By Christin Rzasa
When Sharon Ritter attended the Montana Audubon’s annual Bird Festival with her son in June of this year, she had no idea that she was about to be recognized for a lifetime of work on behalf of wildlife conservation and education.
“Up until a few days ago…I was just kind of in a daze [over the award],” Ritter admits. Her son—and apparently several of her acquaintances around the Bitterroot—were in on the surprise, and she is modest in speculating why she was chosen. “It seemed to be around my ability to get people excited about birds and nature,” she says. According to Montana Audubon’s announcement of the award, Ritter’s “…patience and teaching style make one and all feel welcomed and excited to learn about birds and the natural world.”
Certainly, Ritter’s long and varied career in wildlife conservation has given her plenty of opportunities to share her excitement with children and adults alike. “In any job I’ve done, I always made time to do field trips with kids,” she explains. “I lead birding trips and I’ve taught birding by ear… I’m just so excited [about] nature, I just want people to be excited too. Apparently it rubs off.”
After attaining her undergraduate degree in Wildlife Ecology (from the University of Wisconsin), Ritter had the opportunity to work on a Master’s project in southeast Montana, studying bird census techniques in various habitats. That project inspired an interest in birding that has guided both her work and her free time. She went on to a career in wildlife conservation—primarily non-game birds—for the States of Wyoming and Idaho and the US Forest Service.
A turning point in Ritter’s career came in 2004 when she took a part-time job working with Janine Benyus and what was then the Biomimicry Guild (now the Biomimicry Institute), collecting stories about people who had “emulated nature” to accomplish various tasks. Then in 2007, Ritter was hired to help Benyus with book idea “…’Nature’s 100 Best’—trying to get the best models [from nature] that … either are or could be turned into ideas for more sustainable design. To get that 100 we gathered several thousand [models].” Those models later became the basis for the Institute-sponsored website AskNature.org.
“AskNature is a collection of nature’s strategies for survival,” Ritter explains. “They’re adaptations, and we organize them by function…For instance, how does nature collect water, or what is the function for some spiders putting UV threads in their webs [to protect against predation by birds].”
In creating the website, the Biomimicry folks explored both how nature does certain things and why nature does them. According to the website, this innovative resource can be used “…to find biological strategies, inspired ideas, and resources relative to your own innovation challenges, so you can begin to emulate the time-tested forms, processes, and systems that already thrive in balance with Earth’s complex systems.” The site offers over 1700 entries that allow users with design challenges to explore how nature handles similar problems.
Ritter’s enthusiasm for the work she’s done in this field is palpable—and infectious. It’s easy to see why she would make a good teacher. In 2013, she retired from her position as curator of information for the website but continued working with clients who came to the Biomimicry Guild in search of more innovative and sustainable solutions—“…a whole list of clients, including Procter & Gamble and Shell Oil.” Ritter also began leading workshops in Costa Rica and in Mexico for what was (by then) the non-profit Biomimicry Institute and teaching classes in a training program for people who want to learn about biomimicry. She recently led an eight-day workshop in Mexico—her fifth for the Institute—for students from around the world and of various ages and all walks of life. Her students included professionals in business, architecture and community development, as well as artists and product designers.
“We spend one day in Mexico City and then seven days [in the field]…one day of travel and visiting an archeological site in the desert, and we go up a volcano, and then we spend the next six or seven nights in an eco-camp in the rain forest.” There, participants learn about organisms and how they function, looking for “…common patterns and things you see over and over again” in nature.
“It’s a really intense ‘week’ (eight days),” Ritter says. “At the end of the training, we present them with…a ‘design challenge’…” for which students must find solutions that come from the natural world. Ritter explains, “One [of the assignments] this year was to create a backpack that meets some of the challenges…of the climate that we were in. Several of [the design challenges] had to do with the local community…” and the problems the residents there face, so the class participants could bring in local experts or go interview people in the village.
The resources available to participants in such a remote setting are quite different from what they’re used to. “Out there, they’ve got us,” Ritter explains, “and they’ve got their own ability to observe. That’s one of the empowering things—to be able to look and see for themselves.” The workshop staff is there to guide them and to ensure that the participants are using biomimicry to solve the challenge and not “…going back to their more comfortable way of doing design.”
The effect on workshop participants can be life-changing. “They end up being transformed, just really by ‘geeking out’ on nature,” Ritter says. She relates the story of one student in her Costa Rica workshop—a professor of mechanical engineering—who at the beginning of the course asked why they had to “learn all this biology stuff?” By the end of the course, according to the man’s wife, he was “…all about biology and before then, he didn’t care anything about it.”
Ritter loves bringing her students to discover these “Aha! moments.” She tries to help her students learn from nature, more than about nature. In July, she taught a biomimicry workshop in Stevensville for young students, ranging in age from fifth to tenth grade.
“I try to get them to see nature differently,” she says. “I’m not going to teach them about nature. I want them to learn from [it]”.
Ritter says she hopes the youth camp opens the door to more opportunities for her to teach others about nature, either in the form of more classes or curriculum design.
“I’m retired!” she insists, but she continues to volunteer for the Biomimicry Institute. She hopes to work for a committee that will collaborate on guidelines to help other people teaching biomimicry. However she spends her “retirement,” Ritter’s enthusiasm and her love of nature will no doubt continue to inspire others. As the Montana Audubon stated in choosing Ritter for their prestigious award, she is indeed “…an individual whose work exemplifies meaningful conservation achievement.”