Not another meaningless buzzword to make us feel all warm and fuzzy about sustainability. Please. Anything but that. Promises of green products and eco-conscious ingredients have left some of us rolling our eyes and suspicious of all terms referring to nature.

Nature-based solutions (NBS) is the latest term you’ll see highlighted in grant opportunities ranging from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to The Nature Conservancy. Billions of dollars are being leveraged to encourage solving human challenges by restoring, protecting and learning from natural systems.

But is all this rhetoric just the engineering version of “all natural ingredients” in the food we eat? The proverbial paper straw that makes us feel better about spending money? It depends, but for the most part, the idea is so simple and obvious that it’s a wonder we’re just coming around to embracing it.

FEMA defines Nature-Based Solutions as a broadly as “sustainable planning, design, environmental management and engineering practices that weave natural features or processes into the built environment to promote adaptation and resilience.”

In short, the agency tasked with hazard mitigation and recovery has noticed that certain things last longer than others and that sometimes the most durable and resilient solution has already been worked out by nature. Just because it may seem easier to put a stream in a pipe, bury it underground, and build on top of it, doesn’t mean we should do that.

Just because there’s a composite aggregate that looks just like granite doesn’t mean it will behave like granite over the next couple hundred years. Systems that depend on sealing the cracks between rocks with cement and grout will eventually fail.

Insurance companies are actually one of the main drivers pushing for nature-based solutions and funding their adoption. It’s not because insurance executives have suddenly become “tree huggers.”  It’s because they don’t want to pay the high price of rebuilding things when they fall down.

As many have noted, the ocean has been rising and falling since time immemorial just as the rivers have been expanding and contracting as they meander, overflowing their banks and altering their course. It’s nothing new, but large boulders remain perched atop bedrock for a very long time under a wide range of conditions whereas saplings with shallow root systems only beat the odds.

Some stones were dragged hundreds of miles by the glaciers or crushed up into sand whereas others held strong. Water slowly erodes everything in its path. If we don’t want our creations swept out to sea, we would be wise to deploy concrete and grout a little less frequently near the shore when rocks and bedrock can do the trick.

Nature-based solutions are different depending on the climate but it’s fun to try and start noticing what seems to stand the test of time with minimal human effort and what does not.

A few years back I remember watching as a stone retaining wall was constructed in the front yard of a home down the street from me. It was very pretty and the stones reminded me of the ones we used to sell from our farm out in Union when I was a kid. My sister and I always laughed about the people coming to buy rocks from my mom. What a strange thing for adults to buy and sell.

My mom was probably 110 pounds with long hair and not at all what most people were expecting from a rock broker. She knew the value of good, flat landscaping rock and the wooded areas beyond our horse pastures had plenty of it woven into quickly built walls — a payout on the sweat equity invested hundreds of years earlier by people as they toiled to turn the rocky Maine woods into suitable farmland.

My mom used the stones herself to build patios, steps and benches, but it still surprised my sister and me that people would come from Camden, Rockland, and sometimes further just to buy the rocks we had dragged out of the woods in our GMC Suburban.

Rock harvesting was the only time we spent in a vehicle when we didn’t have to wear seatbelts. My mom would let us sit on top of the bench seats in the back, pretending we were on horses and trying not to fall off as the Suburban bucked and balked at the decidedly not-so-suburban terrain.

Sometimes we would be out on the trails with the horses and my mom would see the “perfect” rock for one of her projects—some funny shape that was just the complement to another rock she had already laid down. She couldn’t get it with the horse but she’d go back later with the Suburban.

But aside from the few we kept for ourselves, it was off to the suburbs for most of the stones — at least the flat ones. Nature doesn’t usually build with straight lines and that’s probably why flat rocks are a little less common too. The natural evolution of things doesn’t produce straight lines but rather densely woven and interconnected patterns.

A natural stormwater conveyance system capable of transporting millions of gallons of water from Hosmer Pond to Rockport Harbor, also known as the Goose River. A nature-based solution so logical, we almost forgot how well it works. Photo courtesy of Alison McKellar

Humans seek out flat rocks to fit into their straight lines, so that everything can be built efficiently and according to a plan drawn up by an engineer — the type of line they can mow around.

The irregular and rounded rocks got to stay in Union, marking the edge of horse pastures and property lines, but the flat ones were sent off to places like the Camden village. Ultimately, my neighbor’s vertical stone wall with the neat lines and the flat stones fell down and was quickly replaced by a design consisting of only a few large boulders, some soil, and plantings. At first I was sad for the eye-catching stone wall but soon enough I decided I actually like the new design better.

Most of our built-up areas were long ago cleared of the rocks that held the earth together. They were removed to make way for smooth roads, hayfields, and later, the loam and grass seed that now partially enslaves us. Today, when it comes time to landscape close to town, not everyone has all the rocks they need or want so close by, and so they import them or they come up with a less expensive alternative like pouring concrete.

I suppose rocks are the original nature-based solution, and try as we might, humans have not engineered anything that can hold a candle to well-chosen natural stone when it comes to durability and even long-term aesthetics. The benefits are compounded when we can learn to arrange the stones in a similar fashion to nature, complete with irregularities.

Modern society has gifted us with the technology to turn swamps into high-rise hotels and build swimming pools in the desert and grow food virtually anywhere. We can create land where there was ocean and put deep-water dockage and bustling harbors where there were only mudflats. The science and practice of engineering has been obsessed with finding the limits of natural systems and then finding a human solution to transcend them.

Concrete, cement, and grout are a few of the things that we keep getting better and better at manipulating. They are wonderful for creating the smooth surfaces that allow wheelchairs and roller skates to safely pass but they should be deployed cautiously as a method of fighting the flow of moving water.

That’s just one small example of the type of strategy being encouraged by the bipartisan infrastructure bill and billions of dollars in corporate financing. What’s working in nature? Try that first.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and member of the Select Board. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board.