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Physics, Earth & Space Icon Physics, Earth & Space

Complementary Design: Nature and Gardens

Photo: A trail in the North Cascades, by Leaf Petersen, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

We are familiar with the compelling design features of planet Earth as a place for life and the abundance of evidence for design seen in the human body. But we may be less familiar with the complementary design of nature, the physical realm accessible to humans, and what I’ll call gardens

The latter of these terms denotes human stewardship of Earth. It is not my invention. The Genesis narrative, while proclaiming Earth “good” and human beings as having been formed with intention, uses “garden” as an epitome of their mutually beneficial interactions.

Consider some ways that humans have complemented the natural features of Earth to their mutual benefit. Complementary features speak of intelligent design in multitudes of different scenarios. For example, a key that opens a lock is almost always a result of intentional design. A radio receiver that can pick up a local broadcast signal as I drive my car across town involves multiple layers of design. Finding at a department store shoes and clothing that fit comfortably (although a somewhat rare experience) could hardly happen without intentional design. 

Our Desperate Needs

One of the overarching themes of the garden is need. Humans as physical beings are desperately needy. Air, water, food, and shelter represent our basic survival needs, and the global features of our planet have answered these needs for billions of people throughout human history.

The concept of a garden also embodies mutual flourishing. A vegetable garden can produce edible food, but we will flourish more if we learn how to nourish the soil to enhance the yield and nutritional content of the plants. Clearing weeds, mulching, watering, and warding off pests are all familiar activities to gardeners. Is the Earth healthier when well-tended? I visited a small-scale organic farm recently — just a few acres — and the variety of vegetables and flowers in all stages of growth was a thing of beauty. If land could express satisfaction at flourishing to its full potential, this small farm exemplified the mutual benefit of a tended garden.

Less Is More

Evidence of intelligent design shines forth when we consider how the complementarity of human need and tended earth enhances the well-being of both. But design is seen not only in the traditional sense of garden as a plot of vegetables. One of my favorite recreations when I was younger was visiting national parks and other wilderness areas. In these natural environments, the Earth provides the grandeur and beauty, while human involvement seems to serve best with the motto, “Less is more.” 

Hiking a mountain trail to a remote lake in the North Cascades would have been overwhelmingly difficult, however, without the efforts of those who made and maintained the trails that penetrated into some extremely rugged terrain. Many people each year find needed refreshment from the stress of everyday life by visits to scenic recreation areas. Again, we can discern design by seeing the complementary aspects of human need and the beneficial meeting of those needs through appropriate stewardship of Earth’s resources.

Shifting our focus now to the “need” expressed by humans for the products of our technologically sophisticated society, design is evident in both the availability of the many essential raw materials and in our intelligence and ingenuity to be able to create from these materials the astounding array of  products that most of us have come to regard as essential.

Did civilization need readily available fuel to power a developing technology? Fossil fuels, produced over hundreds of millions of years on Earth, have provided the majority of our energy needs for generations. Forests have provided structural materials for houses, furniture, and more. Limestone quarries have yielded building material for cathedrals and courthouses. The surface crust of our Earth has been enriched to provide metallic ores and almost every other element in the periodic table. A wide variety of these minerals are critical for civilization to continue to develop, including the transition to more “Earth-friendly” technologies:

The types of mineral resources used vary by technology. Lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and graphite are crucial to battery performance, longevity and energy density. Rare earth elements are essential for permanent magnets that are vital for wind turbines and EV [electric vehicle] motors.

Foresight and Design

In almost every conceivable aspect of our lives, what we perceive as a need can be met by resources made available to us by events in Earths history that long pre-date our existence. Foresight and design certainly come to mind as suitable descriptions of this beneficial arrangement.

Although this subject lends itself to avenues of discussion leading in many directions, I would like to return to the traditional sphere of garden as a park-like enhancement to nature’s palette. When visiting a beautiful park, one is struck by the cultivated beauty resulting from the complementary effects of the gardener’s efforts and nature’s resources.

When I lived in Washington State, my family visited the beautiful Butchart Gardens in British Columbia. This transformed limestone quarry is a stunning example of human design and stewardship, healing, as it were, a scar on Earth’s surface left from extraction of material to meet our needs.

With a former quarry as a canvas, Jennie Butchart envisioned transforming this space into a beautiful garden haven, overflowing with lush greens and colourful blooms. The result of her vision is The Gardens…

Complementary design is seen (and enjoyed) through humans imagining and creating beauty beyond the possible outcomes of natural forces or non-human life.

Nurturing Life and Beauty

In Tolkien’s Return of the King, Gandalf expresses his understanding of the service of stewardship, nurturing life and its beauty: 

…the rule of no realm is mine… But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task…if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994), 741-2.

Our stewardship of nature involves a choice. Choosing to put forth our effort and creativity to enhance and beautify the natural realm available to us implies that we are not merely physically complex objects governed by the laws of physics. We participate as sub-creators in a designed system — a physical realm in which our own freedom allows us to complement the outcomes of nature to our mutual benefit.