Celebrating Nature’s Patterns

I recently read an interview that the Smithsonian did with author and scientist Philip Ball about his new book, Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way it Does. I immediately resonated with the wonder and awe of Ball’s approach to capturing the wisdom of nature through a focus on patterns. As a scholar of biomimicry, I spend time almost daily photographing flowers and leaves; this constitutes my own study in pattern.

What I took away from this interview, and summarize below, along with my own experiences and thoughts, is what I consider part of the essence of how nature masterfully uses patterns. These principles stand out to me:

  • Symmetry: snowflakes boast perfect symmetry; as do some succulents and leaves. I began drawing mandalas more than a decade ago, inspired by nature’s geometry. Over the years, my mandalas have released geometry and embraced more flowing, organic shapes.
  • Asymmetry: not all patterns are symmetrical. Ball gives the example of a zebra’s stripes. My exploration of mandalas led me to asymmetry as an experiment, and I found that it was pleasing to make each mandala just a little asymmetrical and uniquely imperfect.
  • Color: nature combines colors in ways that can astound us. Flowers and leaves, clouds and murmurations in the sky, and rocks at the beach are some examples of how colors harmonize to create pattern in motion. I was particularly struck by murmurations in my biomimicry immersion workshop last year, because it is an intentional, moving, living, and adaptive pattern.
  • Mystery: science hasn’t exhaustively understood exactly how some of nature’s patterns form, and the intelligence behind the processes. This leaves us with a sense of mystery and awe.
  • Beauty: the way nature presents patterns can be strikingly beautiful, such as a leopard or cheetah’s spots, a nautilus, a seed or zygote developing (Turing structures), or the pattern of feathers on a majestic peacock. Beauty is often part of nature’s design for reproduction, but sometimes nature is simply a phenomenal designer with another purpose.
  • Purpose: above all, nature’s goal is to affirm, sustain, and promote life, so its patterns tend to be structured to promote reproduction, life stage, or camouflage. Examples include the arrangement of a flower, which is a reproductive organ of a plant; the metamorphosis cycle of butterflies; the color changes in chameleons…the list goes on.
  • Season: Supporting the purpose of sustaining life, nature treats time as a pattern as well, and with great benefits for all. The seasons are marked by profound changes such as turning of leaves in fall, hibernation in winter, and sprouting of leaves in spring, along with the phenological patterns of timing so that worms arrive as birds begin nesting so that there’s food for the baby birds. These cyclical, time-based patterns help life adapt to changes in temperature, precipitation, and availability of food, assuring that life carries on.

This brief examination of patterns in nature, inspired by Ball’s book, has left me with a sense of gratitude. Nature is an artist, a philosopher, a designer, and above all, a genius! May we continue to learn from nature as humble and observant biomimics.

Patterns are a beautiful and purposeful part of nature, and teach us much about how to sustain life.

Patterns are a beautiful and purposeful part of nature, and teach us much about how to sustain life.

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