Thursday, May 19, 2011

Patterns in the Forest Floor

Walking in the woods yesterday, I couldn't help but look down - mostly to make sure I didn't step on something that would throw me off balance and fall. And the forest floor is gorgeous - the random but uniform pattern of broad swatches of green and brown and the texture of the green moss intermixed with last year's dried grass is random but creates a uniform pattern. One of my cohort colleagues works for Interface carpet, and they have a line of carpet tiles called Entropy that is based on the forest floor, where nothing is uniform but the pattern that emerges is aesthetically attractive. This is especially important when dealing with construction materials. By creating a design of seemingly random patterns, tiles can be placed in any order and replaced as needed. This reduces construction waste and gives a longer life to the floor covering itself.

The Art of Systems Thinking

Creating Shelter in the Forest
We are learning about systems thinking this week during my biomimicry intensive at the Harvard Forest, so one of our exercises was to go out into the forest and create a piece of art with nature using systems thinking. The architect in me came upon a collection of downed tree limbs and I instantly wanted to build a fort. I thought about how animals create their own shelter using local dead things. Perhaps most interestingly, they follow certain rules of thumb to make sure the structure is stable, but the overall design emerges based on the characteristics of the material. So that is what I attempted to do here - create shelter using found objects. I found three live trees that I used as columns, added large felled limbs to the sides and placed medium sized limbs on top as a roof. The smallest limbs were used as a floor. Had I had more time than 45 minutes, I would have spent more time on the overall aesthetic, but it was fun to get outside and create something fun.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Genius of Place: Lichen in a New England Forest

Lichen are plants and fungus that create a mutualistic relationship greater than the sum of their parts.  What can we learn from them?

Common Greenshield Lichen.  Flavoparmelia Caperata.  Photo by Amy Coffman Phillips
Natural History
How does the lichen fit into this forest?

Walking through the forest for my first iSite in the Harvard Forest, I came upon this beautiful lichen growing on a red maple tree.  Up close, it looks like flattened lettuce or cabbage growing in these romantic formations, an example of a foliose (leaf like) lichen.  And lichen is unique because it is not one organism, but a symbiotic relationship between two organisms:  fungi and algae.  To form a lichen, the fungus either encloses the algae in fungal tissue or penetrates the algal cell wall in order to harness their photosynthetic abilities.  The fungi form the structure and then recruit algae to come live with them, and the algae benefits from the protection the fungi provide as well as their ability to capture water and nutrients.  The mutualistic relationship between these two organisms (although sometimes commensalistic or even parasitic depending on the species) is greater than the sum of its parts because it allows both organisms to survive and thrive in areas they would not be able to alone.  Their relationship creates benefits for the ecosystem as a whole as well because as rain water falls down the bark of a tree, it gathers nutrients from the lichen which feeds nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil, and then by extension, the tree and other plants.  

Vernal Pond

Vernal Pond at Harvard Forest
I am at the Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts, for my second Biomimicry session in the temperate deciduous forest and today we took a walk in the forest. To say I loved it would be an understatement, but I'm a forest lover. This is a picture of a vernal pond, or a pond that fills in the spring and then drains gradually. The Harvard School of Forestry took a sample core and was able to trace 9,000 years of history in this area from evidence that this Hemlock forest was once a Maple forest to evidence of Native American under story controlled burns. Probably most interestingly, because this is a seasonal pond and fish cannot live in it, there are no natural predators for amphibians such as frogs to lay their eggs here. Oh, and its gorgeous.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Wildflower on the Prairie

wildflower at springbrook prairie, naperville, il
For the final iSite I needed to complete before my next biomimicry trip next week, I went to the Springbrook Prairie Preserve in Naperville, IL.  I love walking through the prairie with my younger son while my daughter is at school, so I had to see what the prairie looks like in the spring.  The prairie is coming alive.  In areas that were burned, the ground is a carpet of green new growth.  In the areas that weren't burned, dead sticks of last year's grass blow in the wind while short green blades and some yellow wildflowers grow up below.  For this last iSite, I was to sketch an object using only shading without lines, and this was pretty difficult.  I did use some lines because I can't every completely follow the rules, but I concentrated on the shading that the small leaves of the flower cast on the others.  I am excited to have completed my iSites and am so looking forward to seeing my fellow cohort members in Boston!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Elevating the Lowly Dandelion

Dandelion Sketch
Today my kids and I were walking around our neighborhood and started picking dandelions.  I picked a bouquet for my daughter, Ellie, and gave my son Jake one that had ripened into a ball of white fuzz.  My one year old son tried to blow the fuzz off of the stem, with a little success because most of it ended up on his lips.  My four year old daughter and I sat down and started picking the yellow dandelions flowers apart.  I had never spent much time actually looking at these ubiquitous wildflowers other than to pull them from my yard, but it was pretty fun to do it with a four year old.

