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.

Part not Apart.

All snuffly and foggy and groggy with a cold, I have a question. Or two.

When did we begin to see ourselves as separate from nature?


I don’t have the answer.

Although I do have a wish. A wish that we find our way home.

And because tonight, I can’t quite seem to find words with which to answer such a big question, I’ll leave you with T.S. Eliot and come back to this in a little while.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

P.S. If anyone has any thoughts on this,  I’d really love to hear from you.

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.


The rose bug rescue

Just a quick post tonight, as I’m fighting off a bug and need to put my head on the pillow earlier than the usual midnight.

Speaking of bugs… The roses are in full bloom in the garden. Arranging some in a vase this morning, I discovered that one flower in particular appeared to be occupied by small insects. I’m new to gardening, so I have no idea what kind of insects they were (still are, I hope) although I do know they’re not aphids.

I was apologetic to the first few that crawled out of the petals, but when the whole family appeared, I was mortified. An entire extended family of bugs, senior and junior, shot out of rose.

What should have been 5 minutes of gathering a few roses from the garden turned into a half hour rescue mission. I placed them carefully, or in some cases shook them off the Telecom bill which served as the rescue vehicle, back onto the same rose bush.

As I’ve said, I can’t identify them for you (they certainly didn’t stop for introductions), perhaps they’ve been eating the few aphids I did spot on the beautiful pale pink rose. Whatever service they perform in this eco-system, I’m sure they do a fine job and I hope they’re settling into their new home.

If anyone can identify this insect, please let me know!

Finding comfort in a young tree

Today, in the wake of hearing David Suzuki talk last night, I’ve been aware of myself feeling a very low level yet lingering feeling of discomfort. His words were challenging. His message wasn’t a particularly hopeful one and yet I’ve been thinking about it on and off all day. In particular, about the extraordinary ability of foresight we have as human beings. And how at arguably well past the 11th hour, we are turning our back on the very strategy that has allowed us to flourish.

As human beings, isn’t it so often a feeling of discomfort that motivates us to change?… I’m not going to even try and elaborate at 1am on Saturday morning. If I’m being really honest, tonight, all I want to do is take off this very light but prickly robe of discomfort, hang it up in the wardrobe and replace it with one that feels reassuring. And I have just found comfort in an unexpected place.

Uploading photographs onto my laptop, I’ve found one I took yesterday of a very young tree tree growing in Wellington’s botanical gardens. I find enormous comfort in the way this little plant rooted firmly in the earth, is getting on with growing. Bathed in sunlight, surrounded by trees of different shapes and sizes, with plenty of space to grow, it is quietly thriving and I can almost hear it tell me to simply feel the earth beneath my feet, breathe deeply and and together we can dream a bright and brilliant future into being.

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.


“Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.”

Henry David Thoreau

For Kylie, Stephanie and Richard.


Packaging, nature’s way.

The humble broad or fava bean, or vicia faba if we’re being formal, was on the menu this evening.

As I sat in the garden, shelling the market fresh beans, I was struck by the brilliance with which Nature carries out the function of packaging. Little bright green beans nestled into soft spongey material inside a much harder shell, which then becomes food for all those busy little organisms in my compost heap. Effective, efficient AND beautiful. Awesome.

By the way, a couple ended up in the garden, so if I wake up tomorrow and find a giant beanstalk outside my window, the next post may not be for a while. Fee-fi-fo-fum!...