Nature in the New Year

by The Design of Things

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A year or two ago, we went to the Boston Ballet to see a program of three contemporary pieces. The second, choreographed by Jorma Elo, was set to solo piano music, selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier by J.S. Bach. Like the music, the dancing was complex, classical and precise, and yet organic – rather than big numbers interspersed with solos and duets, it was presented as an endlessly changing tableau, varied in rhythms and tenor, in a long, continuous thread. Sometimes there were many dancers, sometimes there were only two or three or even just one, the many combinations moving seamlessly in and out from one to the next and next. The audience seemed rapt, silent beneath the music, hardly a cough or rattling of a wrapper among us.

About twenty mesmerizing minutes into it, I realized, “This is nature.” Here comes one thing, and then another. There are interactions and couplings, there are outcomes, and then there is disintegration. Things come together and apart, it is all part of a whole, and it never stops. It was what you might see if you sat still for any length of time beside a pond, in a forest, in a meadow, or in your own backyard. It was so beautiful.

I wrote recently in an article for Rensselaer alumni magazine that while the twentieth century may have been about conquering nature, the 21st century may be about trying to take our place within it. So much of what we did in the 20th century was critical to the human experience, from fighting disease to growing and preserving and transporting food to radically improving communication to finding other ways to lengthen and enhance our lives. But our environmental problems all stem from not noticing nature and eradicating its connections, even to ourselves. Never mind on a grand scale – even in our private lives we stamp out biota, let poison casually run from our pretty grass, raze or bulldoze or pave resting spots for birds and butterflies, and in many other ways reduce the number of species that reside around us, from microbes in our soils to flora and fauna that we can see.

I don’t believe we’re going to continue on this path, necessarily. There are hopeful signs around the world, from preserving rainforests in Brazil and Indonesia to growing awareness here at home of the effect of pesticides on honeybees and habitat loss for Monarch butterflies, for example. I believe enjoying modern life no longer means arming ourselves against the natural world – I think addressing these problems can bring new meaning that we crave, give us deeper satisfaction and peace, and train our children to excel in the sciences. This year I’m going to blog about small but meaningful changes we can make in the design of our lives, our homes, our yards and our communities that can invite nature back in and draw our deeper selves back out. I’ll also let you know about changes in products and commerce that may make a big difference. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you are, too. Thank you so much for reading The Design of Things, and happy 2015!

photo credit: Boston Globe.