Patterns in the Natural World and Nature as Measure

The spirals on a snail´s shell, the ripples of wave currents seen from an airplane, the careful branching out of a tree´s limbs, a river deltas or the small veins inside a leaf: all of these are much more than pure coincidence, but rather the result of the pattern design of the natural world. While almost everyone, at some time in their life or another, has fallen in love with the natural beauty of the stunning patterns that Nature offers us, very few people ever question what those patterns mean and why they have come to exist.

The Lack of Pattern in Our Modern-Day World

When you compare the patterns and designs of nature to the supposed design of many of the manmade structures, land use forms, and other infrastructure, the first thing that you´ll find is the complete lack of aesthetics that comes with the industrialized world. The gentle curvature of a river meandering throughout the forest before branching into the delta while entering the sea is pattern that seems to have been carefully and meaningfully adapted to the surrounding landscape.

Compare that natural pattern to the disaster of urban sprawl; buildings going up, cement being poured, streets zigging this way and that way all to further impose our species domination over the land we inhabit. Our industrial, consumer-driven society has virtually no connection with the patterns of the natural world, and instead of attempting to adapt our civilization to the patterns of the world around us, the rubrics of our design don´t follow from the same set of values and principles.

Consider the building of a prototypical suburban neighborhood. Some contractor buys up a large piece of land, probably from a farmer or rancher who can no longer afford the taxes on his or her land that is being “eaten up” by the city. The first order of business is to knock down a good number of trees that are in the way of the proposed plan of development and bring in the bulldozers to level out places for house development and streets.

When the streets are in and house construction begins, the architect and contractor take absolutely no consideration of the natural elements such as how to position the house for maximum solar gain or how to protect the houses they build from the cold and wind. Rather, maximizing profitability is the name of the game; trying to fit as many units into the subdivision as possible. The end result is usually a drab looking neighborhood with virtually no resemblance to the natural patterns.

What Are Some of the Most Common Natural Patterns?

There are dozens of patterns in the natural world that emerge in different landscapes, in different plants and animals, and even on continental levels related to climatic patterns. Below we´ll look at a few of the most common natural patterns and where they emerge in the natural world.
Spirals: These are some of the most common natural patterns found in seashells, ram´s horns, DNA, and other places throughout nature. From a design perspective, they help to enhance the flow of energy and maintain the energy longer than straight lines.

– Branches: The branching pattern can be seen everywhere from the lightning bolts to river deltas to leaf veins to of course the branches on a tree. This pattern helps to connect and disperse energy over larger areas.

– Waves: The wave pattern is most often seen when looking at the ocean from above. However, you can also see wave pattern in nature when the wind blows through the grass. From a design perspective, this pattern helps to increase edge which in turn increases your overall productivity.

– Fibonacci Spiral: This is one of nature´s most amazing natural patterns found in the inside of certain flowers like sunflowers and fruits like pineapple. This complex spiral pattern, which has complex mathematical realities, also helps to maximize energy flows.

Why Does Nature Allow for Patterns to Emerge?

While all of these patterns that emerge in the natural world are certainly aesthetically beautiful and pleasing to the eye, they offer much more function and purpose than simply being a good shot for your Instagram page.

The patterns that emerge in Nature exist as a way to maximize the efficiency of the energy flowing through the natural world and best utilize the available energy for the needs of different lifeforms. For permaculture designers, these patterns can similarly be utilized to either increase energy flow or slow it down, depending on how the energy affects your overall system design.

Nature as Measure

One of the most important lessons that we as a species urgently need to learn is that we cannot continue to impose our hubris on the world around us. The anthropocentrism that defines our current civilization has ignored the natural world and seen as it than nothing more than an infinite mine to provide us with the raw materials we want and as an endless sink to suck up the continuous stream of waste we produce.

This type of relationship is not sustainable and simply cannot continue to exist. Rather, we need to take Nature as our measure; evaluating our lives and livelihoods not by how economically profitable they might be, but rather how they might best respect the boundaries that allow for all life to flourish. One of the best ways to do that is through discovering the patterns that emerge throughout the natural world and model our own civilization on these energy-enhancing natural patterns.

Tobias Roberts

After working in the development industry for over a decade, Tobias decided it was time to stop advising Central American farmers how to do things if he didn´t have a piece of land to live coherently with what he taught. Together with his family he runs a small agro-forestry farm, tourism cooperative, and natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador.

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