Jacques Giard: An infinite source of ideas
01 Nov 2023
Originally from Montreal, Jacques Giard was a keen observer of nature from a young age. “Certainly as a youngster, picking up frogs and looking at bugs and getting stung by insects and all of that,” he recalls. “It’s just the way it was.” He continued to explore the outdoors throughout his adult life, becoming an avid canoeist and cross-country skier in the Gatineau Hills near Ottawa.
“My academic background is industrial design engineering,” explains Jacques. “I’m a nuts and bolts guy.” He worked in a number of industries, including sailing and health care, before moving into academia. “But what really got me fascinated was the connection I began to make, as others did, between the artificial world and the natural world. When you create a product of some kind – a chair, a computer, whatever – it’s artificial. But some of us began to look at nature and the systems in nature, and to see so much potential.” He cites the example of Velcro, which was designed in the 1950s by Georges de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, who came back from a hike in the Alps with his trousers (and his dog’s fur) covered in burrs. He observed that the burrs were covered in tiny hooks that were catching the thread loops of his woolen trousers – and eventually created the extremely successful Velcro brand fastener. This is sometimes cited as the most well-known example of biomimicry. “Nature has been doing what it’s been doing for millions of years, and if we’re humble enough we can look at nature more closely and learn how it does things so well,” says Jacques. “It’s an infinite source of ideas.”
But Jacques’ interest in nature goes beyond ideas, and his hands-on engagement leveled up when he moved to the American Southwest in 1998 to take a teaching position at Arizona State University. At that time, Arizona was a development hotspot, and a small group of concerned citizens was working to safeguard the unique landscape of the Sonoran Desert from the pressures of the growing population. While hiking in the mountains, Jacques noticed volunteers leading hikes and helping visitors. He learned that they were part of a conservancy group, the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, working to protect a large tract of the desert, and he joined them as a volunteer steward.
He continued this work for the twelve years he spent in Arizona, until he retired in 2020 and returned to Canada. His wife, Mercedes Ballem, has family in Nova Scotia and spent summers here growing up, so it was a natural destination. But leaving the Arizona conservancy behind left a void in Jacques’ life, and with more time to give he looked for similar opportunities to help protect nature. As soon as he heard about the Nature Trust’s Property Guardians program, he signed up for training and dove right in as a Property Guardian for a conservation easement on the South Shore.
He was also recruited almost immediately for his photography skills (“because I must have leaked that I enjoy photography,” he jokes). “When I went off to grad school in England, I thought, I’m going to Europe for the first time in my life, I have to record it! So I bought a camera, and I’ve remained interested in photography on and off.” He honed his landscape photography in the breathtaking scenery of the American Southwest, but “Birding is new. Landscapes don’t move, but eagles are moving fast! I had to learn how to capture that. I’ve learned a lot from birders here in Nova Scotia about bird behavior, what to expect, and when to try to take what kind of photo.”
He and Mercedes also support the Nature Trust as monthly donors. Having spearheaded fundraising campaigns for other organizations on behalf of his university departments, he understands the immense value of monthly giving: “It’s your cashflow, it’s knowing that there’s a regular income coming in.” And he and his wife have also made plans to bequeath parts of their sizable art collection to the Nature Trust, “to do with what you wish.”
And what does Jacques wish? “It sounds cliché but – to make sure we have something to leave future generations that is as good if not better than what we have now. There are so many forces that fight against it, but this planet is the only one we have and there isn’t a Planet B. This is it.”