Illustration by Priyal Shah. Periodic Table Source – Synapse Bio, by Biomimicry 3.8

Listen to this Story
Narrated by Anjan Prakash

BEING IN OUR RIGHT ELEMENTS

Xavier, Mankurad, Mussarat, Malgesh, are locals. Dasheri, Badami, Kesar, Malgoa, Imam Pasand, Mallika, Neelam, Totapuri, Chausa, non-locals. For those of you friends who are not from India, no, they aren’t a list of my boyfriends or girlfriends. In fact, they are more than that. They are the varietal of mangoes tasted this year, so far. Like you would with a fine whisky, where you observe the colour-nose-sip-savour, with mangoes you observe the colour- nose-gorge-slurp. Some of the variety turn deep orange, others yellow, and a few continue to stay green and their softness informs if they are ripe or not. Next you smell and register their aromas, then you start to gorge even as your mind describes their texture and flavor profile to you – non-fibrous and juicy, or fibrous and juicy, or soft and smooth. Then you slurp up the juice on your hand, and quickly lick that which is running out. You repeat this as many times as possible in a day, till the season is ON.

Colours, flavours, aromas, the joy of fruits. Plants working hard to convert starch to simple sugars and pectinases, using various enzymes that make the inner part of the fruit enticing and sweet, even as the carotenoids or the anthocyanins lead to the variety of colours in fruits, attracting organisms from across the animal kingdom. What joy would eating or slurping be, without all this coming together.

And this, is only just the curtain raiser to, Nature in all its right elements with the onset of monsoons, that I am about to narrate. Stay with me as I share, and share I am, as there’s a reason for doing so.

Soil organisms and roots get busy with all the water, and together they turn the Earth into a wide spectrum of greens. If it is true that the human eye can see more shades of green than any other colour, I can vouch for it. In my one wandering, I made a list of greens that stood out – the very dark jungle type green, mint green, lime green, moss green, fern green, olive green, sea green, pastel green, electric green, bright neon-like green, the Indian flag green, emerald green, bottle green, yellow-ish green, tea green, jade green. My dear photosynthesis, how many shades can you make with just sunlight, water and carbon-di-oxide. I am neither a painter nor an artist, but these many hues, have already turned my eyes green with lush.

While wandering amidst such greens, I get a facial and hair mask free too. Wheel shaped webs of varying shapes and sizes by orb web spiders, settle on my face, mouth, hair, hands, as my now green eyes, fail to spot them. Apologizing to the ladies spinning the web, I thank them for the precious yarns that have now masked me up. Soon, I spot several mini-tent shaped webs, which my friends recently told me are by tent spiders, then I come upon delicate sheet-like webs in the ground area, funnel webs by funnel spiders, as well as the messy patterned cobwebs. Hats off, you skilled Spiders and material makers, how intricately you weave webs by transforming liquid silk produced in your glands into solid threads, and all this just protein, that have far better tensile strength and elasticity than man-made steel.

Green in my eyes, silk on my face and hair, now this tiny state of Goa, adds the next layer to this story. Nearly 500 types of mushrooms, stick out their heads from the earth, their fruiting bodies, with the onset of rains. They can’t keep decomposing all the time, they need to date, mate, and reproduce too. If in just the 12-15 pots I have in my balcony, there are bright yellow mushrooms, white mushrooms, brown and dark mushrooms, biscuit-coloured mushrooms, imagine what my wandering reveals. Many more on rotting leaves, wet grounds, dead twigs, on fertile soil and litter too. Paleolithic food-gatherers of the forests of Goa, are said to have found edible mushrooms, carnivorous mushrooms, medicinal mushrooms and mind altering mushrooms for their rituals as well. How can we ever be done thanking you dear fungal kingdom, for breaking down dead material using such strong enzymes, transforming non-food, into nutrients for yourself, and accessible to us all? We are yet to figure out how to break down lignin, making you indispensable to this earth for over 300 million years.

