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'Nature Is All We Have, And All We Are': Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson on Tapestries of Life

Posted on 9th June 2021 by Anna Orhanen
In her new book Tapestries of Life,  the author of the acclaimed Extraordinary Insects explores the myriad ways that flora and fauna help to sustain human life. In this exclusive piece, Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson reflects on ‘nature’s goods and services’ – the countless ways nature cares for us and inspires and simply enables us to exist.

Let’s say you live to 100. If you are an average European, you will have spent 90 of those years indoors – in a building or in a vehicle. No wonder we humans tend to forget that we are still very much dependent on nature…

But we are, for sure. Even in our modern, increasingly urban existence, you and I are much more tightly woven into the wickerwork of nature than you might think. Nature, with its countless tiny, barely visible organisms, is what is holding you up, holding your life together. All around us, millions of strange and fascinating species work 24/7 to give us food, medicine, and a habitable environment, in addition to knowledge and joy.

The word ecology comes from oikos, meaning ‘home’. And ecology is, precisely, the study of our home. We’re not talking about living-room design, though, or the latest trend in kitchen styling, but nature, that teeming green outside our windows. What do you really know about your own home – about nature? About the diversity of anonymous organisms that you have to thank for being alive?

In my first book, Extraordinary Insects, my focus was on the smaller creatures. In my new book, Tapestries of Life, I widen the scope to observe more of nature’s finely knit life support system. 

I take you out into the rainforests, where orchid bees make perfume and pollinate the nuts you crack at Christmas. I show you the fungi that produce phosphorescent wood, shining so brightly that soldiers in the trenches of the First World War fastened pieces of luminous rotten wood to their helmets at night-time, to avoid bumping into each other in the dark. I tell you about ancient yew trees that provide us with cancer medicines, and the kingfisher that inspired the design of bullet trains. I explain how trees lining our city streets reduce the need for air-cooling systems and saves both lives and money. 

These phenomena are all parts of what we call nature’s goods and services, and that is what Tapestries of Life is all about: How we depend on the millions of species that run this planet.

Nature’s goods and services are often categorised into three groups: provisioning, regulating and cultural services. To describe them in a more easily understandable way, let’s put it like this: provisioning services are about nature as an old-style general store and apothecary, a place where we can pick up all kinds of products that we need: drinks, like clean water; food and fibre; fuels and active ingredients for industry; and raw materials for new medicine. 

Regulating services are about nature as a trusty caretaker that sees to the clearing up and recycling – to ensure that water, soil and snow stay where they are supposed to and that temperatures don’t go off the scale. Some of these functions are so fundamental to life on Earth that we could think of them as central strands in the very fabric of life, like the natural cycles of water and nutrients that endlessly repeat. 

Cultural services are about nature as a source of knowledge, beauty, identity and experiences. We can learn about the past by studying nature’s archives, in bogs or tree rings. We can draw inspiration from nature and come up with ideas for new ways of solving problems. For many, nature is also like a cathedral, a starting point for inspiration, reflection and awe, whether or not we assign any religious significance to it. 

In Tapestries of Life, I want to show you all the things that the wonderful natural world does so that you can see what’s at stake. And I want to point out the paradox in our creative relationship with nature: we have made use of it, but our ability to exploit the benefits of nature also risks undermining the very foundations of our own existence. 

We are just one species among 10 million. At the same time, though, we are unique in our ability to interact with one another in a way that enables us to make an impact on the entire planet and every other species. We have also, uniquely, evolved the capacity to evaluate our actions logically and morally from a greater perspective. With this insight comes great responsibility, and it is time for us to shoulder that responsibility – because nature is all we have, and all we are. 

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