Look for patterns

‘Keep an eye out for the natural patterns that surround you, whether they are obvious, such as the spiral that the snail carries around, or less obvious such as subtle changes in vegetation on the lawns or in the parks you visit.’

Why do that? I wondered when we were given our permaculture course assignment last week.  It has proved to be a useful exercise – taking a lot longer than the 30 minutes our instructor suggested for it. 

It took me first to a book, Christopher Alexander’s, A Pattern Language,  that I used a lot in a past career.  Alexander developed this pattern language, comprising 253 patterns, for use in designing towns and buildings.  He describes a pattern as something which occurs repeatedly in our environment.  Others describe a pattern as a non-randomised,  His approach demonstrates that each pattern is connected to other patterns, and can create an infinite number of combinations for use in the design of houses, other buildings, and towns.  The patterns can then be used to guide construction. 

Holmgren’s permaculture principle #7 is ‘Design from patterns to details’.  This principle is echoed in Alexander’s book ‘A Pattern Language’ where he says, ‘The patterns are ordered beginning with the very largest for regions and towns, then working down through neighbourhoods, clusters of buildings, buildings, rooms and alcoves, ending finally with details of construction.  … Each pattern is connected to certain ‘larger’ patterns which come above it in the language; and to certain ‘smaller’ patterns which come below it in the language.  … No pattern is an isolated entity.  … This is a fundamental view of the world’.

Looking at this book and trying to apply the thinking to the ‘natural patterns’ that surround me, reminded me of the Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem Pied Beauty which is a wonderful evocation of patterns.  Verse 1:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

 And this led me to remember Louis MacNeice’s poem, Snow

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

(Poetry was part of another career I had).  Both poems hint at the idea of ordered patterns that begin with the largest (tangerine, for example) and work down to the detail (pips).  A single tangerine is, of course, part of a larger pattern – being one of the many fruits of a single tree, while the tree is part of a larger pattern of an orchard, and so on.

Going back to my initial question of why do the exercise?  Once I’d spent some time on it, I found it useful on several counts:

Building knowledge of types of basic underlying patterns that occur in nature:  I found these include the overbeck jet, scattered, concentric, spiral, dendritic, meanders, waves, foams, tessellations, cracks, stripes, and fractals.  Some I already knew, and some were new to me.  I enjoyed the ‘stylised tree’ as an illustration of ‘a key point to understand about patterns. No pattern is isolated in nature. All patterns fit together in some way, especially when you view them from a different perspective. For example, seen from above, a tree’s crown may present a scattered pattern; from the side, a dendritic or branching one; and viewed over time, a kind of overbeck jet. So, in a way, all patterns can fit into other patterns’.

Showing a different lens for looking through – giving a different perspective:  I hadn’t thought about looking at patterns as giving the ability to see the world differently.  It took me into browsing articles on biophilic design, something I’d been peripherally aware of in my prior design work.  Biophilic design links the human-designed environment to forms found in nature –  something that researchers find enhances emotional and physiological well-being.  The report 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design elaborates on this specifically in the section Biomorphic Forms and Patterns – ‘symbolic references to contoured, patterned, textured or numerical arrangements that persist in nature.’

Reinforcing and extending some applications of systems theory:  over the years I’ve taken many courses on systems theory as it applies to organisational behaviours and structures.  Transferring that application into permaculture is a fascinating shift.   It’s taken up in two delightful articles by Christopher Chase Rediscovering Nature’s Paradigm, Part 1,  and  Nature’s Paradigm: The Core Ideas of Systems Theory  In part 1 he says:  ‘there seem to be certain patterns and processes which occur in natural systems everywhere, guiding the development of individuals and galaxies alike.

The ideas in systems theory are based on careful observations of natural phenomena. They tell us how nature works, how all things fit together into larger systems and communities. Its concepts refer as much to cells and solar systems as to nations, corporations and basketball teams.’

And in part 2 ‘the many different parts that make up a system arrange themselves into coherent structures, patterns, activities and forms. This applies to living as well as non-living systems…. [For example] weather patterns dissipate energy and carry water over land in consistent seasonal patterns.’

Leading me to several other resources and info sites on patterns and on permaculture:  One of my behavioural patterns is to delve for info on a topic.  The idea of writing about the permaculture design principle ‘look for patterns’, headed me off in that direction too.  I discovered a trove of stuff – more than I’ve mentioned in this piece and more than enough to confirm what I discover whenever I enter a new field – it is only new to me.  I’m always astounded by the wealth of views, expertise, research and observations on whatever it is I’m looking at. 

And it also demonstrated that I am my own resource and info site.  On this one task we were asked to ‘Keep an eye out for the natural patterns that surround you’.  That meant actually looking, living the experience – not just reading about it.

Out on a short walk I saw the intricate patterns of frosted spiders’ webs, the branched patterns of the bare trees, drifting cloud patterns, the V-shape pattern of a flock of geese flying in formation, the patterns of pheasants’ colouring.  Everywhere I looked I could see patterns of one type or another.    

Thus, I learned: ‘Nature offers us a living library of wisdom to learn from, a world that often “speaks” to us, if we listen carefully. As one Native American leader put it, “You know, if you take all your books, lay them out under the sun, and let the snow and rain and insects work on them for a while, there will be nothing left. But the Great Spirit has provided you and me with an opportunity for study in nature’s university, the forests, the rivers, the mountains, and the animals which include us.”  (Nature’s Paradigm: The Core Ideas of Systems Theory)

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