The walk I take usually fails in its main purpose, which is
to sap the energy of a Labrador retriever without
exhausting his human companion. The adolescent canine seems
to be coaxed into dreamland by nothing less than an all-out
sprint. But the walk lightens my mind anyway, giving it
time and space to flicker through last nights dreams
and todays shopping list.
I duck under spiderwebs that cross the trail and look for
their makers. Salamanders with slick neon backs speckle
the trail after a rain. I stoop over a pile of dried coyote
scat, indulging the amateur naturalist within me with a
guess at the howlers previous meal. The morning walk
has become my minds playtime, a chance for it to
linger in the wild. But a stroll through the trees can be
more than a quick vacation for mind and body. For serious
scientists, with unanswered questions tugging at the edges
of what they know, drifting away from the laboratory may
generate uncommon solutions to complex problems.
By leaving the confines of the laboratories for the expanse
of nature, scientists can let their new surroundings
inspire a novel perspective. Far away from bubbling beakers
and scribbled equations, the sights and sounds of nature
shimmering leaves, cascading bird song, the buzz of
cicadas may lull the mind into a drowsy state in
which imagination begins to open. And this simplicity
creates an alchemy of sorts, changing questions into ideas,
a transformation even more useful than spinning lead into
Poets and writers have often drawn inspiration from this
natural creative chemistry. Thoreau, who walked daily,
believed the frontier of the American wilderness changed
the way peoples minds worked. "In the very
aspect of those primitive and rugged trees there was,
methinks, a tanning principle which hardened and
consolidated the fibres of mens thoughts."
In his essay "Walking," Thoreau recounted a story
about the poet William Wordsworth: "When a traveler
asked Wordsworths servant to show him her
masters study, she answered, `Here is his library,
but his study is out of doors."
Excursions into nature can develop a scientists
thoughts as well as inspire an artists creativity.
Although the world of science may produce its visible
efforts in basement workstations and high-rise buildings,
the source of its discoveries may not always be so
concrete. The contrast between the natural world and the
technological age may draw the searching mind to new
visions. Natures elegant design, in snowflakes and
spider webs, has already found the answers. Although
people may search for a synthetic solution, a new way of
thinking may rest beneath a single leaf.
These types of discoveries do not usually come to my casual
breed of observer. Heraclitus, a philosopher of ancient
Greece, extolled the secrecy of nature that comes with its
inventions. "Nature loves to hide," he said.
"Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find
it, for it is hard to discover and harder to obtain."
My search for that which is hidden sometimes comes at the
end of the walk, when I run my fingers through the
dogs fur to check for foxtails and other stowaways.
If these stay in his fur too long, they can burrow into the
skin and get infected. Many of the plants along the trail
use these stubborn burrs to transport seeds to new
Looking at these thorny hitchhikers in a new way led George
de Mestral to a creation that symbolizes, for many, life in
the 1980s: Velcro. On a hike through the woods, these
burrs seemed to jump out at him, plastering his socks and
pants with a prickly blanket. He stopped to pry them
loose, wondering what made them so tough to shake. De
Mestral realized the hooked arms of the burrs could lock
into the weave of his clothes. By mimicking the
burrs design, he created his own hook-and-loop
fastener that started to appear on tennis shoes, clothing,
and even in the space shuttle.
Returning to nature for inspiration has resulted in
discoveries that have blended in to my daily life. During
my walks, I often mull over the words I want to set on
paper, but I usually take for granted the basic writing
tools needed to begin my work. Even the reams of paper that
stack up beneath my desk have been shaped by thinkers whose
ideas were inspired by nature.
One 18th century French scientist took a stroll in the woods that
lead to such a discovery. Réne-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur,
a bug lover at heart, went out one day to observe his favorite small
creatures. On the walk, he noticed an empty wasps nest. Having no
barbed occupants to fear, he couldnt resist peering into the
abandoned home. The scientists chance inspection inspired an idea
that may well have contributed as much as Gutenbergs
printing press to the spread of the printed word.
Réaumur, a renowned scholar in physics, mathematics,
and chemical engineering, struggled with a perennial
challenge in the scientific community: publishing his work.
Scientists today share this concern, but
Réaumurs problem was even more severe. There
simply wasnt enough paper on which to print
scientific discourse, journals, or anything else.
Centuries before Réaumur, Chinese, Egyptian, and
Mayan people had all worked out methods to make paper from
what they found around them. With the advent of the
printing press in the fifteenth century, Europeans became
seriously interested in papermaking. They started to make
paper from rags, a carryover from the Chinese method.
As the years went on, the lowly rag became a hot commodity
as more and more people began to see that paper could be
used for tasks from sending letters to making buildings.
There werent enough old clothes and blankets for the
shredding to keep up with the demand for paper. People
started to rip up their books, writing letters to friends
and family around the stories already printed on the page.
Réaumur and his contemporaries were frustrated. How
could they show other scientists their work when there
wasnt anything to print it on? In the midst of his
more-technical research in steel production, he held on to
his fascination with insects. As Réaumur
looked closely at the nest on his walk, he may have been
surprised by its light, thin walls. Without any noticeable
bedsheets to build their home from, the wasps were making
The woods surrounding the nest held the key.
Réaumur realized wasps made their lantern-like nest
out of the twigs and branches that littered the forest
floor. The scientist, who had studied bird digestive
systems for years, suspected that the wasps stomachs
held the paper factory. After several months of exploring
the insects wood-chewing habits, he reported his
findings to the French Royal Academy in 1719. "The American
wasps make a very fine paper," Réaumur wrote.
"They extract the fiber of common wood and teach us
that one can make paper from fibers of plants without the
use of rags or linens, and seem to invite us to try whether
we cannot make fine and good paper from the use of certain
Although Réaumur had found a better way to make
paper, none of his works appeared on the woody sheets in
his lifetime. His ideas resurfaced one hundred years later
in Germany, where several inventors created working
versions of a wood-grinding paper machine after reading
Réaumurs work. In 1868, the first wood-based
newspaper hit the stands in New York. Now paper holds
precious secrets and throwaway visions; it is saved,
shredded, framed, and recycled.
The wasps original work has found its way into my
house. Sheets of paper filled with illustrations of
red-tufted woodpeckers, photographs of the white foam of a
crashing wave, a sketch of a fir tree topped with snow:
these pictures fill my bookshelves and plaster the
refrigerator door, the bare walls. The simple beauty of
natures design has come inside with me, in these
small replicas of the life around me.
The beauty of nature may satisfy those who search for
solutions. A French mathematician, Jules Henri
Poincaré, suggested that nature serves its own
purpose, apart from the successes and failures of science.
"The scientist does not study nature because it is
useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he
delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not
beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature
were not worth knowing, life would not be worth
And if the answers still flicker out of reach, a quiet walk
in the woods may put the mind at ease. For what idea could
not grow where seeds sprout, where pollen sails, where
wasps chew slowly, building a nest.