Becoming Pattern Literate

By Staff

How pattern literacy can unlock some of nature’s deepest mysteries.

Author’s note: The following is an excerpt from a draft of a book in progress, called Pattern Literacy, which is my effort to describe how pattern understanding can help us solve problems and appreciate and grasp nature’s workings more deeply. I wrote roughly five chapters of this book and set it aside to write The Permaculture City, but I’m back at it. It’s a little more technical than my other books, but my audience is anyone interested in understanding how pattern literacy can unlock some of nature’s deepest mysteries.

What is a pattern? What comes first to mind are forms we see around us: spirals in snail shells and whirlpools, waves beating on a beach, the branches of trees and rivers, ripples in sand, the repeating geometric forms in fabrics and architecture, and countless others.

We usually think of a pattern as a shape or set of shapes, but it also can be an action that repeats, such as a behavior pattern. The idea of pattern includes variation, too. In most cases, the parts of a pattern aren’t identical. Waves, branches, and behaviors come in infinite varieties, but they are similar enough for us to categorize them under the same pattern name. One part of the definition of pattern, then, is something—an object, process, or event—that repeats in a way that we can see the common features among the results.

A pattern can embody wisdom, or an experience, that seems important enough to be passed down faithfully. Memes, mnemonic aids to memory, and even leadership roles such as “president” or “mother” are patterns that capture particular types of acquired wisdom that we don’t want to lose. So here is one more element of patterns: They are generative, creative forms that carry information worth passing on. They can teach us. Many cultures know that patterns contain knowledge. For example, the Islamic concept of tawhid, or the unity of all things, refers to wisdom gained by understanding “patterns within patterns.”[1]

Patterns also occur when materials and forces meet each other in a dynamic relationship, as when wind blows across water with enough energy and duration to create waves, or when social or emotional forces propel people into certain actions, such as rituals or repetitive behaviors.

When we see a pattern, it’s obvious that it was made in some way. The process that results in a pattern being formed isn’t just a one-shot affair. It’s well-defined enough to be repeated, and the definition of a pattern requires that there be repetition.

So the convergence of matter and energy that creates a pattern is not just a chaotic smashup. It has order and yields more or less regular results. In other words, the ingredients that make up a pattern come into some kind of relationship with each other, the way wind and water make waves. And the relationship has a particular character that stems from the qualities of its components and of the forces that push them into contact. In the case of waves, these qualities include the densities, relative speeds and various other aspects of the air and water. Because of these qualities and the way they interact in an organized process, the relationship unfolds in a structured, repeatable way that gives a more or less regular result.

Think of a whirlpool, a snail shell, or even a neurotic tic. These are all ways of resolving a set of interacting forces in an orderly way. There is movement and dynamism as a pattern is formed.

Patterns are the result of specific processes and interactions, and from this knowledge, we can predict and understand how the colliding forces—processes that we see every day such as growth, flow, and even conflicts—are likely to resolve.

For example, there are patterns that result from continuous growth or expansion. These are often spirals, such as galaxies, seed heads, and snail shells. But growth that is intermittent or pulsating, instead of constant, can give a different set of patterns, such as concentric circles or networks of cracks.

Pattern provides a link that joins geologists, economists, artists, ecologists and dozens of other specialists. The principles that guide pattern formation have universal features, and they apply across immense differences scale, material, or timeframe, and with little regard to academic discipline boundaries. Pattern provides a common language that highlights the connections among the world’s phenomena.

I won’t claim that pattern will give us the much-vaunted “theory of everything,” but it can show how a simple toolbox of principles can build the near-infinite variety that we see in the world around us, and solve design challenges in efficient, elegant ways.

Once we gain a little pattern literacy, we don’t have to spend countless hours in the lab or make complex mathematical models to understand traffic flow, incoming surf, or even some types of human behavior. We’re innately excellent at seeing, comprehending, and predicting patterns.

Pattern understanding can help us solve problems and appreciate and grasp nature’s workings more deeply.

Excerpted from a book in progress.

This article was originally published on November 30, 2016.