The new book Wild Design: Nature’s Architects by science writer and essayist Kimberly Ridley is a slim, charming look at some of the most interesting results of billions of years of evolution — the beautiful and always highly functional forms of plants, fungi, insects, spiders, avians, and mammals. Through more than 70 well-curated antique illustrations, along with thoughtful and concise essays, Ridley tells stories of the wondrous diversity of natural forms.
As Janine Benyus, founder of Biomimicry 3.8 and the Biomimicry Institute, explained in an ASLA interview, “life has been on the planet for 3.8 billion years, and, in that time, it has learned what works and what lasts here on Earth. That’s a long line of good ideas and unprecedented longevity. What doesn’t work is recalled (made extinct) and what does work is optimized with each generation. Natural selection prizes those things that work best in place as well as those that create conditions conducive to life.”
These kind of ideas clearly inspire Ridley, who urges the reader to “notice nature’s creative genius.” She worries that “staring at our phone and computer screens, we isolate ourselves from the wild world, cutting ourselves off from a powerful source of inspiration, delight, and wonder.”
But beyond the power of nature to improve our spirit and sense of well-being, we must also pay closer attention to nature for even more important reasons. With the world becoming more fixated on technology, and development diminishing more wild places, the inspirations provided by nature can sometime feel less immediate and resonant. This not only impacts our well-being and ability to be optimistic, but also our ability to be passionate stewards and grow the next generations of Earth protectors.
As we face worsening biodiversity and climate crises, both a result of a fundamental disconnect with nature, Ridley argues we must take a “deeper look at the wild inventiveness all around us” because “it may be key to our survival.”
On the positive side: the specific needs of trees, plants, insects, birds, and animals have shaped the design of gardens and landscapes for thousands of years and inspired countless paths, features, and spaces. Landscape architects and designers have been leveraging and mimicking nature’s designs before there were even terms like biomimicry and biophilic and ecological design.
And in the past few decades, with the growth of the biophilic and ecological design movements, there has perhaps been an even more intentional effort to maximize the benefits of nature and create cities, landscapes, and buildings that function more like ingenious living systems.
Wild Design will encourage any designer who looks to nature for ideas and systems thinking and cares about the continuation of natural systems and, in turn, humanity.
Ridley examines the microscopic wonders created by diatoms, minute algae, and radiolarians, marine zooplankton. She explains that these tiny life forms “use their cell membranes as molds to create mesh frames of hardened silica–structures that are remarkably durable.” It easy to see these forms inspiring new kinds of efficient protective materials.
In a section on “fabulous fungi,” Ridley explains that fungi are in a separate kingdom from plants, with more than 200,000 known species and an estimated 5 million more that scientists have yet to catalog. They provide two critical functions: they act as “demolition crews,” breaking down dead plant material, which is vital to the health of any forest; and also form networks — a prime example being mycorrhizal fungi, which help trees and plants absorb nutrients and water and communicate risks. This latter kind of fungi forms the basis of a subterranean “world wood web” scientists have only recently begun to understand. Ridley argues that “terrestrial life wouldn’t exist if not for these bizarre and ancient beings.” Landscape architects can design with fungi to improve soil and ecological health and better sequester carbon. We can also learn from fungi how to design resilient, adaptable networks and systems.
“Plants are the design wizards of the natural world,” Ridley writes. Seemingly like magic, they use sunlight to transform carbon dioxide and water into sugars they live on while generating the oxygen the rest of us rely on. Scientists have organized the approximately 400,000 species of plants into four groups: mosses and liverworts, ferns, coniferns, and flowering plants. As Ridley describes, trees have inspired everything from Greek and Roman columns to the vaulted ceilings of medieval churches. Throughout history, landscape architects and architects have been drawn to designing with trees and plants and incorporating woods, one of the most sustainable, carbon-sequestering materials.
In a section on arthropod engineers — spiders and insects — Ridley argues that “despite their miniscule brains,” these beings have “solved some of the most complicated problems in architecture and engineering” — and offer a model of efficient and sustainable uses of resources. As Darwin noted, a honeycomb created by bees is “absolutely perfect in economizing wax and labor.” And centuries before, in 36 BC, Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro proposed what came to be known as “honeycomb conjecture,” arguing that “dividing a flat plane into equal hexagons is the most efficient way to pack the most surface area into the smallest perimeter.” Exploring the amazing structures designed by bees, along with spiders, termites, and ants, we can learn from some of the original master designers how to build resilient, pre-programmed structures using natural materials.
Additional chapters explore the varied and surprising nests birds design, and the elaborate tunnels and dens formed by prairie dogs and beavers. Birds can inspire all designers practicing in our era of increasingly limited resources: they constantly re-use what they find, crafting only what they need. For example, an adaptive Carolina wren will either create a dome-like nest in open cavities 3-6 feet off the ground or simply design a nest out of abandoned “clothespin bags, plant pots, boots, bags, and even the pocket of a jacket left outside.”