We discovered that when the flowers are in bloom and yellow, they peel apart just as they do when they go to seed.  The flower is actually made of many tiny florets that are yellow at the ends and white and fuzzy underneath.  At the end of each floret is a tiny seed, small and undeveloped, until the dandelion matures into the fuzzy pappus so fun to make a wish and blow on.  The stem of the parachute, called the beak, elongates as the flower matures into the fuzzy pappus, but it is still visible when the flower is yellow as is the fuzzy parachute.  All of the necessary components for life and reproduction are present from the start, though immature.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

McDowell Grove Forest Preserve

Fallen Limbs at the Forest Preserve in Spring
I took a walk in the McDowell Grove Forest Preserve by my house today. I had never been to this area before and I'm so glad I visited for the first time in spring. There weren't any real flowers to speak of but the floor was a carpet of green. I know in a few months, I won't be able to walk through the fields like I did today because the grasses and under story brush will be too high.  

There were fallen branches everywhere, creating a natural clearing. I don't know if it is normal for so many branches and trees to lie on the the forest floor or if there was some event that caused the branches to fall. One fallen log had a reddish moss growing on it but the majority did not. I wonder what was different about that log - the age, type of bark, moisture content of the wood? I'm guessing the latter, but I'd love to bring an ecologist to find out next time.

The Pattern of a Tree Limb

Tree Limb Observational Sketch
On a walk through the forest preserve today, I thought about the growth of tree branches.  Seeing so many that had fallen to the ground, I wondered about their structural integrity.  Upon further reflection, I think the downed limbs had more to do with flood damage to the roots than to any defect in the branches themselves.  But, it got me thinking about how a branch grows out from a tree and sends out leaves.

Tree limbs tend to grow and send out leaves and branches in a spiral pattern to maximize exposure to sunlight.    I found areas of the limb where it looked like the limb was going to grow in one direction, but then made a sharp turn.  I am hypothesizing that the initial direction became damaged or did not get as much sunlight as its offshoot branches and was abandoned in favor of the more productive branch.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Tracking Changes over Time

Magnolia bush in my backyard
my backyard is a constructed ecosystem.  but even so, i've tried to keep it as naturalistic as possible by minimizing turf grass, adding bushes and planting beds, and introducing edible plants into the landscape to encourage wildlife (but not in my fenced off vegetable garden).  so, despite it's constructed nature, it is still natural.  and since it is my backyard and i spend a great deal of time there, i've decided to use it as my iSite for tracking changes over time.

i live in a downtown area with a small lot and just a tiny patch of turf grass for my kids to play in.  that tiny patch of grass isn't doing well - bad soil, erosion, or my natural weed inhibitors and organic fertilizers don't go far enough to keep it lush and green.  but oh well.  if it all dies, i'll reseed it with more appropriate varieties that hopefully don't require the maintenance that kentucky bluegrass does.  in most of the yard, i have gotten rid of  my grass in favor of planting beds.  i have flowering trees and bushes, berry bushes, herbs, and far too many hostas that will all fill out later in the season, but right now they look like green sticks in the mulch.  

Thoughts on a Tulip

Backyard Tulips
i decided to focus my attention on my backyard for a couple of iSites this week, for a couple of reasons.  1) i love my backyard and have put a lot of effort into making it beautiful and 2) i'm getting seriously close to my next trip and the deadline for all of my assignments - and my backyard is very convenient.  and the tulips are out and beautiful this time of year.

so, tulips.  while outside, i studied my tulips looking through the lens of multi-functional design.  when thinking about this, i divide the tulip plant into three parts - the bulb root, the leaves, and the flower.  i'll focus on the flower because we don't plant tulips for the foliage or the bulb.