January 31, 2005


JFS Biomimicry Interview Series: No.4 Yasushi Umezaki, Environmental Education Planner & Nature Interpreter

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.29 (January 2005)
Technologies Learned from Living Things: Concepts and Examples - Front Line Reports

So far in this series we have mostly featured current technology research and development being carried out by specialists. Some readers may have thought that they would like to develop this kind of Biomimicry technology themselves, and for them the question is where to start?

This month, we ask a naturalist and environmental education expert, Yasushi Umezaki, on how to learn from Nature in the course of daily life, as this is one way to find hints for imagining such technologies. Through his education programs and newsletters, Umezaki has been sharing "Nature's designs" which he discovers in his own everyday life.

Catalogue for a Natural Lifestyle (Japanese only)
Ume's Gallery of the Seasons (Japanese only)

Q. How have you been putting into practice the concept of "learning from Nature"?

Since high school I had a vague inclination towards working in education through carrying out activities in Nature. To study how Nature works, I chose Forest Science as my major in college. Then I encountered "environmental education." Strongly sensing that this was my calling, I started working in the field as a volunteer and found work after graduation.

Working mainly as a ranger at interpretative centers and taking part in surveys, I became a planner at environmental education facilities. Then I moved to the Whole Earth Nature School, one of Japan's major nature schools, and worked as a coordinator at the Lake Tanuki Nature School, a facility of the Ministry of the Environment.

One of my major roles there was that of a "nature interpreter", someone who "interprets" the languages of nature and communicates its messages to people using human language.

In 2003, I launched my own nature school, "Kaze to Tsuchi no Shizengakkou" (Wind and Soil Nature School), which aims to promote sustainable lifestyles. There I provide learning programs, human resource development, and communication services. So to sum up, my lifework is to learn how to live with Nature by learning from Nature, and to share this learning with others.

*20 years ago, there were virtually no nature schools in Japan, but by the 1990's, their number grew rapidly to about 1,500, according to a 2002 survey by the Ministry of the Environment. Founded in 1982, the Whole Earth Nature School was one of the pioneers in the field and now about 60,000 people participate in its programs and courses annually.

Q. I understand that you share the "Nature's designs" that you find around you through a newsletter?

Yes, our newsletter "Catalogue for a Natural Lifestyle" features a collection of seasonal information by writers working in Nature. Its key concepts are organic simplicity and style. My column is "Ume's Gallery of the Seasons," where I look at nature's designs. Nature is filled with a variety of designs.

For example, if you look at how a river flows and the shape of a tree branch or a blood vessel, you will notice similarities in their designs.

So, can we find commonalities in nature's designs and make use of them in designing a lifestyle in harmony with Nature? With this question in mind I provide seasonal photographs taken of Nature that illustrate the lessons I learn from Nature.

Although this does not mean that we can instantly come up with specific technologies or products that apply nature's colors and shapes, someone may at least get a hint from my column.

Q. What kind of specific designs have you shared so far?

In July, for example, I shared what I learned about "webs," which I found while mowing in my garden. The leaves of plants have a variety of shapes, but if you look closer you can see a web in every leaf -- it veins.

A central vein runs through the middle of the leaf and lateral veins branch out from it. Nutrients produced in the leaf are collected through these lateral veins and carried to central vein, and then they are stored in the stem and roots (see a leaf of Metaplexis japonica). We can assume that the web of veins is an effective design for collecting nutrients.

Now when you look more closely, the leaf looks like a landscape viewed from airplane (see a leaf of Boehmeria nivea).

The pattern of veins also resembles how tributaries flow into a larger river.

This kind of "web" design can also be found in dried and cracked rice paddies. When I let water into a dried out rice paddy, it disappeared through the cracks and spread out into the whole field - nature's design distributed the water efficiently!

And you can find the same web design on back of your hand. The question I ask is how many other examples like this can you find?

In July I also found a "radial" design. When I ordered lunch at a restaurant, looking at an orange cut in two I noticed that its sections were arranged in a "radial" manner. Well, this is another of nature's designs.

I got back home and looked around for similar designs. By spreading its leaves in a radial manner, the Lily can take in light from three-dimensions (see Lilium formosanum).

Lilies also spread their petals to offer nectar to insects (see Aster Iinumae). Spiders spread their feet in the same manner to stand on their webs made of thin threads (see Nephila clavata).

Looking at these organisms, I infer that the radial shape is efficient. When you look at household tools you can find many of the same designs. And by finding commonalities, you will begin to see that nature's designs are utilized everywhere in our daily life.

Here's another example: On August 7th, which is Star Festival day in the lunar calendar, I found many "star shapes." In this season you can find stars not only in the sky but also on the ground. The stars I found in the fields were mini-tomatoes, which have star-shaped flowers and star-shaped leaflets on the fruitv.

I also found "stars" during my morning walk in the plants Hosta albo-marginata and Geranium thunbergii .

The former has star-shaped flowers, and the latter has a star pattern in the leaflets surrounding its seed case. Stars in the sky look "star shaped" due to their shining light. From this we can infer that the star shape is good at diffusing energy.

Similarly, it is good at gathering energy because it requires the concentration of energy to make flowers bloom and fruits form. Can you think of a way to make everyday use of this design, which is good at condensing and diffusing?

Other designs I have shared through my illustrated column include "circle," "drop," "hook," "extension," "harvest," and "wrap."

Q. That's fascinating. How can we train our eyes to observe these designs?

When I "meet" with Nature, I try to apply what is called "wide angle vision," a technique originally practiced by Native Americans. And I try to do three things - "slow down (walk slowly and you will have wider vision)," "be silent (be silent and you will receive more information)", and "bend down to take a good look."

In this way I can channel myself into the rhythms of Nature. The human brain can call up all kinds of memories in an effort to solve problems, so we may also be able to make use of lessons learnt from Nature in our lives and work. Please let me know what kind of designs you find in Nature!

After the Interview--What JFS Learned

The "Nature's designs" that Mr. Umezaki has been sharing with us teach us the following:
- Nature is filled with designs that we can encounter in our daily life, and everybody can learn lessons from these designs.
- In order to "hear" what Nature is saying, we need to slow down, be silent and bend down to take a good look.
- Photographs can communicate what you learned more vividly than words alone.

This approach opens up the following opportunities:
- It can be part of art and science education for children who have difficulty feeling interested in Science.
- The "Nature's Design" discovery program could be offered to researchers and students.

(Interviewer: Kazunori Kobayashi)

*This interview series is supported by the Hitachi Environmental Foundation.