Patterns are pervasive. Visually, through repetition, they set up a rhythm that suggests order. We see them in the most fundamental energy fields within the atom, in the immensity of the cosmos, and the way we function, behave and spend our time. Machines, computers, and time itself reveal patterns in seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, etc. And patterns of thought bring order and consistency to everyday living, including the capacity to relate and create. Artists in every field look for patterns and incorporate them into their works, in part because they evidence and reflect universal patterns and evolution.
Human-made patterns are evidence of our ability to repeat behaviors and create objects and images that are consistent, even identical, and organize them into coherence. They’re strongly associated with culture, for instance, in building materials, branded shopping carts, clothing and fabric made of Scottish plaid, architecture as seen in Islamic geometry, and in values.
In Patterns of Culture, anthropologist Ruth Benedict observed that “A culture, like an individual, is a more or less consistent pattern of thought and action.” Each culture, she said, chooses from “the great arc of human potentialities” a set of characteristics that become its leading personality traits, and constitute an “interdependent constellation of aesthetics and values” that make up its unique world view. Here, a conception of the ancient Maya world view is reflected in the motifs on this building.
Nature-made patterns reveal the underlying order of universal forces including gravity, magnetism, planetary and geologic movement, seasons, climate, wind and wave motion, and the electric force to name a few.
In some patterns, the order is regular, for instance in snowflakes, spider webs, and fish scales.
In others, such as a tiger’s stripes, tree bark, and soil erosion, the pattern is irregular.
In a world where visual chaos is more evident than order, ordered patterns are stark. If the objective is to create an image that will grab the viewer’s attention, a highly ordered pattern would be appropriate. The downside is its asset actually, once the subject is identified and the pattern appreciated, the regularity can become monotonous and the viewer moves on. Above is a magnolia leaf.
If on the other hand, the object is to create an image that will capture and hold the viewer’s attention longer, an irregular pattern is a good choice because the eye wants to explore the differences. Here, because there’s more to explore, the attention works a little harder to appreciate what’s going on.
Patterns are relatively easy to find, especially in nature and where natural subjects such as flora and fauna are displayed—for instance, gardens and zoos. For years, one of my most productive locations for flowers has been greenhouses. The diffuse lighting is excellent. There’s no wind. There’s always a variety of plants. And unlike some conservatories, owners readily give permission to set up a tripod as long as it doesn’t block customers. The only downside to shooting in greenhouses is the limited growing season. Avove is a succulent plant.
Patterns are enhanced by eliminating any element that’s not part of them. More often, this means getting in close. In nature I plan my expeditions by searching locations—especially “ecosystems” on the internet, favoring places where patterns and other strong geometries are likely to be found. These include tide pools, sand dunes, forests, meadows, snow drifts, and water or wind-formed rock features.
Contemplating Pattern in Personal and Social Contexts
Pattern recognition is critically important in making decisions and judgments, acquiring knowledge, advancing the sciences and expressing creativity. Writing in Psychology Today, psychologists Michele and Robert Root-Berstein found that “The drive to recognize and form patterns can be a spur to curiosity, discovery, and experimentation throughout life.” They cite M.C. Escher and Leonardo da Vinci as artists who purposefully looked for patterns in wood grain, stone walls, stains, and clouds—to use in their works and to stimulate thinking beyond convention. Wanting to understand how Nature creates, they and other great artists looked for patterns. Any living thing that repeats a form, behavior, or process, has found a way to survive.
Psychologist, Jamie Hale adds a caution noting that “the tendency to see patterns in everything can lead to seeing things that don’t exist.” His examples of pattern recognition gone awry include “hearing messages when playing records backward, seeing faces on Mars, seeing the Virgin Mary on a piece of toast, superstitious beliefs of all types, and conspiracy theories.” I’d add to this the turning of a blind eye to the increasing patterns of climate change. Once in a while it’s good to look at our most repetitious behavioral patterns, the things we do almost every day and ask if they’re producing positive results for ourselves, others, society, and the planet. To get a different result, the challenge is to adopt a different pattern—habit. A recent little example of my own has been to reduce my use of plastics by not asking for an iced tea to go in restaurants if it comes in a plastic cup. Waiters respect this, even strike up a conversation about it. Now I make my own tea and keep it in mason jars.
