When I travel, one thing I love is the different types of questions I am asked about the places I come from. Most of the time, they revolve around what bars, restaurants, and shops I like. On rare occasion, I’ll sometimes find myself in a conversation about the weather, climate, water, maybe the proximity to coastline or lack thereof; but rarely do I get the questions I will propose herein about the living ecosystems our local communities enjoy and depend on. They are the questions people tend to ask when they have a deep relationship with natural systems, and their answers reveal more than you might expect. My brother Jonah and I have been taking adventure walks into the woods since I can remember and it got me thinking.
In the Northeast, we live in a temperate climate with deciduous trees. That means the leaves change color in autumn and fall off in the winter. It means some woods and building materials are more prevalent than others. Where I grew up, in Connecticut, our hills are dotted with maple, birch, oak, and spruce. We get great maple syrup, at great prices. When I visit the Pacific Northwest, I marvel at the redwoods native to that part of the world and am impressed by the eucalyptus but surprised to learn it’s an invasive species; but if you grew up in a place where the leaves change color, you’ll miss it. I look out for poison ivy when I should be wary of poison oak. Further south, I see palm trees and succulents that could never make it in New York and I appreciate them for that. When I’m asked to design something with my local community in mind and wood may be used, I think about what I’d like this space to reflect as a representation of our environment.
This is a different question than, “What’s the weather like there?” It acknowledges the passage of time and the patterns of the seasons. The person asking probably has a relationship with where their food comes from. New York has hot, humid summers and cold, snowy winters. New England tends to cool down in the evenings and if it doesn’t, the mosquitos come out to feed. In the springtime, I love to go to sleep to the sounds of peepers, birds, frogs, and even the occasional coyote. Across the country, in San Francisco, the summer is cold and dry. The autumn is the summer I wish the summer was. The winter is when most of the rain comes. The seasons and accompanying weather patterns mean different things grow at different times of the year. With a globalized food marketplace, we hardly pay attention to details like this, but travel makes it possible to better understand our interdependence. When I think about design solutions in a 360º perspective, it’s invaluable to look at every extreme. Think about our seasons.
I’ve mentioned our garden in earlier posts, but now I get to gloat about the delicious cucumbers, the lettuce, kale, squash, tomatoes, tatsui, carrots, onions, and garlic I enjoy thanks to the rich, fertile soil of the foothills of the Berkshires. Sure, in L.A. I get to eat oranges off the trees, but nothing will ever beat New England sweet corn in August. A visit to your local farmers’ market can reveal answers to questions like this and a visit to the farmers’ markets in places you go can help increase your appreciation for your own special climate and food opportunities. There’s nothing like the taste of food grown in the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the soil on which you walk. Give it a try, you’ll see what I mean; that’s the secret to the success of the farm to table restaurants–they taste so freakin’ great.
There’s a colloquialism about gossip having to do with a little bird–you know, “A little bird told me…” If you are wondering what’s going on in your local ecosystem, listen. The birds are watching and they’re telling the story. They’re narrating, in fact. Is there a fox chasing a squirrel? The birds will know. Is there a hawk circling? The jays will broadcast. In Connecticut, we have robins and sparrows, blue jays, and cardinals. At night, we can hear owls. If we get the flowers and the seeds just right, we can attract some hummingbirds too. When I venture west, there are more owls, more blue jays, and also red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons, and, one of my favorites, Nuttall woodpeckers, with their red crowns hacking away at oak trees in the woodlands of California.
What about you? What kinds of plants and trees grow near you? What are the seasons like? What foods can you grow? What birds can you hear?
Taking the time to learn about the places you go from different viewpoints can help you shake things up and in turn, stimulate new ways of thinking about, redesigning, inventing, and seeing the world; another opportunity for innovation, reinvention, and evolution.