On Biomimicry, Loss, and Building Community in Nature: Interview by Sarah Boon
About Margo Farnsworth
Missouri-based naturalist Margo Farnsworth is an expert on biomimicry, the art of imitating nature to solve human problems. She is a speaker, Biomimicry Education Fellow at the Biomimicry Institute, and consultant on biomimicry and sustainability.
Additionally, she has been a visiting faculty at Wofford College’s Goodall Environmental Studies Center and Environmental Studies program and advisor to Lipscomb University’s Institute of Sustainability, and is a biomimicry academic advisor to a number of students around the globe who do not have access to biomimicry programs at their campuses. As a biomimicry and environmental topics author, Margo’s biomimicry work has been featured in a number of media outlets, from radio to environmental journals. Her work will also be featured in the anthology Wildness: Relations of People and Place (publishing this April) and she is working on a book chronicling business’s discovery, adoption, and results in working with the biomimetic process. With a policy and project background in water quality and supply, mammalogy, and land management, Margo has conducted mammal studies in the Midwestern and Southeastern U.S., brokered a bi-state water agreement, helped build seven watershed associations, and facilitated projects such as measuring the carbon sequestration value of buffer zones as well as sedimentation for river restoration.
This interview explores a number of themes, including the intricacies of biomimicry; how we build community, both on and offline and with humans and nature; what makes home and how that sense of home is informed by landscape and history; and ways to creatively engage the public in environmental issues by pushing our own boundaries beyond the usual science and nature writing.
Sarah Boon: Can you briefly explain what biomimicry is and why it’s important? What’s one of the more fascinating examples of biomimicry you’ve encountered?
Margo Farnsworth: Organisms have been on Earth for billions of years. To survive, they’ve had to develop and adapt to meet an incredibly diverse array of needs: absorbing or shedding water, creating external structures strong enough to withstand the elements (e.g., skin, shelters), attaching to things, breaking things down, and more.
Biomimicry is the process of adapting the approaches used by organisms to function in nature, and modifying them to sustainably address human challenges. Biomimicry can help us develop optimal solutions to our own problems while simultaneously reducing the negative impacts on the world around us.
It’s hard to choose the most fascinating example of biomimicry, but here are two examples that I’m currently writing about:
Sharklet is a material that mimics shark denticles (skin), and was initially meant to reduce the ability of barnacles to attach to ship hulls. However, it’s now also used in health applications because the denticles are able to shed harmful bacteria such as staphylococcus, E. coli, and even MRSA.
Then there’s PAX Water’s Lily impeller mixer. Its spiral shape resembles the calla lily and mimics similar spirals in ocean whirlpools and tornadoes. The mixer is a small turbine that can be placed near the bottom of municipal water agency’s water holding tanks, where it can circulate millions of gallons of water using only the energy required to run three 100-watt light bulbs. It not only saves money, but also reduces the formation of trihalomethanes (THMs). My small Missouri town has just budgeted for one—and I didn’t even have to give them the biomimicry spiel!
Sarah Boon: What drew you to work in the field of biomimicry, and what exactly do you do?
Margo Farnsworth: I’ve always termed myself a hunter-gatherer, and decided long ago that I needed to work outside for a living. That goal has led me to work as a park ranger, science teacher, naturalist, executive director for the non-profit Cumberland River Compact watershed organization, and professor of sustainability.
As a professor at Lipscomb University’s Institute for Sustainable Practice, I read Janine Benyus’ book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. The director of the Institute was keen to incorporate biomimicry into the curriculum, so six weeks after I first discussed it with him I was in a Costa Rica jungle learning about biomimicry through the Biomimicry Institute (based in Missoula, Montana).
Eventually I became a fellow of the Biomimicry Institute. Now I speak and teach at colleges and universities that are interested in biomimicry but have no formal programs. If you’re interested in learning more, get in touch and I’ll work your group into the schedule!
Sarah Boon: You’re a board member of the Missouri Prairie Foundation, which hosted its inaugural National Prairie Day on June 4, 2016. What was the Foundation’s goal in creating such a day, and was that goal met? What are your plans for future National Prairie Days?
