What Would Nature Do?

What Would Nature Do?


For those of us fortunate enough to celebrate Thanksgiving by sharing a special meal with those we love, the holiday brings to mind a cornucopia of blessing: the food we eat, the company we keep, and the nourishment of nature.

It’s good to have a day that grounds us in gratitude, though for the ones tasked with preparing a feast gratitude may be a delayed response. Unlike a lot of folks cooking for several, I made a simple meal for three so my mother and I had time for an hour-long stroll in the morning. As my mother and I ambled and my dog Zuki sniffed, I felt such intense gratitude for the time spent together outdoors beneath temperate blue sky, watching my mother’s attention to nature’s detail: the copse of young pines, their needles verdant; the vermillion vines entangled in the scrub. In that moment my mother commented, apologizing perhaps for her diminishment—her pace no longer robust, her responses no longer quick—or perhaps her lingering at life’s edge—whereas I delight in these last years we have grown close.

In my twenties and thirties I lived eighteen hundred miles away. I knew I had a mother and I loved her but I knew little of her and I was certain she knew even less of me: the authentic me, not some idealized version I was sure she carried.

I bring this up because it occurs to me the arc of relationship I have with my own mother resembles the relationship so many of us have with our collective mother: the earth or what we call Nature. The great farmer-poet-conservationist Wendell Berry writes,

Nature (and here we capitalize her name) is the impartial mother of all creatures, unpredictable, never entirely revealed, not my mother or your mother, but nonetheless our mother. If we are observant and respectful of her, she gives good instruction.…she can give us the right patterns and standards for agriculture. If we ignore or offend her, she enforces her will with punishment. She is always trying to tell us that we are not so superior or independent or alone or autonomous as we may think. She tells us in the voice of Edmund Spenser that she is of all creatures “the equall mother, / And knittest each to each, as brother unto brother.” Nearly three and a half centuries later, we hear her saying about the same thing in the voice of Aldo Leopold: “In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.”[1]

As we celebrate and indulge in the bounty of the earth, the fecundity of our collective mother, we do so far too often from a distance. We know little of the place where geology and history have set us. What we often laud as “mobility” Wendell Berry sees as “our forlorn modern progress toward something indefinitely, and often unrealizably, better.” I recall my own sense of power and autonomy as I moved far away from home to establish a new sense of it, unlike Berry who notes, “Because I have never separated myself from my home neighborhood, I cannot identify myself to myself apart from it. I am fairly literally flesh of its flesh. It is present in me, and to me, wherever I go.” And of his grandfather, Berry writes:

He did not participate in the least in what we call “mobility.” He died, after eighty-two years, in the same spot he was born in. He was probably in his sixties when he made the one longish trip of his life. He went with my father southward across Kentucky and into Tennessee. On their return, my father asked him what he thought of their journey. He replied: “Well, sir, I’ve looked with all the eyes I’ve got, and I wouldn’t trade the field behind my barn for every inch I’ve seen.”

So many of us leave our parents, our homes in search of something and someplace better. A more suitable climate. A better job market. A more exciting urban center. A more bucolic rural setting. But in our leaving too often we lose track of Nature, the mother who holds us in common even when we fail to recognize our kin: “each to each, as brother unto brother.”[2]

In this case, losing track of our mother means we lose track of the ground of our being. Think about losing track. It’s not the tracks of another animal we are losing. Those we may be obliterating. But it is our tracks we lose so that we become a frantic Hansel and Gretel unable to navigate our way through the forest because we don’t know it and we no longer recognize it as our lifelong relation.  In his 2012 address to the National Endowment for the Humanities, Berry speaks of “a failure of imagination…ruinous, that belongs indelibly to our history…that has continued, growing worse, into our own time.” He continues:

To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with “the mind’s eye.” … It has nothing to do…with clever imitation of appearances or with “dreaming up.” It does not depend upon one’s attitude or point of view, but grasps securely the qualities of things seen or envisioned.… [I]magination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.

Albert Einstein famously observed, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

We live on a planet within a cosmos we did not create yet we live in a world of our own making with poisoned air and water, toxic soil and deforestation where the polar ice caps melt beneath the paws of the great bears who evolved to roam there. “Nature doesn’t write off parts of the earth, and neither can we.”[3] Yet we keep trying to and as Wendell Berry has warned, the more we ignore our mother, the more we suffer the consequences for there is no greater wrath than a mother toward a child hellbent on destruction.

