Nature’s Hidden Lessons and How my Favorite Teachers Taught Me How to Find Them (the Tangential Magical)

By Adiel Gavish

The Creatively Disorganized Scientist

Mentors come in all forms, shapes, and sizes and communicate in uniquely diverse ways. I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors who have shaped my life — from the profoundly eloquent and sharp, to the rambling, and tangential, and even the completely silent. When I was in college, I had a professor named Mike. Professor Mike (who is still teaching) taught Fluvial Geomorphology — the dynamics of how rivers and lakes change and evolve over time, on their own. He was the kind of teacher who was more of a person than a professor and treated students like peers, rather than pupils. His staple attire consisted of casual blue wool sweaters, with khaki pants and black New Balance sneakers — his hair askew in every direction, much like his lectures (which he often tried to pat down, but never quite stayed “put”).

Professor Mike was brilliant, affable and easy going, and he loved to teach. His class seemed more like a weekly fireside chat in physics and fluid dynamics (as if that’s even possible). He loved sharing everything he knew. His brain worked at light-speed — fluid and steady, yet constantly changing like a rapid current. I never stopped listening. In most of my classes I would drift into daydream, but not in Professor Mike’s. I learned the most when he went completely off on a tangent, and into various branches and fractals of cutting edge research, and his own finely crafted theories — the tangential magical.

Dart River-Te Awa Whakatipu, New Zealand by Matt Laners
The river had much to teach, and we had much to learn.

The Flowing River

Under his tutelage, I learned that rivers and streams evolved through a complex process by which every input had an output — every action had a reaction — and every change in the physical structure of these fluid bodies resulted in the system instinctively correcting itself. He taught us that the river knew “how” — how to self-balance, how to optimize change, how to adapt and evolve, survive and thrive.

The desert flats of Baja California by Adriana Franco, National Geographic

While writing a paper for class I realized that rivers were alive. Rivers, lakes, and streams were self-balancing, living entities, and if something like a river — without any external management or third-party imposition — could sustain itself ad infinitum, then the river had much to teach, and we had much to learn. The river could also be our mentor, as these natural processes of self-correction, adaptation, and eventual evolution were ancient practices . For example, in fluid dynamics, rivers take the path of least resistance and follow Murray’s Law in order to optimize flow — could we learn from these time-tested patterns and naturally occurring strategies, I wondered? There must be principles of self-equilibrium that can be extrapolated and applied to man-made products and systems as well — such as businesses and buildings. I realized these processes could be applied not just to the physical “thing” itself, but to the system as a whole — a living entity far greater than the sum of its parts.

The desert flats of Baja California by Adriana Franco, National Geographic

The Philosopher Biologist

It wasn’t until a few years later that I was introduced to the term “biomimicry”, and a scientist who soon became another life-changing mentor: biologist Janine Benyus (who had coined the term in her book). I was thrilled to learn that people were already doing this! She was a scientist who was also a philosopher — a poet, really, and gifted observationalist. Profoundly eloquent, her writing ebbed and flowed between the current, unsustainable state of our man-made systems, and the dynamic world it could be if we opened our eyes to the brilliance embedded in natural ecosystems. Her ideas were uplifting — messages of hope, rising above the doom and gloom.

…nature-made principles we can emulate and embed to “create conditions conducive to life.” Because at the end of the day, what else are we all working towards?

From that point forward, buoyed by the promise of biomimicry — innovation inspired by nature , ancient strategies that are time-tested and nature-approved — every man-made challenge I encountered was colored in ombré with new possibilities.

A year later I was in a coastal nature preserve in Costa Rica for a week-long immersive with Janine and 30 other students and professionals from around the world who had also come to the same conclusion — nature is teaching, it’s time we listen. Janine and Biomimicry 3.8 co-founder, Dr. Dayna Baumeister taught us “Life’s Principles” of innovation and design in the tropical rainforest — the nature-made patterns, strategies, and principles we can emulate and embed to “create conditions conducive to life.” Because at the end of the day, what else are we all working towards?

Mycorrhizal network

The Friendly Forest Ecologist

When you’ve entered the world of being mentored by nature, you begin to learn about the fascinating ways in which organisms and even ecosystems communicate, including a new science called “interkingdom signaling”. Janine often talks about what forest ecologist, Dr. Suzanne Simard has dubbed the “wood-wide-web” — a symbiotic network of fungi connected to their tree neighbors that allows trees to communicate with one another, sharing information about nearby predators, and the surplus or deficit of nutrients in the soil such as phosphorus and nitrogen. Trees speak to one another. We can’t hear it, but we can certainly observe and learn from this elegant mechanism of relaying real-time information. After all, nature doesn’t have a Twitter account, and the forest doesn’t spread false information. Yet signals and information are shared in real-time.

Recently, I did a quick search for my affable professor, and was surprised to read less than positive remarks a few students had given on his teaching style. No one else seemed to appreciate those wonderful digressions that led to a theory that changed my life forever. To them it was a confusing chaos, not a beautiful mosaic of insights and discoveries cultivated over a lifelong career of careful observation, contemplation, and a deep understanding of natural phenomena — the patterns and processes that shape the planet as we know it today. It saddened me to read such negative, judgmental remarks.

Let’s appreciate not how information is presented, but that wisdom is imparted in many diverse and fantastical ways.
Dr. Suzanne Simard, TED Summit 2016

In a world filled with not even 15 minutes, but perhaps the elusive promise of 15 seconds of fame, coupled with ever-shortening attention spans, it’s more important now than ever to slow our minds for a moment, pause, and appreciate not how information is presented, but that wisdom is imparted in many diverse and fantastical ways. From skillful communicators like Janine Benyus and Suzanne Simard, to those who are capable of keen observation, but may not have the gift for presenting — should we not open our minds to observing lessons from a wide spectrum of teachers? And unfortunately, rivers and trees, with their micorrhizal networks, and 3.8 billion years of sustainability wisdom to bestow, cannot take the stage either, but their embedded wisdom is worth listening to all the same.

Thanks to these sage advisors, I’ve learned to look for the brilliance inside of everyone, and everything. In fact, the most salient lessons don’t always come rehearsed and wrapped in beautiful, well-tied bows. I’ve learned to look for and follow the tangents just as much as the outlines. A rambling professor, a winding brook, the tree outside your window, an entire mountain range … it’s up to us to find a way to listen.


About the author:

Adiel Gavish is the Social Media and Communications Manager for the Biomimicry Institute, which seeks to empower people to create nature-inspired solutions for a healthy planet. She is also the founder of the BiomimicryNYC regional network, working to bring together and cultivate a diverse network of nature-inspired students and professionals in the NYC metro region.

Originally published on patternly.org