrin (of ‘Don’t Worry Be Happy’ fame) illustrated the universal nature of the pentatonic scale in this delightful little experiment at the World Science Festival 2009. I highly recommend that you watch it. Three minutes of your time, it is informative and it will make you smile.

Bobby McFerrin at the World Science Festival

Speaking of making you smile and being happy, recently I watched (am I beginning to sound like I spend all my time watching online presentations?) a fascinating TED talk by statistician Nic Marks on the Happy Planet Index. Essentially, he is looking at alternative measure of progress which measure how happy people are and how happy the planet is, i.e. alternative to measures such as the GDP which arguably measure everything except that which makes life worthwhile.

However what really captured my attention was Nic talking about the project he undertook a couple of years ago for the U.K. Government Office of Science and their evidence based Foresight programme. Basically his organisation, the New Economics Foundation, was asked to come up with 5 positive actions you can do to improve your life. Not, as he says the secrets of happiness, but the things that he thinks happiness will flow out the side from.

And they are…

Connect. With your loved ones. Invest time in your social relationships.

Be active. Go outside and walk. Get up and dance around the room.

Take notice. Are you aware of the seasons changing? Are you aware of your self?

Keep learning. It doesn’t have to be formal. Be curious.

Give. The fact of the matter is, we feel good if we give.

So, as I finish writing this just before the stroke of midnight and the beginning of Friday, I have five questions for you:

How have you connected with the people you care about this week?

Have you gone for a walk? Danced? Skipped?

What have you noticed? Been aware of ? Outside and within?

Have you learned something new?

How have you given?

Five things we can do from which happiness may flow. Five notes on a happiness scale.

Wise elders and a wedge of orange cake

This evening, David Suzuki, the iconic Canadian scientist, broadcaster and environmentalist spoke at the Embassy theatre in Wellington. Essentially on a “Last Lecture” tour he has been traveling in this part of the world for the last 5 weeks.

I am a big fan of Mr Suzuki and he had some beautifully profound things to say. He talked of Earth as our Mother, not just metaphorically but literally. We are created from earth, air, fire and water, he told us. We are air, every bit of food was once alive, the New Zealand water we drink has cartwheeled its way around the earth and we are fueled by plants that capture sunlight. We are created by Mother Earth and she provides us with our most fundamental needs.

This man is speaking my language. He is talking the language of Onemeall, of OMA, of Grandmother Earth. One, me, all. We are all one. We are all connected. As David said tonight, “If I am air and you are air, then I am you”. Or as the lovely Stephanie, Co-Founder of Onemeall would say “One table, us all gathered. One meal, us all invited. One planet, us all communing.”

And yet, in spite of his beautiful words I left the Embassy feeling, well, a little ill at ease.

Partly it was that he spoke of islands of plastic in the Pacific the size of Texas. Partly it was that he told us we’re past the 59th minute and at 1 hour, our time is up. But mostly, it was because I felt the sharp edge of his activism and I found it to be disengaging.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-activism.  It was my career for several years, one I lived and breathed. I come from a long line of advocates, my grandfather was a barrister known in Wellington as a champion of the underdogs. Advocacy and activism are part of my genetic makeup, my cellular memory.

David’s talk left me feeling impressed, hugely grateful for the impassioned words of a wise Elder, but it also left me feeling, once again, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the plight we’re facing and consequently emotionally disengaged. I didn’t leave the theatre feeling that there is something I can do which will really make a difference. And I couldn’t help comparing it with the other Canadian Elder I’ve listened to very recently.

Nearly two weeks ago, along with approximately 4000 other people, I found myself caught up in the magic of a Leonard Cohen concert. His music, his poetry, his storytelling. I don’t think I’d previously experienced on that scale, such a tangible sense of shared well-beng. And not in a spacey, fringey way but in a deeply grounded way.

As I left the venue, smiling and being smiled at, what I felt quite frankly was love. And empathy. The experience I had just shared with thousands of other people, all but three of them unknown to me, left me wanting to be a more loving and kinder person.

This evening, enjoying a delicious meal (thank you Mother Earth) with two beloved friends after the lecture, we talked about the sharp edges of activism and the warm embrace of connecting with friends, family and neighbours. And as we shared a single wedge of orange cake and a laugh with the cheerful waitress, that sense of wellbeing and empathy crept back into my heart.

Having said all of that, although personally I am gravitating towards the approach of a warm embrace, I suspect that we need the occasional sharp edge too. So let’s listen to the messages of our Elders, however they choose to sing their song.

Connecting the dots

Trying to ignore the noise the kitten is making chasing bugs on the window sill, fingers poised on the keyboard, I am full of questions and one in particular is demanding my attention. Why should I start blogging? Each day it seems, I come across another excellent blog with someone who has something informative, entertaining or downright inspirational to say. So why me?

Because actually this is about you. This is about connecting you. To amazing people, to their stories, to very cool and sustainable ‘stuff’ and transformative services.

I believe that a big piece of  this planetary puzzle we’re all a part of, is people who care about each other and the planet, doing what they’re good at and doing what they love. Being, as the marvelous Sir Ken Robinson would say, in their element.

I’m in my element connecting people. Connecting people to each other, to goods and services which I (and more to the point other people who know far more about these things than I do) believe will make a contribution to restoring the planet.

Recently I watched Steve Job’s commencement speech at Stanford in 2005. He talks about connecting the dots and how so often, it’s only in retrospect that we can connect them.  For me, the challenge and the joy, is in figuring out how to connect some of the dots as we look forward.