It’s a Wrap

Nature is a past master at the art of perfect packaging

Written by Ranjit Lal | Published: January 5, 2014 1:01 am

Ever noticed how beautifully nature packs stuff? You can’t help but,especially if you’ve just shredded your fingers trying to prise the top off a can of sardines or just unscrew a sealed bottle. With nature,everything’s wrapped up right and tight,and when the time’s ripe to unwrap it,the wrapping virtually slips off itself. Easy as peeling a banana.

Look at us and other animals. We come hygienically wrapped in waterproof skin — gorgeous ebony black,bombshell bronze,sunglow yellow,lily (sometimes livered!) white,peaches and cream. It’s soft,pliable and though susceptible to injury,has first-aid and running-repairs on call instantly. And — with animals especially (and hairy people maybe) — the skin itself is further protected by fur,feathers or scales. Like any package,it’s got to be useful and look good too. When we’re babies,the skin is soft and deliciously pinchable,in the prime of life it shines and glows with good health,and when time starts running out,it gets all wrinkly and loose,hair falls,feathers and scales drop off. But can you just imagine what we’d look like if we were skinless? The mere thought is revolting,isn’t it?

Many animals and birds come beautifully gift wrapped too: tigers and leopards in their flame-stripes and dark dapples,birds of paradise in dazzling lace and tassels. Some animals,of course,like elephants and rhinos,are packed in tough,leathery skins that can withstand rough usage. The pangolin covers itself in an impenetrable armour of scales and rolls itself up into a “metal” ball.

It’s the soft-bodied creatures,of course,that need the hardest packaging. The mollusks that live in the sea pack their bodies into hard — and gorgeous — shells,in myriad patterns and shades. Many predators have learned and evolved nifty methods of “de-shelling” themselves,but that’s the way nature works,and for most,the packaging works. And it’s flexi-packaging too in the case of many living creatures. Caterpillars — which are forbidden to go on diets — get grosser and grosser and simply shed their skin when they’re in danger of bursting. Slyly,they’ve been growing a new flexi-one underneath. So do snakes. Insects and crustaceans,of course,have solved the problem of being vulnerable by wearing their skeletons,made of tough,light chitin on the outside,rather than inside.

Good,tough packaging is essential for seeds,and they’re past masters at it: hard on the outside,soft,mushy,full of nutrients (and often delicious) on the inside. Take the coconut. It’ll break your head if it falls on you,it can float on the waves from one ocean to the next,and the shell hermetically seals the flesh and water inside it. And so many other nuts are hard to crack — and very good at splintering teeth! Often,seeds come wrapped up alluringly (like in most fruit) in bright appetising colours and when ripe,are spurting with sweet flesh and juice. Even the fruit has its own packaging — its own skin — which is the first line of defence. Its colour and texture advertises whether the fruit is ready for the picking (and eating) or not. Once eaten,the hard seed passes untouched through the gut and is expelled far away from home to germinate and grow. Open up a pomegranate and check it out: rubies arranged aesthetically and protected by a tough outer package. Peas in a pod,so neatly arranged — and easily unpacked (when ready),just split the pod down from the top and it unzips,and the peas pop out. Petals of an orange even give you a pleasant tactile feel as you separate them. Split the petals’ skin and there are a hundred tear-shaped globules of pure orange juice beautifully arranged inside. For the most part,nature is aesthetic. Even new flower buds come lovingly wrapped in young leaves which gradually open up as the bud blooms and shows its face.

We,especially in India,have a lot to learn about user-friendly packaging. They’re better at it (if immensely wasteful) in the “developed” world,to the extent to which children will open up a gift,throw away the toy and play with the box it came in. But there are still a million lessons we can learn about how to get it right,the way nature does.

Really,it should be as easy as peeling a banana. n

Ranjit Lal is an author,environmentalist and bird watcher. In this column,he will reflect on the eccentricities and absurdities of nature

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