Perceiving Patterns in Nature

Image Copyright 2013 Sara FirmanBy Sara FirmanDiving Deeper

“The failure to perceive order and structure in and unknown city can upset a visitor in the same way that an apparently homogeneous forest can be completely confusing to an unobservant wanderer.” – Landscape: Pattern, Perception and Process by Simon Bell

Patterns in nature and pattern-making inspired by nature give me such pleasure and a reassuring sense of overarching, inexplicable purpose.  Not long ago, I took the photographs that illustrate this post while on a solitary meandering walk beside an Ozark river – the Little Buffalo in Arkansas.

On that day I was entranced by the surface features of rock and water.  But it could just as well have been varied plant form or land shape.  While capturing those images I mused that if I were a fabric or interior designer I’d want to replicate or elaborate upon them in my own creative designs.

Not only are we humans observers and users of patterns, we are also incorrigible pattern creators.  As for many people, natural patterns are the most compelling and attractive to me.  They have a quality of beautiful imperfection that is absent from most perfectly symmetrical or stylized designs.

This week I was gifted a custom-made swimsuit in a choice of patterns instead of solid colors.  No cosmopolitan flair for me: I liked  the textured Anaconda Shimmer but, since the maker said it would not stand up to much water wear, I opted for a clotted Mocha Mint that I’ll rename Lyrical Lichen.

Image copyright Sara Firman 2103

Patterns often offer us a deeper meaning or ancient symbolism, like the exotic snake scales that inspired that first suit design.  How we perceive and understand patterns depends on what we are looking for and why.  I switched my suit design for practical reasons, not out of any fear of snakes.

A few days ago, I was responding to the world around me in another way when from some instinctive awareness, while exiting my garden shed, I glanced down to notice a shimmering copperhead sliding out just ahead of me.  I understood her pattern very well, and stopped in my tracks.

I wasn’t expecting that beautiful viper, and she was pretty well hidden against the ground in the shade of the door sill, but my eye-brain sent a quick message to my feet.  Patterns are everywhere and it is by recognizing them that we can orientate ourselves correctly and, hopefully, safely.

Someone unfamiliar with the forest where I live, or preoccupied with retrieving a tool, might not only not expect to see a snake but fail to interpret its pattern.  Our awareness of snake is quite deeply embedded though; it’s always better to mistake a stick for snake than a snake for a stick.

Here sticks are everywhere, falling from the trees by wind or decay, often hanging decorously on a lower branch or scattering on the leaves below in ways that are interesting to notice.  Sometimes, I arrange them as contours to hold back water flow or criss-cross them under decaying leaves to create planting beds.

Image copyright Sara Firman 2013

Clearly visual perception is not just about detecting light but also collecting information about the world that is useful or crucial to us.  Depending on the circumstance, we look actively (danger of snake), selectively (noticing only things we expect or need), or passively (an afternoon walk).

My aesthetic involvement in the environment around me can vary from extracting valuable sensory information (it looks as if something disturbed this grass before me) to a contemplative gaze where no utilitarian objective is involved (how beautiful that smoky evening light through the trees is).

I’m always looking for patterns that make meaning (in the experience I have about the place where I live), as well as ones that are aesthetically satisfying (in the harmonious relationship of each part to the whole).  When I alter the landscape surrounding me, I prefer it to look almost as if I haven’t.

But consciously or unconsciously I am seeking order amongst chaos.  The wild world around me is not a random collection of objects that have arrived where they are by chance. I want to notice what is there and sometimes to participate in that ~ practically or aesthetically or simply appreciatively.

As Simon Bell noted in my opening quote, an unobservant wanderer in a forest might only see a blur of indistinguishable trees.  Every year, every day, I live in this forest brings a new awareness of pattern in terms of both detail (such incredible variety in leaf shape) and whole (the way a path curves among the trees).

One way to look at patterns is through the underlying numerical relationships. Euclidian/Cartesian geometries informed that study until Fractal geometry came along in the 1970s.  Fractals describe patterns that are self-similar at a range of scales, and can explain much of the beauty and diversity in nature.

Image copyright Sara Firman 2013

Study of patterns also reveals different pattern archetypes (like ripples) that occur everywhere in nature, and beneath each of the patterns lie the processes (like wind) that created them.  It’s a source of wonderment to speculate about those processes when you look at any landscape.

Several years ago, my forest patch was hit by a devastating storm, though an unsuspecting visitor won’t see obvious signs of that.  We’ve done a lot of careful restoration work, trying to follow the lie of the land, and to support the natural but unpredictable process of  ecological succession.

People tend to describe the pattern of the landscape based on their knowledge, experience and what it provides for them.  I’m not a forester so, although I’ve learned to recognize ‘good form’ in a tree, I like the strange, wizened and asymmetric trees just as well. This forest is a living art form to me.

Sometimes I do things I regret in playing creator (cutting a courageous sapling before I’ve given it careful thought).   I’m learning to slow down and consider things more broadly in space and in time ~ how does this want to take shape and how can I support that? Why should I judge that as unsightly?

Unlike the images shown above of lichen on rock surfaces, we rarely see objects without a background that is three-dimensional and composed of surfaces at varying distances (you do get an impression of that in the water photos).  When I take a walk it’s the fullness of perception that I love best.

Photos rarely capture that.  There is also all the other sensory information that completes or reinforces the visual impressions I’m getting.  When the sky turns a deep violet grey, I’ll likely also smell rain or feel pressure building in my body.  The same walk is never the same.

Image copyright Sara Firman 2013

As we move into a digital age where we can watch a film through 3-D glasses, sit in vibrating chairs, have aromas piped to us, I’m glad for the freely given ability to perceive and find meaning in the ever-evolving patterns of the wild world that unfolds itself in such variety around me each day.

A friend is teaching her infants to enjoy that too, resisting the pressure she experiences from other mothers to give them their own ipads.  She wants her babies to know how to seek out solitude under a spreading oak and lose themselves in the changing patterns of the natural world all around them. Some landscape designers involved in the restoration of seriously damaged places are studying the patterns in nature and our perceptions of those in order to try to re-create environments that are both natural in appearance and aesthetically engaging.  I doubt we’ll ever be able to do it as beautifully as nature does.

“How can elements as simple as rock, water, and time conspire to create such grandeur? It is a paradox of nature to see such a testament of time framed by spring’s ephemeral blooms. This place … has been written one drop of water at a time — a slow cadence of H2O, patience, and resolve. Over eons, these unassuming, tiny droplets shaped everything about this place: the path of the meandering river, the deep holes, the ripples, the dolomite bluffs, and the many caves and springs along the way.”  – To Heaven and Back on the Upper Jacks Fork by Brett Defur

Text and images copyright Sara Firman 2013

Also by Sara Firman: Winter Colors and the Spirit of Place

Sara Firman (Sulis) holds a B.Sc. in Genetics from Edinburgh and M.Phil. in Plant Breeding from Cambridge University in London and is a trained LMT Watsu massage therapist and an expert in aquatic therapy and bodywork.  Sara has practiced her art in the finest spas around the world, including her own Aquaest Retreat.  Currently Sara is a spa consultant, speaker, writer and author of several wonderful blogs, including Aquaest, Aquapoetics, Diving Deeper and Vision Spa Retreat.  She lives in the heart of the Ozarks.

Additional works by Sara Firman:
Celebrating Snake Power
Bath Tub Canyon
Forest sculptures

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One response to “Perceiving Patterns in Nature

  1. Pingback: Stiri scurte: 15.06.2013 | George Valah Blog

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