Ramblings on Biomimicry, Healing, and Our Collective Movement-Building

The author as a baby, chillin with his uncle on the beach. El Salvador.

The author as a baby, chillin with his uncle on the beach. El Salvador.

Whether we work in conservation, environmental justice, do adventure sports, or all of the above, we each have a strong personal connection to nature, and what it means to us. 

On my end, it began with running. In my earliest childhood memories I’m running as fast as I can, feeling weightless and free. My ma used to take me to this one shopping mall in LA, and inside they had these slanted ramps connecting the different floors. I would go up to the top of one, wait for the path to clear, and then sprint as fast as I could down the ramp. I’d repeat ad infinitum — or at least until my mom got tired of watching me. I must’ve been 4 or 5. This tradition would repeat itself throughout my life in different places; even in college, I’d find myself on rocky, switchback trails in the desert where I’d jog to the top, and then bolt down them as fast as I could, sometimes barely making a step or a jump to catch myself from eating dirt or worse.

Running was my first love, more than anything else. It was my first connection to nature and the outdoors, and the first thing that I recognized brought me peace. In 2014, however, this completely changed after a severe injury threw me, all of my races (Ironman included), and months — years — of training out the window (figuratively speaking). Although the injury and depression I experienced initially tore me away from nature, I would find mental and physical rehabilitation only by returning to it. 

Or, rather, by embodying it.

As my professional and personal lives blur the line more and more — and slowly inch toward becoming one and the same — I’ve been searching for different philosophies that could help guide me. The path to a particularly useful one began with the injury above, but I didn’t really know how to name it until the past few months*: biomimicry, or the idea that we can use nature as our inspiration for everything that we do.

Biomimicry is most commonly used in regards to humans creating a structure or system that is modeled after a biological process or organism. This definition notwithstanding, though, it can also speak to how nature’s principles might be applied to our personal being, how we interact with one another, and indeed how it can help each of us build resiliency in the outdoor activism we all strive to accomplish. 

Let’s start from the outside, and go in.


In work:
Movement and Decentralization

It always starts with a question! In this case: "How might we apply nature’s principles as a guide for our work?"

From a broad point of view, I believe decentralization is key.

Nature, examined closely, decentralizes itself. There isn't one thing that is all important or all crucial, but many things that contribute to its balance, flow, and processes. Case in point, when there is too much influence of any one thing on an ecosystem or community, conditions are thrown off-balance (think invasive species without a counter predator, or sudden acute pollution). 

Instead, at its best nature strives toward the betterment, integrity, and wellbeing of the whole; the flower doesn’t tout its own importance and beauty when it blooms: it is delicately important, simply giving when it’s there and so withering when it’s time is done, falling to the ground and giving back to the greater whole once more.

Trouble getting out of the sleeping bag. Yosemite, 2016.

Trouble getting out of the sleeping bag. Yosemite, 2016.

Decentralization allows for the whole or the greater purpose to be the focal point, and allows the collective effort to be longer lasting, more sustainable, and of course more resilient. I’ve been geeking out about this concept lately, and I think it’s because it gives me comfort that there might be some deeper energy that is naturally wanting us to find that balance, and it gives me hope that maybe all we need to do is start asking the right questions.

For movement building and activism, what are we trying to accomplish? Ideally, for pursuits of justice, we’re seeking balance and equity. So then, if each of us are distinct components in this bigger pursuit, how are we showing up to our work? Are we amplifying, making sure that others are being raised with us? Are we placing too great an emphasis on the individual (ourselves) rather than the greater movement (*cough tokenization)? Are we creating leaders, or taking too much space? Decentralization ultimately allows for flexibility, it allows for maneuverability, and it allows for failure. If one of us should fail or simply tire out, a decentralized movement can continue forth, unyielding because its power comes from many and not from one. Rather than a new hope — many new hopes! (Yes, Star Wars).

In this light, we can see how decentralization and biomimicry could be applied within ourselves.

In me and in us:
Am I the butterfly, the flower, or the tree? Or the marmot, who knows.

It took that injury (plus a few additional years reflecting on my anger and sadness) for me to start considering how I might shift my relationship with nature. Before, nature was always a destination; it was always outside of me; and it was something I visited. But because my athletics were forced aside, I eventually realized my mental wellbeing couldn’t afford to see nature in this way any longer, and I sought a new outlook.

There was nature, and there were these discreet teachings that I could hear if I listened closely. That same year I got hurt, I was doing this thing called ecological restoration. I was restoring nature, and through it, if I had been paying closer attention, I was actually learning to restore myself, too. With each plant I cradled into the ground I could feel the earth’s presence and energy; a presence that would quietly teach me what it meant to heal. To heal an area of land or to heal a part of myself required tenderness, love, and time. And, if I paid attention, it also was showing me how I could understand my emotions and growth through nature’s perspective. 

Both today and back then, yes, I’m frankly still the prone to being the angry, fierce kid that I’ve always been growing up, but during that first year living in a national park and the subsequent ones following it, I finally felt like the anger took its first step toward becoming more and more a relic of the past, occasionally resurfacing, rather than a constant thing worn around my neck and weighing me down. 

After all, nature could be angry — or at least seem angry — in howling winds and uprooted trees, in eruptions and earthquakes, in the collision prone path of a wave. But whether this was nature’s way of expressing anger or simply a projection of my own imagination, what I was seeing was still, undoubtedly, a process. A process that needed to be trusted in. A process that needed to be let. Whatever anger I felt at any given time could thus be applied this way too: it was a process perhaps better let free and be felt, with the knowing that, like in nature’s changes and seasons, so too were my emotions a reflection of an ongoing process and growth.

.    .    .

The beauty of a decentralized movement is that it is, inherently, less ego-centric. As a tool for us as educators, leaders, organizers, etc., this is widely helpful, and it’s what spoke to me the most: I could use this framework to help myself, frankly, feel less self-important and proud. If I could continuously focus on the mission, on the platform, on the movement, and recognize that I’m simply a vessel (and that many more could take my place (and if I do my job right, then most definitely yes!), then the pressure also falls away. I’m no longer (as) stressed, and I’m no longer worrying if there’s a place for me. The pressure not only falls away, but I also become more balanced in my energy, practice, and intention. This peace alone has meant the world to me.

.    .    .

I’m still learning. As that one saying goes, I’m no longer young enough to know everything. Moving forward into a new era for my athletic pursuits, work dreams, and general life challenges, though, I’m aiming to be more intentional in my approach and in my being: one focused on how I can serve as a complement to nature, and to our movement. 

Am I the butterfly today, flowing from one flower to the next? Making connections and “pollinating” ideas? Or am I the tree, grounded, unwavering, and offering support through my roots, my underground network (ha!), my solidarity, and my resilience?

I think that, like in anything with nature, we’ll see. But I have faith that I’ll be guided when the change comes.

You can find Michael on IG as @mikey.ae or through @brownenvironmentalist !

The author riding down Mt. Tamalpais.

The author riding down Mt. Tamalpais.