Thursday, July 28, 2011

FACE LIKE A MAP – Nature’s Telling Patterns

As fascinating and awe-inspiring as Nature’s crafts and creatures are, if we focus too hard on one thing, we risk missing a great deal more. Or, as goes the old expression, we miss the forest for the trees.

Nature’s full of elegant repetitions, patterns and unisons—swarms, grids, grains, textures and frameworks. And to see them we often have to employ a special lens. Sometimes it's a close-up lens; sometimes a wide-angle.

For example, when it snows, we tend to see it as a commodity—the pristine, sparkling-white blanket on the ground; the dense, backbreaking pile the plow leaves in our driveway; the stuff we carve into igloo or ball into snowman. But inspect a single snowflake, and you’ll never look at snow the same way again.

     In this case, the art isn’t in the detail, but 
     in the broad brush applied by the wind

On the other hand, pick up a grain of sand. What do you see? Chances are it’s a tiny specimen of quartz, feldspar, coral or shell. Usually not all that interesting, right? But drop that single grain, step back and put on your wide-angle lens. Only then do you appreciate how, in this case, the art isn’t in the detail, but in the broad brush applied by the wind: the elegant undulations of sand dunes.

Micro or macro, it’s not hard to think of other natural patterns: roiling schools of baitfish or flocks of birds moving in unison as if on cue, tree rings, bee hives, fingerprints, spider webs, or the honeycomb patterns on a dog's nose. I’ll bet you can come up with a dozen more.

Unlike the sand or snow examples, each of these patterns is either made by a living creature, or is itself alive. Yet we know better than to credit the intelligence that designs and renders these motifs to the organism itself; after all, in the whole scheme of things it is fragile and fleeting. No, it is a perfection that can only be ascribed to an eternal wisdom.

    What we see in crystals or honeycomb is the 
    deliberate precision of a knowing draftsman.

How incredible that Nature, with each modicum of new growth, always manages to set each molecule in near-perfect alignment with the rest, and precisely in the pattern unique to each organism, each material! Despite the seeming randomness, even chaos, of much of Nature’s impressionistic brushwork, what we see in crystals or honeycomb is the deliberate precision of a knowing draftsman. And to witness this perfection, we need look no further than our own skin or our sleeve on a snowy day.

Patterns aren’t just amazing in their own right; they can help us to see other things more clearly. That is to say, it’s not the pattern, but a break in the pattern that sometimes tells the tale. For example, a great trick for spotting critters in the woods is to scan the regular vertical lines of tree trunks and the more random, lacy patterns of foliage.

An animal or bird, while very hard to see if you’re looking just for it, may be considerably easier to spot if you look, instead, for the break in pattern that it creates. A large mass in the otherwise fine texture of foliage, even if it’s not an animal, usually turns out to be something interesting anyway, like a nest, hive or gall.

   The “roads” on that map—the ridges and 
   furrows—led to all the experiences that person 
   had weathered in his life.

Whenever my father would spot a character with a leathery old face, wrinkled, one would suppose, by some conspiracy of age, sun and smoke, he’d say the person had “a face like a map.” I remember thinking that the “roads” on that map—the ridges, furrows and scars—led to all the experiences that person had weathered in his life.

Just think of all the patterns Nature relates to us as narratives of how its organisms and structures have lived, thrived, suffered and survived: the rings of a tree; a rock’s striations, layers of glacial ice...and, yes, the lines on a person’s face.

"Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry." RICHARD P. FEYNMAN


Anonymous said...

Very inspiring piece Jeffry. The face of the man is so compelling, I had a difficult time taking my eyes of it! Patterns in nature; one of the most connective concepts I teach to my k through 5 art students. We even observe a giant spider web, captured on a poster board from my back yard porch. Thanks for the reminder to appreciate the natural patterns. It strikes the heartstrings for sure. peace.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Dear Anonymous - Many thanks for the comment. How great that you're helping your students to make that art-nature connection. So many kids are losing touch w/Nature. Good for you!! Thanks for visiting OMW - hope you'll come back now and then and, if you like something, please share it with others.

Meg said...

Jeff, love this! Being able to discern patterns does indeed make me feel there is a Grand Designer. My grandmother used to refer to someone as "having the map of Ireland written all over their face," referring to an individual's heritage being stamped on their persona. Seeing genetic characteristics being passed down through the generations helps me feel part of that Bigger Plan and, at the same time, observing patterns in my own behavior helps me connect the dots and detect what works for me, what doesnt and that recognize some things I can change, moving toward my own individual highest form, like those snowflakes. Beautifully-written piece about a fascinating subject!

Jeffrey Willius said...

Thanks, Meg. I'm so glad you reconnected with some personal truths in my post. You are indeed a unique, perfectly beautiful snowflake! And thanks for the mention on Twitter!!

four friends and their friends said...

Jeff, it's raining. I see patterns in the clouds and in the way the breeze blows between the trees. I see patterns in the flow of the raindrops. I want to see patterns in the drops... is that expecting too much?
Or, am I being too literal? OK, I'll try metaphorical. Stops and starts... light and heavy... stops and starts.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Jennifer, since you've always marched to your own drummer, you can find patterns & rhythms any way you want! :-) Just glad to hear you're looking.

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