Anyway, right now I need no entheogens, or psychoactive magic mushrooms in this season to induce alterations to my mood or perceptions. I am already in an altered state, with so many elements influencing my brains. Back home from my wandering, I walk up the wet surface of the man-made tiles on our staircase, only to slip and slide as I hold onto the railings. It is in this embarrassing position, I notice a gecko sprrrrinting across the tiles and another one on the wet walls, as if they wish to show me how it’s done, and that they can even play on such surfaces. Ooof, show off geckos. Your brilliant foot design with millions of tiny hair-like projections that end in spatula like structure gives you such high surface area, that it creates the intermolecular force also called the van der Waals force, due to the induced polarization of molecules. I have no such feet, nor can I produce this adhesion force. But, thanks mates, for showing how adhesion can be achieved.

And if this wasn’t enough learning, comes Princess snail, snaaaailing away right below the staircase, moving on the slippery moss of the cement walkway. She paused, looked up and then with no rush to get ahead of herself, moved forward, lubricating her movement using the excreted sticky mucous from her gland, and all this on spiritual time. And then atop her, her shell glowed in the narrow shaft of light hitting her. Made from just calcium carbonate, and very little protein secreted from her cells, she makes this shell through self-assembly, as she grows. Snails are always on zen-spiritual time, and she sure has come with multiple messages for me to show non-friction movement, how are structures assembled, and how to slow down. All noted Princess snail.

Not sprrrrinting since I realized I am not a gecko, and so moving into zen spiritual time like the snail, I decide to just sit near my garden. But hey can Anjan sit, and so if curiosity killed the cat, mine had me stung. In trying to check out a cleverly positioned mud lump that had covered a bicycle handle hole, Ms. Mother Wasp gave me a bit of a sting, in defense, sending a message to step right back. Never cross boundaries and go around poking one’s nose in someone else’s business. My mom had told me so, too.

The interplay of the right elements soon progresses into post sunset. Excited to sit in the balcony to listen to the evening orchestra of crickets, frogs and more, I had an early shower, and as I walked to my room, something made me look up at the ceiling, something black. A moving, something black. Oh, it wasn’t just black, it spread across half the ceiling of our room. A closer look and voila, these were several colonies of ants, along with their respective queens, each of them carrying the tiny white eggs, migrating. Nearly 6-7 colonies, and each colony of over a hundred ants moving together, with their big queen. Imagine the amount of pheromones in the air, no wonder it reached me too. We messaged a friend to understand this totally new phenomenon for us, and she explained that they are trying to move from their wet nests into a drier new home. What effective and efficient pheromone communication must have unfolded to self-organize such a well-coordinated mass migration. Master Ants, every single day I watch you, you don’t fail to blow my mind with your hard work, commitment, focus and intelligence. With black clouds passing our ceiling, we stepped out into the balcony, with a glass of wine, shutting out all the lights, as hint-hint, there’s another stellar something.

Tan-ta-dan, the grand finale of this monsoon musical – Fireflies. Fireflies fill the nights just a month into the monsoons. Flashing lights unique to each one of them, waiting for the right female to find them. This pulsing of the light, on and off, happens as oxygen gushes into their organs to combine with carbon, luciferin, and ATP molecule, to react, produce light and glow. Oh Fireflies, you guys make cold bioluminescent light in your body, beam it, and I a female, am so full in my heart with love for you, night after night, many a night. Thank you.

Colours, smells and flavours of mangoes and other fruits, photosynthesis in the greens, the spinning silks from the glands, decomposing dead material like mushrooms, van der waals force that allows the geckos to stick to walls, lubricating mucous of the snail as well as the self-assembly of its growing shell, defense sting of the mother wasp, highly advanced pheromone communication in ants colonies, light producing organs of fireflies, what an amazing peep into this theatrical monsoon performance in nature!

Mark Dorfman, Biomimicry Chemist and Senior Principal with Biomimicry 3.8, reiterates, `Nature is Alive with Chemistry. It is a misconception that chemicals are man-made entities that contaminate an otherwise chemical-free natural world. Organisms that live on land, water or air, whether fly or flower, swim or slither, single-celled or complex multi-celled organisms, they are all alive with chemistry.’

The first time I heard him share this, I was totally perplexed.
What, all this is chemistry?
I had been telling the world since I was young, how I disliked chemistry in school, how school labs felt like I was imprisoned and punished, or made me feel I was really sick and in a hospital.
And this awe-inspiring stuff going on around me which puts me into wonder, is chemistry!
 

