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Monday, September 20, 2021

Column: The plant lords

In a world of flesh and cellulose, who holds the power?  Do we, the flesh, hold the power to cut down the trees, or do the trees hold to power to relieve us of our air once they are gone?  This attitude of mutually assured destruction is the wrong way to go about creating balance.  Like it or not, we are stuck with each other.  But plants do not have to be a constant hindrance to human expansion, and humans do not have to be a grim reaper for the woods and forests.

This summer when I visited Floriade, the once-per-decade World Horticultural Expo in the Netherlands, I had the privilege to see the power and beauty of what can be done when man doesn’t just accommodate nature, but embraces it and folds nature and technology together.  A house that grows its own food on the walls, buildings made from living trees that heal themselves when damaged and home-sized algae reactors that can clean the air and provide valuable biomass were only a few of the innovations present at Floriade.

There were houses that processed their waste to charge electric cars, and lighting systems that captured natural sunlight and released it at night without any need for electrical power.  But even more impressive than the technology present at the expo was the cooperative presence of over 20 countries.  Each contributing country constructed a pavilion incorporating the national architectural aesthetic as well as a botanical technology innovation.  If we were lucky, the national pavilions were also serving their national dishes.

Chicken curry odors wafted and gemstones sparkled from the Nepal pavilion. Sambouseks from Turkey made mouths water from hundreds of feet away.  Wood carvings and jewelry from Sudan showed the artistic side of a country torn apart by strife.

Countries from every continent were represented, from Yemen and Turkey, China and South Korea, Spain and Italy, Indonesia, Nepal, Ecuador, Kenya and even Pakistan and Sudan.  Visiting each pavilion was like taking an international flight to the country itself.  The smells, the plants, the architecture and the garden styles were all emblematic of the host country, and all were as different as the countries themselves.

In a time when the world is becoming more and more concerned about our ecological future, Floriade was a literal and metaphorical breath of fresh air, reminding visitors that human ingenuity reaches beyond finding better ways to mine, cut and burn.  When our minds are set to the task, we can create art that we can live in, and industry that is beautiful to look at.  We can create self-sustaining environments that contain more biodiversity than any other place on earth.

This international and inter-species cooperation represents a new paradigm of where our society should be heading.  One country changing its environmental policy will have little effect if other nations do not follow suit.  What Floriade demonstrated was that even the most industrial nations, even the countries with their minds set on expansion, can do so with absolutely no harm to the environment.

The technologies that come out of such an endeavor can often bud off technologies that, even with no practical value, can provide an aesthetic alternative to existing technologies.  Hanging gardens in your kitchen, kitchen tables made of grass and flowers that will use the crumbs you spill as compost, the list goes on.

And just when you think that the walk-around naturalism is becoming too much to handle, you can take a ride on a cable car gondola 300 feet above the park powered by 100 percent solar energy.

Technology is not anti-nature, and nature is not anti-technology.  The two can coincide beautifully, and with better results than if either were working independently.  You do not have to visit Floriade to understand how beneficial such a mindset can be.

HUDSON LOFCHIE can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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