On Biophilia and the Value of Interior Landscaping

`...that the naturalist`s journey will go on forever. That it is possible to spend a lifetime in a magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree. That as the exploration is pressed, it will engage more of the things close to the human heart and spirit. And if this much is true, it seems possible that the naturalist`s vision is only a specialized product of a biophilic instinct shared by all, that it can be elaborated to benefit more and more people. Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life.’

E.O. Wilson, from Biophilia                

You may have noticed that we reference and tag a word fairly often here at In Situ: biophilia. Biophilia as a concept was developed by the great Edward O. Wilson, biologist, ecologist and prize-winning author, who used it to describe humans’ innate need for affiliation with other living things. From the plants we have kept in our homes since at least the beginning of recorded history, to the out of work domestic animals we still keep around (there aren’t many professional mousers or herders among them these days, at least from an urban perspective- I’m sure there’s still work in the country), to the way we design our cities and parks, human beings have always surrounded ourselves with other organisms. Here’s another (admittedly long) quote by Wilson, who can put it all much more elegantly than I ever could:

‘I have suggested that the urge to affiliate with other forms of life is to some degree innate, hence deserves to be called biophilia. The evidence for the proposition is not strong in a formal scientific sense: the subject has not been studied enough in the scientific manner of hypothesis, deduction, and experimentation to let us be certain about it one way or the other. The biophilic tendency is nevertheless so clearly evinced in daily life and widely distributed as to deserve serious attention. It unfolds in the predictable fantasies and responses of individuals from early childhood onward. It cascades into repetitive patterns of culture across most or all societies, a consistency often noted in the literature of anthropology. These processes appear to be part of the programs of the brain. They are marked by the quickness and decisiveness with which we learn particular things about certain kinds of plants and animals. They are too consistent to be dismissed as the result of purely historical events working on a mental blank slate.’

E.O. Wilson, from Biophilia                

So while at the time the book Biophilia was published (1984), there had been no empirical study on the presence of an innate biophilic instinct shared by all of humanity. Since Wilson’s introduction of the hypothesis, many studies have been done that highlight the importance of proximity to nature and other living things to our mental health (see this literature review for a good discussion on some of the studies that have been done: Biophilia: Does Visual Contact with Nature Impact on Health and Well-Being?). Beyond all this, and at the risk of relying on intuition when so many of our human eccentricities are indeed counterintuitive, it just feels correct. At least to me (biased as I might be). Any client I’ve ever spoken with has always pleased with having plants around, and they often comment on how much better a place feels, which seems like mission accomplished and hypothesis confirmed to me.

But how did all this come about? Rooted in our history the habits may be, but the fact that humanity is itself rooted in the natural world is what has caused our deep-seated need to be surrounded by nature. We are the product of a particular habitat, and to this day we still find space in our urban centres for an approximation of it. Think of practically any city park you can imagine. Open grassy areas, with scattered copses of trees; sometimes a pond, fountain or the like. Maybe something somewhat reminiscent of this?
 

The cradle of humankind: the plains of Africa. Image © Gossipguy; retrieved from Wikimedia

The cradle of humankind: the plains of Africa. Image © Gossipguy; retrieved from Wikimedia


Our species came to be in just such a habitat, and we still seek these same landscapes for comfort, relaxation and meditation. We select our homes in similar ways: perched atop a hill, overlooking water, with a few trees (not too many) here and there describes some of the most sought-after property available (and indeed will often fetch a hefty price).

Turn now to the indoors, where people have been keeping plants for at least as long as we've been recording history. All ancient civilizations have depictions of potted plants indoors in the images they created, and sometimes went through great lengths to cultivate plants difficult to grow outside of their native environment (the Romans were building greenhouses even before glass was invented). It is safe to assume that many of these were functional from a medicinal or culinary standpoint, though the Chinese have cultivated ornamental plants indoors for at least three thousand years. Plant mania swept homes and offices in the 1970s, to an extent that has not yet been rivaled (though what those early pioneers of the interior landscape industry would have made of vertical gardening technology!). The interior landscaping industry was born in this era, and has persisted since. 

Said industry has often toted the benefits of keeping plants indoors, primarily from a health and employee productivity standpoint (I went through some of the science that these claims are based on here), and some companies have begun to reference the biophilia concept as another selling feature. They are certainly right to do so, but I doubt that many who belong to these organizations have actually read and understood the ideas behind the concept, and are genuinely interested in fostering the sense of interest and wonder in the natural elements we surround ourselves with.

What In Situ is trying to do (and what we would like to encourage the rest of the industry to try to do) is to create more of those moments when nature really takes us in, where time falls away and we are free to explore with our senses the structure of a leaf, say, or the contrasting textures or colours of different plants growing together, to go on Wilson’s ‘magellanic voyage around the trunk of a single tree’. We wish to recreate the forest edge, viewed from our comfortable place amongst the figurative grasslands of our urban interiors, which draws us nearer, showing us glimmers of the mysteries held deeper within. We want to replicate indoors the richness and splendour that has captivated us as a species forever, has inspired countless works of art, and that still, in the lives we live primarily apart from it, holds a special place in our imagination.
 

A photo of the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, a view of which prompted Darwin's words to the right. Image source unknown; retrieved from Projeto Entre Serras.

A photo of the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, a view of which prompted Darwin's words to the right. Image source unknown; retrieved from Projeto Entre Serras.

‘Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and decay prevail. Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: -- no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.’

Charles Darwin, from Voyage of the Beagle          

By using new and interesting species, and using familiar species in interesting ways, we hope to satisfy the biophilic instinct by completing indoor environments with the engaging natural elements that have been a part of our species’ evolution since time immemorial. When used this way, plants can create a kind of biotic warmth that tempers the sterility of many modern interiors. I don’t advocate turning every indoor space into a jungle (...): rather, the contrast between our manmade constructions and these natural elements are what highlights their presence and what really makes them come to life. The studies I referred to above seem to indicate that having these elements in sight from any area of an indoor space is the optimal placement, and this is the model that many in the industry use when designing their interior landscapes. It`s sound to me, but I feel it’s only effective if the elements are actually visually captivating: this is why we try whenever possible to use plants that people are not usually familiar with, and that have very unique textures or colours, or some other interesting facet to their biology that creates real interest. We seek to foster a true biophilia, through which we can draw inspiration, comfort and knowledge, secure in the surrounds of our earthly cohabitants.