A few years ago, walks in Mark Dorfman into the life of to-be-Biomimics, and describes chemistry is all of this magnificence unfolding in nature, and this totally stirs me up, changes my worldview or chemistry-view, makes me fall in love with chemistry for the first time, makes me wonder why chemistry is taught so dryly and boringly by teachers in boring classrooms, with chalks and blackboards and test-tubes, when such highly playful-entertaining-alive-mesmerizing chemistry is active, alive, vibrant and kicking everywhere, inside of us and outside of us!

Basically Nature has been doing chemistry for 3.8 billion years, and has solved for the same functions, that we as human beings are trying to solve: lubrication – protective coatings from excessive heat or cold or UV radiation – adhesion – colors – fragrance- flavours – strength – preservation – communication – material production – energy management, and doing each of this in a way that is non-toxic, biodegradable, high performing, and life-friendly because it is water based.

And then Mark Dorfman, as by now you understand is the chemist who makes non-chemists fall in love with chemistry, by making it joyful and accessible, showed us how the living natural world of organisms utilizes only about 28 of the 118 subset of elements from the Periodic Table, whereas human commerce uses over 75 of them, through heat-beat-treat methods, which isn’t biodegradable, can be toxic, and lingers forever in the environment.

In other words, the NON-HUMAN WORLD IS ALWAYS IN ITS RIGHT ELEMENTS. Maybe that’s where the phrase `you appear to be in your elements today’ came from, which probably means, the chemistry that’s going on in you right now is alive in a way, that it appears vibrant, nourishing and energizing to me.

If you observe the Periodic Table Visual that supports this story, carefully, you will notice, even in these 28 elements highlighted in green, the ones that are in the lightest green are the ones abundant in most organisms, which is Hydrogen, Nitrogen, Carbon and Oxygen. The rest of the elements in green, are found in very small quantities. The one in the grey boxes are not used by non-human organisms at all.

With so much chemistry going on around me all the time, how come this causes no harm to us? How, how is this possible?

Mark points out that organisms live, reproduce and rear their young in the same place as they do chemistry. In other words, he seems to point out, that it does not take place in factories and manufacturing units located on the outskirts of cities, like in the human world. And so, these organisms do chemistry in water, at ambient temperatures and pressures using Life-friendly elements. Which is why every step I take, is filled with chemistry, and yet each is contributing to the nourishment and balance of the web of Life. 

But isn’t there toxins even in the natural world we might ask? How different is that from man-made toxins? Mark Dorfman and the Biomimicry team brings to my attention how man-made chemicals are often unintentional by-products of manufacturing processes. Whereas toxins created by organisms have an intended adaptive function. By this they mean, that most of the toxic chemicals we bring into the world using the 75+ elements from the periodic table, are the waste of a product, process or system we are designing, whereas organisms produce toxins with a specific intention of doing so, maybe to defend themselves or kill a prey for food. Note, another key difference is that the toxic chemicals we create linger in the environment, whereas toxins created by other organisms after serving their intended purpose,  breakdown into non-toxic constituents. Isn’t this understanding about toxins in the natural world feel just right?

This is how my dear friends, I fell in love with Nature’s life-friendly chemistry. Oh, I still cannot wrap my head around many of the processes, or the way atoms and molecules come together or don’t, but I am totally in awe of the chemistry going on within me, around me, and now I am able to notice it and find a way to learn about it. So grateful to the Biomimicry discipline, and to Mark Dorfman, for showing me what is the real natural world chemistry all about, and its governing principles.

This astounding genius of 3.8 billion years is available to us to observe, study, learn and emulate in human commerce, as the functions the non-human organisms solve for, is exactly what we as humans are trying to solve. It is wealth accessible to us and around us in abundance. Many engineers, product designers, process designers, professionals from different disciplines, and Biomimics, are looking to these organisms including the human body, so we too can be in our right elements in the commerce we design and do.

So, thank you non-human world, and human body for showing us how you work with chemicals, and with such a small subset of them.

As I continue to wander, in my chemically mind-altered state, I invite you to take a walk, observe, and share what is alive in the season that surrounds you, doing chemistry. And I also look forward to hearing what this story brought up for you.

Thank you, for reading.
Have a wonderful rest of the weekend.
 
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