Monday, October 3, 2011

The Edge in Creativity

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
            Charles Darwin “On the Origin of Species”

For Life
If you really want to see lots of good stuff in the natural world, go to the edge.  In wild places, edges are where two living communities join.  It is where a prairie meets a woodland, where cold waters mix with warm continental currents and where the ocean splashes onto the shore. The inspiration for one of our greatest ideas, Darwin’s famous tangled bank is along an edge where he took his daily walk.  These are the places that contain some of the greatest abundance and diversity of life anywhere.  Edges can be very productive places.
Productivity is increased along an ecological edge because the neighbouring communities make complimentary contributions to one another.  These resources often have value because they are lacking within the uniformity of the community opposite. The open prairie allows sunlight into the forest edge, oxygen-rich cold waters upwells into continental waters and the ocean brings marine life onto the shore.  These ingredients increase the fertility of both communities simultaneously.  Through the confluence of distinct communities, edges in the natural world are a showcase of productivity.

For Ideas

With edges, the natural world again produces a model for us to embrace.  Through this example we see how new and productive connections can be formed when distinct communities interact. As it turns out, the productive environment that is created by an edge, not only is a boost for life; it is also a boost for our ideas.  “The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table” writes Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From.  In bringing together more parts, the possibility of them interacting in new and innovative ways is greater than if they existed in isolation.  Creating edge environments where ideas can collide and stick yields productive outcomes. 

Our greatest ideas do not spontaneously come to light. They are rather a recombination, (deliberate or otherwise) of the thoughts of others, filtered through a fertile environment.  Darwin’s grand idea came about not only as the result of his personal experiences on the Beagle and on the trails of his estate.  Also crucial to his process were his volumes of correspondences, the influence of his grandfather and the spark of Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population.  His revolutionary idea (and those of all others) are grown out of a network of ideas.  When Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants” he wasn’t just being humble, he was being truthful. The process of being creative may not simply be sitting down and coming up with innovative ideas.  The first step may well be the recognition that the process of creativity requires you to position yourself in a fertile environment.

Productive environments are neither uniform nor isolated. They encourage a blending of ideas to re-combine in order to solve a problem.  This process is most effective in environments where communities of thoughts come up to one another and produce an edge of creativity.  This is not only true of where the natural world comes to life, but also where new ideas come to life.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Alberta@Noon Call-in

I was fortunate once again to be asked to participate on CBC Radio One Alberta@Noon.  I have had the chance to answer listener's questions on Alberta birds for a number of years and it is always a nice opportunity to engage folks with our wildlife.  Below is the audio file of the call-in hosted by Donna McElligott (duration 17:39).

The Master of Innovation

Steven Johnson strikes again.  After doing a lot to influence me in 

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

 he is at it again with a collection of his essays.  Once again, he looks at innovation and breaks down many attributes that often lead to success and problem solving.  There is the requisite YouTube vid to promote his latest.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Window Strikes

It gets bad during migration.  An unfortunate and unimaginable number of birds strike windows each year and die as the result of the collision.  In the downtown cores of cities like Toronto, campaigns have been launched to encourage the lights to be turned off of downtown office towers at night.  Even so, volunteers head out early each morning and see if their are any window strike victims that can be rescued.

Things are just as bad with our homes.  As we prefer to live in natural settings, often our large windows reflect the image of the sky and fool birds as they fly into them.  To break up the image of the reflected sky, we install decals and hang ribbons over the glass,  but these have limited effect.  Way too many small birds die in this way.

Julie Zickefoose, a fabulous artist as been dealing with the issue of window strikes from her home studio in Ohio.  She writes of her experience and offers a solution.  It seems as though the most effective means of preventing bird strikes was by stretching crop screening over a PVC frame.  While this is certainly not the one and only solution, it could reduce the death of migrants in homes that are particularly prone to this problem.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

What Nature can teach us

I stumbled upon a nice short essay by a photographer Rick Ellis "What the Apple Seed can teach us."
He makes a very nice metaphor using apple seeds and concludes his big idea by writing:
"Nature has had millions of years to perfect its approach. We should take heed of the lessons it teaches, and apply its principles wherever we seek the best possible outcome."

This is essentially the same big idea that I have been after for a while now, but instead of looking to apple seeds, I'm seeing how birds have achieved success and linking that strategy to paths taken by recognizable figures.  As Ellis claims, through evolution life itself has sorted the winners from the losers.  Therein is a proven track record of success to guide our own efforts and lives. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Top Five Scenic Fjords

Work has taken me all around the planet in celebration of the wild world.  Natural landscapes always have an impact on me, no matter if their beauty is grand or subtle.  Sailing through fjords may well be the most dramatic way to appreciate the geological forces at play on Earth.  The steeply cut sea-side canyons are awesome no matter where they are found, but some stand out more than others.  Here are my five most scenic fjords.

5. New Zealand, Fiordland National Park

4. Norway, Lysefjord

3. Alaska, Glacier Bay National Park

2. Chile, Beagle Channel

1. Antarctica, Lemaire Channel

Friday, August 5, 2011

Photo Flashback: Dominica Sperm Whale

Sperm Whale surfacing

Sperm Whale Diving
It was on my second trip to Dominica that I learned to love this island just a bit more.  On trip one, I went birding and managed to have good looks at one of Dominica's endemic parrots and hearing the another.  On trip two, I headed out to have an intimate encounter with Sperm Whales.  It seems that there is a small population of about nine individuals that hang out in the cool depths off this forested island. Thanks to the aquatic hearing aids of whale watchers, trips have pretty good odds of finding where the whales will be surfacing.  Since Sperm Whales are among the deepest and longest diving, when they do surface they tend to spend quite a bit of time replenishing the oxygen in their blood.  It is really only at these times and at this place that we can interact.  It is fitting therefore that we are no more comfortable observing them at the interface of air and water than they are.  As the animal with the greatest vertical range around, Sperm Whales meet us where neither observer is at home. 
Sperm Whale