When I think of the early 20th century, I think of the pinnacle of the industrial revolution. I think of machines and smokestacks, the heyday of the rust belt. I think of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, electricity and automation. I do not think of a single thing that grows, nourishes life, and in turn is nourished. So when I thought about visiting the Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers, Florida, my impression was that I would be encountering the subjugation, not the nurture of nature.
However, when walking up to the estate grounds, you must first pass through an extensive nursery with seeds and plants of all kinds for sale, including seedlings descended from historic trees growing on the properties. The reason horticulture seems to dominate first impressions here is that while there are nine historic buildings to see, there are 20 acres of botanical gardens and more than 1,700 varieties of plants. Initially I could not see the connection, other than the possibility that the very wealthy have nothing else to do with their money than to decorate their lives with the most exotic plants they can find. I soon found, however, that decoration could only account for a tiny fraction of the “green” in place of “rust.”
It was bamboo that initially drew Thomas Edison’s interest to the site. He used bamboo in his famous light bulb. In 1880, Edison first began manufacturing incandescent light bulbs that could burn for 1,200 hours. One key ingredient was a carbonized filament made of Japanese bamboo.
Geo-political/industrial concerns, however, were what held Edison’s interests on the property for the remainder of his life. Between the world wars, Edison, his friend and neighbor Henry Ford, and tire magnate Harvey Firestone sought a domestic source of rubber for American national security.
One of the first plants they researched was the Ficus genus of trees. Several of these trees ended up in the landscaping. The champion banyan tree, brought from India, fills an acre by itself. After researching 17,000 plants, the search ended with a native plant that requires roughly a million seeds to grow an acre. Goldenrod, that native late-season pollen source for honeybees, sits on America’s bench in case the rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis), rubber’s star player, becomes unavailable.
This intersection of technology and nature roughly parallels my own interests in nature. For the first half of my life, my imagination was captivated by how humanity could use nature’s products to subdue nature. If it had wheels or could carry them over nature, I was interested.
But, like Edison, this interest caused me to study nature. However, to my intrigue and surprise, when I looked to nature to find building ingredients, I found a world already perfectly designed and built, entirely efficient, self-healing, self-sustaining, and ceaselessly beneficial to humanity.
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Joshua Arp is an ISA-certified municipal specialist, Clarks Summit’s municipal arborist and an operator of an organic lawn and landscape maintenance business.