In the collective early adulthood of our species we tried so darn hard to individuate, to find our autonomous selves—to cast a spurious glance over our shoulder as we let the door slam heading elsewhere to find ourselves; yet now in middle-age we return the prodigal sons and daughters yearning for our mother, Nature, to take us back into her lap, to welcome us even though we only call on Earth Day. Now we are noticing in laboratories of biomimcry, the way Nature creates nothing it cannot reuse. The biologist, Janine Benyus, who wrote the book, Biomimcry: Innovation Inspired By Nature, asks, “Is there a best practice of how to be an Earthling? A carbon-based life-form on this planet that enhances rather than degrades?”

She and her colleagues crafted “Life Principles” derived from “the concept of cooperation as a driving force in evolution.”[4] Asking ourselves, What would nature do?  or more accurately what it does instructs us how to get back to our mother, at least into her good graces if not her lap. Biomimicry observes how nature creates, sustains, recycles and repurposes. As Benyus explains:


For instance, if we design a water treatment facility, we start with Life’s Principles. First, it can’t be a chemical treatment—chlorine is out. Second, it should be decentralized. So, suddenly, as you’re looking at that, you begin to say, well, maybe there should be neighborhood-level water treatment, and maybe the water treatment should be constructed wetlands. Since life is always multifunctional, you think that perhaps there should also be an education or recreational facility, or maybe a park. So when you use Life’s Principles as a scoping tool, you’re looking to the natural world and asking, how do organisms filter, how do they recover fresh water? That’s when you’re emulating, doing biomimicry.[5]


Visionary architect William McDonough in a TED talk called “Cradle to Cradle” posed this design assignment: “Design something that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food, creates microclimates, changes colors with the seasons and self-replicates.” Then he adds pointedly, noting our folly: “Well, why don’t we knock that down and write on it?”[6]

McDonough and his colleagues are working with the Chinese government to design twelve cities for 400 million people using what he calls ecologically intelligent design. His team studied hydrology, biota (animal and plant life), current farming, the wind and sun to    create cities that raise the landscape onto roofs where farmers farm atop buildings that provide every person with natural sunlight and fresh air, where waste treatment yields energy and nothing is wasted.

I realized upon listening to Bill McDonough’s TED talk, he and biologist Janine Benyrus channel what I call the wisdom of the universe: Nature’s own knowing. How is it that we who are part of Nature lose touch with it—with the ground of being, which is to say the cosmos, ourselves and everybeing in between? We wander, we squander and we long to come back.

To revisit the parable of our prodigal selves from the book of Luke (15:11-32), a man has two sons, the younger of whom tells his father to divide the property and give him his share. Off he goes

to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’”  So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

The son makes his mea culpa and the father instructs his servants (slaves) to bring a robe, sandals, a ring and to slaughter a fatted calf to celebrate. This raises the ire of the older son who has remained faithfully at home, toiling for years with no reward. Why, the dutiful son demands, does the father celebrate his brother’s return—he who has devoured and defiled the land? The father replies: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”


The father in the parable like the mother we all share recognizes and welcomes the return of the wayward child: so eager to leave home, to lose track. Like the prodigal son we are lured by what we mistake as treasure and misidentify as freedom. We exploit certain our exploits will provide satisfaction but the longing remains until we return. Vandana Shiva, international champion of biodiversity, calls us all into right relation with our mother, which is to say, each other:


We need to move to an ecological paradigm, and for this, the best teacher is nature herself. The forest teaches us union and compassion. The forest also teaches us enoughness: as a principle of equity, how to enjoy the gifts of nature without exploitation and accumulation.…T]he forest can show us the way beyond this conflict [between greed and compassion, conquest and cooperation, violence and harmony].[7]


In my forties, I invited my mother to live near me, and then I moved away. Fortunately, I returned and have been able to reconnect with my mother, to live in the same locale, to spend time together before the only paradigm is regret. Each of us has the choice whether we wish to return to our mother, Nature, before it is too late—for as Wendell Berry reminds us, “We do not have to live as if we are alone.”


[1] Wendell Berry, 2012 Jefferson Lecture given at the National Endowment for the Humanities. The quote from Aldo Leopold comes from The Sand County Almanac, pp.219-20.

[2] The Faerie Queene, VII, vii, stanza XIV.


[3] Sarah van Gelder, “Nature’s Original Idea,” yes! Magazine, issue 64, Winter 2013, p.1

[4]Sven Eberlein, “What Would Nature Do?: Solutions to Our Biggest Challenges Have Beeb Here All Along.” Yes! Winter 2013, pp.20-22

[5] ibid

[6] http://www.ted.com/talks/william_mcdonough_on_cradle_to_cradle_design.html#662000

[7] Vandana Shiva, “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Forest,” Yes! Magazine, issue 64, Winter 2013, pp. 48-50/

One thought on “What Would Nature Do?

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