On the social side, Tony Zampella, a sociologist, and leadership coach provides examples of exploitation in several area citing them a destructive social and environmental patterns.
In Labor—exploiting child labor, overworking employees without benefits or overtime, underpaying women in the workforce, forced prostitution or human trafficking.
In Production—flouting regulations or cutting corners to maximize shareholder value or profits, (think Ford Pinto, the GM switch recalls, the recent Wells Fargo scandal).
In Public policy— exploiting fears to benefit an industry or voting block (think the congressional ban on gun violence research, willful ignorance of tobacco’s link to cancer, and denial of climate change).
In Resources— ravaging the planet for political or monetary gain (consider the current fracking debacle, or the Exxon Valdez, or the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill).
As the behavior patterns of these and other cultural, commercial, and political systems break down, they are affecting a change in the way we think about ourselves in relation to the earth. As a consequence, we’re increasingly needing to rethink the workability and philosophy of materialism—that the world is made up of dead atoms, that human consciousness emerged as a development of complex brains, that the resources of the planet are ours to subdue, that securing property, goods, wealth, and varieties of experience are the road to happiness and that the purpose of religion is to gain a reward in an afterlife or beneficial rebirth. This, the “domination paradigm,” has been and continues to have dramatic and catastrophic consequences for the environment, the quality of life for humans and animals, and the ecosystems that sustain all life.
Atmospheric scientist, Michael Mann, writing about the jet stream as The Weather Amplifier (Scientific American March 2019), says “The safest and most cost-effective path forward is to immediately curtail fossil fuel burning and other human activities that elevate greenhouse gas concentrations.”
According to philosopher and social scientist Beatrice Bruteau, our best hope lies in the emerging paradigm, what she refers to in Eucharistic Ecology and Ecological Spirituality as the “communion paradigm,” the perception that the earth does not belong to us, that we belong to it, and that all things and people are interconnected in the web of life. (I encourage you to download and read Beatrice’s exceptional and brief article. It’s very inspirational!)
In The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era–A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos, eco-theologian Thomas Berry and cosmologist Brian Swimme show how the old sectarian story about how the world came to be and where we fit in, is not only dysfunctional but toxic to living systems. Importantly, Dr. Berry distinguishes the “environmental” movement from the “ecological” movement, the former attempting to be a respectful adjustment of the earth to the needs of human beings, whereas the latter is an adjustment of human beings to the needs of the planet. It’s why I’m always looking for leaders whose concern is “ecosystems” rather than “the environment.” According to Berry and Swimme, the basic tenants of ecosystems are differentiation, which is the foundation of resilience (creating and celebrating variety in all things including people), subjectivity (preserving the inner aspects of life, the “vast mythic, visionary, symbolic world with all its numinous qualities”), and communion (the co-creative, mutually beneficial interrelatedness “that enables life to emerge into being.”) These three elements are fundamental patterns in the evolution of living systems.
Of course, a change in perception is not enough. It must be matched with commensurate action by individuals and governments, religions, educational institutions, and corporations—as Michael Mann urges, getting off fossil fuels. Thomas Berry is even more adamant: “All human institutions, professions, programs, and activities must now be judged by the extent to which they inhibit, ignore, or foster a human and Earth relationship.”
So what can we do as individuals? We can develop a pattern, a regular practice, habits of recycling, minimizing our carbon and consumption footprints, support local and other initiatives in safeguarding or restoring ecosystems, educate ourselves and speak about ecology with family and friends—in person and through social media—and affect even broader influence by consistently voting for would-be leaders who are knowledgeable about ecology and make climate change a top priority. It deserves that status because the survival and vitality of everything else, without exception, depends on humanity getting into patterns of right relationship with the planet, the biosphere, and other people.
For further reading on what we can do, I recommend Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone (4.3 stars / 66 reviews on Amazon).
The human might better think of itself as a mode of being of the Earth rather than simply as a separate being on the Earth.
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