The amazing clay nests of the Mud Dauber Wasp. Photo: Steven Peck
As I sat down on a cushion in my backyard last summer, I heard an unfamiliar crunching sound. Beneath the cushion lay two small strange looking grey tubes about two inches in length and half an inch in diameter. One of them I had inadvertently shattered. These turned out to be the nests of a wasp commonly called a mud dauber, or mud wasp. Although scary looking with dangling back legs and long torsos, these amazing creatures rarely sting anyone. Instead, they spend much of their time collecting small balls of mud to construct their clay nests. The nests I found are like mini crypts. When almost complete, the wasps go on the hunt for spiders, injecting them with a poison that paralyzes, but doesn’t kill them. They then stuff their nests with these spiders so that when their egg hatches, the wasps’ larvae have a tasty fresh ‘spider buffet’ awaiting them. Not a great fate for a spider.
When the larvae grow large enough on the personal spider feast, it burrows a hole through its clay home and emerges into the world, so it can repeat the process again. All of this drama, slowly unfolding right beneath my cushion. Quite an amazing feat for an insect, don’t you think?
This story illustrates the fact that many of us are unaware of the lives of the many creatures that live among us. It also reinforces the fact that most species on earth go to extraordinary lengths to perpetuate their kind. After securing their individual or collective survival, procreation appears to be job one. As humans we also have a strong drive to procreate (as evidenced by rising global populations). In fact, most parents will willingly lay down their lives for their children and make enormous sacrifices for them. Ask a parent!
Survival and procreation are the keys to the instruction book for all life on earth and an essential characteristic that all living things share together, despite the fact that we eat one another. Consider the undeniable fact of your own existence. You and I wouldn’t be here today, unless countless generations of our predecessors had made successful choices enabling their survival and procreation. We are the results of a chain of being stretching back eons, despite the fact that we rarely acknowledge this.
Our adaptability has enabled us to create multiple artificial environments that inadvertently reduce our connections to the natural world which ultimately sustains us.
Where we come up short in our modern, high technology profit driven world, is that we have forgotten a critically important idea along the way. An idea that has been obvious to native peoples for tens of thousands of years. This is that our individual, and collective fate as a species, is intimately tied to the fate of the many species in the natural world around us. That we are from, and of, the natural world, and as such, we have a sacred obligation to perpetuate it.
Over the past hundred years or so, our incredible imagination and adaptability enabled us to create and inhabit worlds that don’t really exist; that aren’t really tangible. This extends to everything from virtual social media worlds like Facebook and Instagram, to virtual environments like Minecraft, which boasts more than 140 million users, to imaginary currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum which have no intrinsic value.
In fact, much of the ‘world’ we now ‘inhabit’ is a world of our own making, from the online universe and the manufactured sounds, to the roads, bridges and glass and steel buildings which surround us. This has become our predominant reality. Time spent outside, in nature, unhindered, has dwindled to a bare minimum for millions, despite the clearly proven associated health and happiness benefits.
Colourful biodiversity can be found within plants and insects.
The imaginary worlds we have created have no doubt, in many cases, helped us survive. Even as our imaginary, artificial world grows, the natural world, with all of its diversity and complexity, still continues to do its best to support human survival. It provides us with food, energy and medicine, and a variety of ecosystem services, such as carbon sequestration, air and water purification. Nature does this despite the fact that we continue to push other species to the limits of their existence and beyond to extinction.
The current wave of extinctions is a symptom of our fundamental disconnect from the natural world and lack of awareness that it is our life support system on earth. One in every eight species is currently threatened with extinction. We chop down lush, biodiverse rainforests to grow beef and palm oil, because we do not value the things we do not care about, or are unaware of. Edward O. Wilson, the late ecologist and conservationist, called for the protection of the earth's living creatures in the 1980s as a way to also protect the non-living world, including air and water quality. To focus on preserving biodiversity, one accomplishes these other life-supporting environmental objectives. In 2014, Wilson put forth the idea that 50 per cent of the land area should be set aside for conservation worldwide, to ensure that the living world will continue to thrive and be able to provide humanity with what it needs.
