Patterns of the Wild

WHAT architects can create, naturalists find everywhere naturally: the beautiful patterns, structures, and forms of the natural world.

"When I am working on a problem," said inventor R. Buckminster Fuller, who knew a thing or two about structure, "I never think about beauty. I think of only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."

If Fuller had strolled around the shores and mountains of the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, he would have easily concluded that nature's "solution" here resulted in quintessential natural beauty, as well as being "right."

Take a close look at the tortoise's armored leg; the form and function of it are perfect for a tortoise. There is nothing wrong with it.

Move in even closer: Here is the scaly pattern of the leg's almost hexagonal shapes, slightly fretted, too, (and even a little geodesic), but not at all ornamental, as is the red pouch of the male frigate bird, or the light blue on the leg of a sally lightfoot crab.

The tortoise is built to last. Some of these creatures, now in a protected environment at the Charles Darwin Institute on Santa Cruz Island, could possibly have been living when Darwin visited the islands in 1835. Nobody knows for sure.

The conventional conclusion is to assume, as Darwin did, that only the fittest survive in a community or ecosystem. So the tortoises, veritable slow-motion tanks with the ability to retract their extremities, may be, as solitary creatures go, the elder statesmen (and stateswomen) of the island's wildlife. Man was their only predator here until pigs were introduced.

The unconventional conclusion is to suggest that a rather grand pattern governs all the little patterns: the details of the feathers of blue-footed boobies, the cactus needles arranged in a protective pattern, and the flipper technology of the sea lion as it swims patterns underwater.

All these creatures and plants fit here in Galapagos, and all have endured - at least until man introduced other species like goats, which can eat their way across an island in a few years.

"Architecture, like government," wrote historian Lewis Mumford, "is about as good as a community deserves. The shell which we create for ourselves marks our spiritual development as plainly as that of a snail denotes its species."

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