Margo Farnsworth: Missouri alone was once covered with over 15 million acres of prairie. The fact that this has now been reduced to less than one percent of that punches me in the gut. And these are just the numbers for one state. Originally, the prairie extended from Canada to Texas and Montana to Ohio—the entire heart of North America. Today, it’s a terrestrial ecosystem that’s even more endangered than South American rainforests.
We started National Prairie Day to protect, celebrate, and call attention to prairies, with the hope that others would recognize the need to protect an ecosystem that’s not only important to our heritage, but also forms the base of our terrestrial food system. Personally, I’m with E. O. Wilson, who calls for us to protect half the surface of Earth for nature. End of story.
However, to make change quickly given the current climate in politics and business, you have to list the ways in which nature is critical to people beyond its intrinsic value. Hence the connection to food systems and heritage. To be really thorough, we could also discuss the value and richness of prairie in terms of biomimetic models, clean air and water, energy possibilities, and hunting and fishing—not to mention as a vehicle to get children into nature!
Our goal for National Prairie Day last year was just to get it going. In the long term we’d like to see broader participation, including more prairie organizations and nature centers across the region. We’d also like to see National Prairie Day celebrated in libraries, schools, and even workplaces here and beyond the geographic borders of the prairies. Prairie isn’t just for people who live within its boundaries, but is critical to all inhabitants of the continent.
Sarah Boon: You currently live on the prairie near Kansas City. Briefly describe what makes this home to you. Has your sense of home changed over time? What has driven that change?
Margo Farnsworth: I grew up in Southern Missouri and have always been a loyal Midwesterner. However, after moving to the Southeastern U.S. and living near Nashville for over 20 years, my loyalties have definitely broadened. Rich Southern forests with rock-bottomed creeks at the foot of every cove and slow-spoken, friendly people warmed my heart and held me. But every time I’d come back to Missouri, this open farmland interspersed with prairies and oak-hickory forests to the south, with wind in the grasses under open skies patrolled by hawks, would wrap me in a blanket of familiarity. Missouri was definitely “home.”
My childhood home in Joplin, Missouri, was a small brick and rock Tudor. As a girl I had this wild notion that, because I loved my home so much, I would buy it from whomever owned it once I grew up. However, a tornado in May 2011 flattened a portion of the house and everything around it. When I arrived to help with the cleanup I crested the rise into town and was met by a kind of Martian landscape—with skeletons of trees and houses piercing the sky. I went to what was left of the house—rock peeled off the sides, red dirt on the wallpaper—and turned to survey the neighborhood. The ground was littered with debris and sky was all that was left. The current owners had just gone; unable to cope with the magnitude of the situation I guess. That day I let go of the thing that was my old house and realized that, like many other mammals, I would have to adjust to a new habitat.
Sarah Boon: You recently lost your own house to fire. How did this affect your perception of home? Did you find you relied on your existing community for support—and did that community expand following the fire?
Margo Farnsworth: Since I wasn’t living in Joplin during the tornado, it was kind of a surreal experience. But with the recent fire at our home, letting go was much easier and more natural. Our pets made it out alive and much of our house contents will be able to be cleaned and returned. I discovered that all I really wanted were the photo albums and, because of my writing, the computer.
We were able to live in a camper on the land during the rebuild, which has brought me much closer to the residents with whom I share this farm. Great fat rabbits graze every morning in the north field. Watchful brown thrashers eye the camper as they work the turf around it for meals. The quality of light here in the driveway shimmers as our constant breeze on this hilltop shakes the oak, birch, and ash leaves. It’s a good place, and the house will be done eventually.
My community didn’t broaden so much as it deepened. Old friendships were rekindled and new ones were underscored. I spin wool with a group of women who, upon hearing about the fire, collected an enormous bag of roving for me to spin while we wait for the new house to be built. A few very notable friends from our writing community stepped right in, offering support and even gift cards for meals out and those weird items you never think of but really need to get regular life going again.
