Gliding in the wind: Biomimicry approach to death and life

As an interlude, here’s a short exercise I worked on as a very personal project. A cremation urn inspired by nature: Gliding in the Wind.

A page from my sketchbook. Physical properties and suspected functions of a mysterious object. Writing: Dr. Sandra Dudley. March, 2010. La Cusinga Lodge, Costa Rica

I had this project in mind for quite a while, ever since I attended the Biomimicry workshop in Costa Rica. There was this one activity, when my partner – Dr. Sandra Dudley – would hand me various natural objects  to explore through touch, smell, sound, even taste – all senses but my eyes (I was blindfolded). After listing all the different properties I discovered, my next task would be to list the function for each property.

Turns out, I was way off! What I thought was some sort of a leaf with properties to ward off predators, turned out to be a seed of Alsomitra macrocarpa vine. If you follow the link, there is a remarkable footage of a falling Alsomitra vine seeds, which use paper-thin wings to disperse like giant gliders. If that didn’t convince you to watch it, the footage is narrated by David Attenborough. Go!

There was a time in my life when I was very ill, and thoughts about life and death accompanied me everywhere. Some of these thoughts came back as a surprise, when Karen Allen explained to me the function of this beautiful glider. One year later – as a Biomimicry workshop anniversary-present-to-myself – I decided to get it out of my system though the project on memories and personal connections (twisted present, I know).

I guess, it is my absorption with nature that draws me closer to poignant images of scattered blossoms or yellowing autumn leaves, which serve to remind me that all beautiful things must soon pass away. I interpret death as a variety of travel. This not only leaves open the possibility of return to the place of departure, but also negates death’s finality.

Nature treats death as a normal occurrence, the foundation of the all-important cycle, it celebrates the ease with which creatures accept their passing. Just as the lush and variegated colours of summer and fall are gradually being exchanged for the sharp and cold monochromes of winter, life is ebbing away with striking beauty. There is sadness in death, but also the possibility of eliciting from death a beauty that transforms it into something positive.

Death brings the individual into unity with a larger whole; the human being is not only like the dew or the smoke, but – in death – is united with the totality of the cosmic and natural process.

As I began researching Alsomitra vine, I also stumbled upon Bunchberry dogwood, and many other beautiful plants that employ such creative versatile strategies to carry the seeds. What if such winged seeds would allow the relative to take small amounts of ashes and release them in all places special to the departed and their family?

Or – in case of Bunchberry dogwood – outer layers restrain the four miniature beams that are bent in the base and store elastic energy used to launch ashes. The ash sacs split open under the heat of the sun and are ready to propel ashes as soon as the urn is triggered open. Take it to the field, plant among other flowers, and enjoy the moment.

Gliding in the Wind

Death is a seed traveling in the wind to plant new life.

The journey is never-ending in life and in death – the ultimate destination is not of the immediate concern, as long as it bears a foundation of the all-important cycle of nature. As the seed travels in the wind without destination, it slowly casts away its hull, expands its belly and burrows its feet into soil where it can gather the strength to push up into the light above the darkness of the earth. Such winged seeds may allow us to ultimately give new meaning to the concept of journey through death.

A stoneware vase is filled with ashes of the loved one, and the glass vessel holds many winged envelopes. These delicate envelopes, made of starch with added natural fibers for structural purposes, have seeds of local plant species ready for germination.

According to slavic tradition, cremated remains were put in a ceramic bowl and left in the ground. My design will allow for remains to travel, instead of permanently housed in one spot. Such winged seeds allow the relative to take small amounts of ashes and release them in all places special to the departed and their family. This will also encourage the relative to travel with the winged seed around the world. Once the seed has fallen to the ground, the wings decay, rotting away to leave the ashes promote plant growth.

If a man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us! The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty. – Yoshida Kenko

Pura Vida!


2 thoughts on “Gliding in the wind: Biomimicry approach to death and life

  1. how lovely, the ideas you have shared here somehow merge science and design with poetry for me and render it all so accessible, you are one of my heros Alena, keep writing and discovering and sharing please our world needs your brilliance

  2. I do trust all the ideas you’ve offered to your post. They’re very convincing and can definitely work. Nonetheless, the posts are very brief for novices. Could you please extend them a little from next time? Thanks for the post.

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