Wilson’s work illustrates that overcoming the dominance of the at the expense of the natural world, is the fundamental challenge of our time. This dominance pervades most of our institutions preventing us from making greater progress in conservation and human survival. How else can one explain our acceptance of the extraordinary annual profits enjoyed by the fossil fuel sector? Or how many financial institutions continue to support the drive for more oil resource exploitation? This is happening at the same time as millions of square miles of forests burn each year, turning forests from carbon sinks to carbon emitters. Droughts are becoming more frequent impacting food production; rainfall intensity is increasing causing flooding; the Antarctic ice sheet is breaking up, speeding sea level rise, and the world’s coral reefs are bleaching out and dying …. but hey, the S&P 500 is up by more than 1000 points! The dominance of the artificial world of corporate power, greed and the relentless drive to profit is a major disconnect. Global wealth increases at the same time as ecosystems world-wide diminish. Our ability to inhabit imaginary worlds clearly separates us from other species. As the native saying goes, “A frog does not drink up the pond in which it lives.”
Living walls that have more plant diversity are more resilient, support more biodiversity and provide greater human health benefits than mono-cultures. Photo: Steven Peck
The widespread use of living architecture in our built environments is one way to begin to push back against the dominance of the artificial over the natural. Living architecture has multiple benefits that also help us adapt to the negative impacts of climate change. Systems integration with living architecture involves stacking multiple benefits, utilizing multiple surfaces on and around buildings to capture, store and reuse water and other resources. The act of designing, building and maintaining buildings that provide opportunities for greater biodiversity, for food production, for flood prevention, for human health, and for education, results from those bridges.
Furthermore, green roofs and walls that have a multitude of plant species on them, typically perform better, provide greater biophilic benefits to building occupants and are more resilient in the face of disease and drought than mono-cultures. Despite what the lawn care companies tell us each year, mono-cultures don’t hold our attention very long. Similarly, mono-cultures on roofs and walls do not hold our attention very long and therefore provide less health benefits than systems with many species, particularly those which change color and sway in the wind, like tall grasses and small trees. Water features also provide an important source of drinking water for birds, which spread seeds, which in turn can contribute to plant biodiversity.
In many ways, living architecture can also help reconnect people to nature in our cities, where more than 56 per cent of the world population now live. Converting mono-cultural landscapes to multi-species landscapes has a significant potential for positive change, reducing maintenance costs and supporting biodiversity. Nurturing reconnections is a fundamental prerequisite to developing a renewed awareness that we are really part of nature, and not separate from it. This awareness gives rise to the further insight that our own fate is bound up in the fate of the many creatures around us. If we allow them to perish, we will soon follow.
Connecting to the natural world has much to teach us, to wow us with, while also helping us cope in the stressful world we have created. The wonder of the mud dauber in my backyard, a master potter and stealthy hunter of spiders, is but one example of the multitude of wonders nature has in store for you. The natural world is forgiving, but also brutal; it is wonderful, and also terrifying; it is beautiful, but also horrifying.
There are so many benefits to existing alongside nature.
Living architecture holds the promise of building more bridges to nature in cities, and thereby maintaining our connection and support for the conservation of the natural world.
The sooner we embrace all that nature has to offer, and support its restoration and conservation, the sooner we will be able to strike a balance between the artificial and the natural worlds around us and ensure our survival. And perhaps we will also discover what it is to be fully human within the web of life which surrounds us. In the words of Edward O Wilson, “to explore and affiliate with life is a deep and complicated process in mental development. To an extent still undervalued in philosophy and religion, our existence depends on this propensity, our spirit is woven from its hope rises on its currents.”
Steven W. Peck is the founder and president of Green Roofs for Healthy Cities and the editor of The Living Architecture Monitor magazine.
A great App to help you identify plant and animal species where you live is iNaturalist.
A great App to help identify plants is Picture This.
The widespread use of living architecture can help us build more bridges between the artificial and natural worlds, opening up new possibilities for urbanites to connect to nature and support conservation.
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