Sarah Boon: I’m always interested in how people build community in the places they call home. Does your writing and research community comprise a diverse array of people, or do you find it clusters around a particular group or type of people?
Margo Farnsworth: My community includes everyone from my dear past students to colleagues in the watershed community to writers to business colleagues and old friends. A number of times students from as far away as Great Britain and India have contacted me to help with biomimicry projects, which is always delightful.
I’ve got a Ph.D. candidate over in Leeds, United Kingdom, who is working to develop an eco-business park in a flood-prone area. He plans to manage floodwaters by mimicking the structure of water vole dens (which is to say, building side dens for water capture and distribution), and also by mimicking the mechanism used by giraffes to swallow, which will help move flood waters uphill for storage and later use, thus decreasing downstream effects.
I’d say my community clusters around the kind and the curious.
Sarah Boon: Do you find the online world conducive to building community? Why or why not? Have you had any specific experiences that led you to adopt—or alternatively to shun—online community building?
Margo Farnsworth: I find the online world is incredibly helpful, but in moderation. It’s broadened both my reach and my knowledge acquisition, but if you’re not mindful it can eat your life whole.
Sarah Boon: The New Territory magazine, focused on the U.S. Midwest, was recently launched in Columbia, Missouri. Its editor, Tina Casagrand, has thanked you several times on Twitter for helping her out with this venture. How were you involved, and why did you choose to engage? How do you feel these connections build community?
Margo Farnsworth: Tina is a brilliant woman with a broad knowledge base and dreams she’s turning into reality. Who wouldn’t want to support that?
Tina first told me about this magazine project she had in mind when we were riding through the Central Missouri woods behind a tractor on the farm of another Prairie Foundation board member. She seemed to have it very well thought out, and I agreed with her that there was a niche for a literary magazine in this region.
Magazines such as these can bring people to life—or at least invigorate their souls—by connecting them to the stories and discoveries taking place all around them. Each of us is limited in our everyday reach. We wake up. Check the news. Write. Go to the store. Check email and Twitter. Run. Fix dinner.
Literary magazines are like branches reaching out to collect more sunlight. In this case the sunlight is the human experiences collected in those pages. Suddenly, you go beyond your everyday reach and discover other people—trees if you will—living their lives in the same forest. You find you all have the same basic requirements but your experiences can be very similar or very unique depending on what kind of tree you are or where in the forest you’re located. I’ll let the metaphor go there, but I think that The New Territory is a way to connect people across this landscape we all call home.
I actually had an essay in the August 2016 issue of The New Territory, focusing on sense of place in the Midwest.
Sarah Boon: Your nature writing has appeared in various venues over the past decade, including an upcoming essay in the anthology Wildness: Relations of People and Place, edited by Gavin Van Horn and John Hausdoerffer. How do you think nature writing contributes to the public’s understanding of and appreciation for nature?
Margo Farnsworth: In my life—and in the lives of some of my students who had to read A Sand County Almanac—nature writing can be life altering. If I sound dramatic, I mean to. That book literally changed my life. It was like reading the thoughts I had never hung words on, and yet there they were, fully formed. My thoughts and feelings were suddenly validated.
I came from parents who expected me to go into business or law. Though we sailed and Dad grew up in the greenhouse business, there never was a real connection to land beyond using it as a means to an end. Not only Aldo Leopold, but also Woodswoman Anne LaBastille showed me there was another way. If not for them and those who followed, it would have taken me much longer to realize this. Who knows, perhaps I would have remained as a chrysalis frozen in attitude and action, or I may have arrived here by another road. But Leopold and LaBastille were my catalysts, and I’ve seen their work dramatically affect the direction and passion of others’ lives as well.
Sarah Boon: Can you share with us a couple of writers on writing whom you would recommend?
Leopold brought forth the twin thoughts of inspiration and responsibility. He actually led me to create a new word! While translating his work through teaching I substituted “sustainabilist” for “recreationalist,” and it seemed to resonate well with my Millennial students.
