Balancing Nature: Who’s in Charge?

We employ organic practices and controls, plant for pollinator and wildlife support, and slowly we’re even warming up to the idea of leaving room for wild, less-tended spaces in our landscapes and parks. A recent essay in the Seattle Times, “Finding a Balance,” goes one step further and suggests modeling built environments after processes already at work and successful in nature; a notion embodied in a branch of environmentalism called “biomimicry.”

A conversation between editor Lorene Edwards Forkner and author, Lawrence W. Cheek.

Daylight and old trees, Schmitz Park, Seattle.  Photo: Tom Reese/FotoDocument

Daylight and old trees, Schmitz Park, Seattle. Photo: Tom Reese/FotoDocument

LEF:  I have to ask, are you a gardener?

LWC:  I’m afraid not. I’m a writer, teacher, boatbuilder, sailor, kayaker, and hiker. And I’ve pretty much given up sleep already. There just isn’t enough time to add one more obsession.

LEF:  This seems like a question of control, dominion, and mastery. What’s the vocabulary of a more balanced system?

LWC:  “Dominion” is a word we need to banish from our culture, because it’s the root of the problem we have in our relationship with nature. We’re not the masters of the global ecosystem; we’re merely participants, no more or less important than banana slugs or trout. The main thing that makes us special is our capacity to wreak havoc, which certainly exceeds that of any other species. To balance that, we’d better learn to use our other special quality, which is the ability to predict future consequences of present actions, and take corrective action. Modern science has made us increasingly good at predicting, but we’re still lousy at acting. Until we’re at the point of a crisis.

To conserve electricity, precise calculations of daylight determined the design of the Bulitt Center’s windows and skylights to minimizes the need for supplemental lighting. Photo: Tom Reese/FotoDocument

To conserve electricity, precise calculations of daylight determined the design of the Bulitt Center’s windows and skylights to minimizes the need for supplemental lighting. Photo: Tom Reese/FotoDocument

LEF:  What are the economics of retooling cities to be more grounded in nature? How much dismantling is required—or are we closer than we think?

LWC:  Those are excellent but far-reaching questions, and I’d have to write a book to try to address them. I’ll just say here that as one general principle, we ought to think smaller. Smaller families, smaller houses, smaller cars, smaller Wal-Marts and parking lots. We reduce the space and energy we consume, we leave more for the other species that share the planet.

LEF:  City planners, architects, developers, and designers decide how our world is laid out on a macro level. How can we—as neighbors, homeowners, renters, and consumers—play a role on a micro level, in our own backyard as it were?

LWC:  The National Wildlife Federation has a Garden for Wildlife program, encouraging homeowners to design their gardens and yards as good, diverse wildlife habitat. Washington State has a similar Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary program, and I see quite a few designated yards in Seattle. The more of these the better. And the fewer grass lawns the better. The grass lawn is one of the most pernicious, pointless, polluting, and time-wasting inventions of modern culture.

LEF:  What will a more balanced world look like?

LWC:  Less asphalt, less machinery, less human-produced noise, less arrogance. More trees, more hiking trails, more movement toward sustainability in our industry and development, more humility.