While Leopold is universal, LaBastille is lesser known, even within the writing community. She wrote about changing her life by buying some land on an Adirondack lake and building a cabin to match Thoreau’s. Her observations of wildlife and humans (also wild) were both imminently readable and validating. She brought to life not only the challenges of wild geese traversing a human-made obstacle course during migration, but also the challenges faced by a woman living alone in the woods.
Sarah Boon: In one of our previous conversations, you mentioned that nature and science writing often preach to the converted. You suggested that perhaps we need to write in more popular genres—romance, for example—to share our knowledge of environmental issues with a broader audience. How do you envision this happening, and how effective do you think it might be?
Margo Farnsworth: Once upon a time I received a sizeable grant from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They brought all of the grantees together for peer tutoring. My job was to talk about stakeholder involvement, as I’d been in the business of building watershed organizations. My message to scientists was that we need to come out of our towers and use the tools of popular culture to engage people. Even though details are so important to us in our work, that’s not what the public wants to hear. Time after time I watched as scientists, intent on giving the crowd every important detail, bored the socks off folks. Eyes glazed. Doors closed.
I argued that we should take a page out of advertisers’ books: make it short, sexy, catchy (think Nike’s “Just Do It”). If you want to increase market buy-in, cut the fancy (although entirely accurate) words and phrases. Identify your audience and meet them where they live. The rest of the critical facts can come later—when they’re in the fold.
In 2004, David Gessner wrote that he was sick of writing and reading about nature, of preaching to the converted and not reaching those who really needed to hear him. I’m not suggesting we stop or even alter our more traditional nature and science writing efforts. I just want a larger market share to get engaged with what’s going on here on our planet.
In the US, 40 percent of e-books and 32 percent of mass-market paperbacks sold are romantic novels. I don’t know if putting nature writing into romance novels will work but, having done some psychological research on the topic, I think we have a fair shot.
Although formulaic, romance novels provide the opportunity to cast marine biologists, botanists, and other scientists as heroines or heroes. Through their actions, we can share what these people actually do, thus promoting different scientific careers. Additionally, every book requires an underlying problem and struggle. We have more than enough environmental problems to put in these books, which could increase the environmental awareness of thousands of readers. Of course every romance novel’s recipe includes a large helping of sex, which draws in the crowds. Thing is, we need those crowds—and their environmental awareness—to at least change their everyday behaviors, and potentially to help solve environmental crises on our planet.
A study from Ohio State University revealed the power of fiction in our everyday life. Researchers found that fiction readers became so immersed in a book that they felt “the emotions, thoughts, beliefs, and internal responses of the characters as if they were their own.” The researchers called this “experience-taking,” and noted that it allows readers to merge their self-identity with characters in a novel.
I’m ready to merge readers’ identities with characters who care deeply about Earth and its many habitats, and whose behaviors incorporate a respect for the environment. Could we reach a broader group of people? Definitely. Would they change their behaviors, resulting in less environmental destruction? I don’t know, but I’m willing to try it and find out. As Wayne Gretzky famously said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”
Sarah Boon: Do you have a theme you tend to return to in your writing?
Margo Farnsworth: Yes! Sustainability, cycles of nature, and personal encounters with wildlife.
Sarah Boon: What are you working on right now, and what do you find most challenging about that work?
Margo Farnsworth: I’m currently working on a book telling the stories of several business people working in an array of companies, from start-ups to international corporations, who have used biomimicry in their businesses. Although the book includes some numbers and statistics related to their success, it’s written more in a story form, which people might relate to and mimic at their workplace. Its target audiences are sustainability students and the tire-kickers in the business world who have been curious about biomimicry or how their businesses could be more sustainable, but aren’t quite ready to dive into the deep end of the pool.
Two things really challenge me on this project. First, it would be easy to fall back into a more journalistic writing style instead of storytelling, which I don’t want to do. Second, the organisms and processes these companies have gone through are so fascinating that it makes me want to continue studying them instead of writing!
Header photo of coneflowers by Naturelady, courtesy Pixabay.