Patterns are present in every aspect of our sensual awareness. Patterns are in the connections within our own bodies and mind, and between ourselves and those around us. Humans seem to have a universal compulsion to measure, depict and record patterns; yet they can also often elude us. To some people, patterns may seem unimportant. However, if you decide to consciously start designing different aspects of your life then at least a basic understanding of patterns is essential. This article explores the theme of understanding patterns as a skill and way of life.
Why are patterns important?
‘Understanding Patterns’ is a core module of the permaculture curriculum; as it says in the Designer’s Manual;
“If we are to reach an understanding of the basic, underlying patterns of natural phenomena, we will have evolved a powerful tool for design” Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, Bill Mollison, Page 70
Patterns are prevalent in all parts of the world. From the hugest galaxies flinging their spiral arms billions of light-years into space, to the microscopic molecules which make up the matrix of physical life. It seems that for as long as humans have had something which could be described as ‘culture’, we have been depicting those patterns we observe around us [i] [ii]
Because patterns are such a fundamental part of existence in this universe, you could say that it is not really necessary to ‘understand’ them. Indeed, as Bill Mollison and David Holmgren point out, much of the skill of applying pattern understanding in design is intuitive.
"we feel what kind of patterns are appropriate in certain places, without necessarily being able to explain why or how" Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, Bill Mollison.
Intuition and sensory observation can be seen as the first step towards effective design. However, if the patterns we create are to fit harmoniously with those created by other humans within the systems we are living, it is also important to be able to consciously define and communicate said patterns. This is one reason why I see permaculture as such a useful design tool. We can utilise the permaculture perspective to draw the connections between intuition and conscious design.
Mastering the pattern
Once you begin to notice patterns, it can be relatively easy to spot them in your own life and your surroundings. The Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual describes many different types of pattern. It goes into detail about where they occur in nature, what their function is, and how you can utilise the same patterns to achieve similar functions in your design. Learning all of these different functions and pattern types can seem overwhelming. However, one of the most interesting things about the way the information is presented in the Designer’s Manual is the idea that “one master pattern is applicable” for all the different types, and that, when you include elements of growth and flow, you can link all of these master patterns into one “single model form.”
The form chosen in the manual is a
The stylised tree links together diverse elements. These include; the overbeck jet, scattered, concentric, spiral and dendritic patterns, among others, especially when you include the patterns made in the medium of time as well as space.
Whether or not you use this particular way of mapping patterns, the “stylised tree” is a useful illustration of a key point to understand about patterns. No pattern is isolated in nature. All patterns fit together in some way, especially when you view them from a different perspective. For example, seen from above, a tree’s crown may present a scattered pattern; from the side, a dendritic or branching one; and viewed over time, a kind of overbeck jet.
So in a way, all patterns can fit into other patterns. Once you start to think in this way you can perhaps begin to play with them.
“The pattern is design, and design is the subject of permaculture.” Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, Bill Mollison, Page 70
Where we are in the pattern
The basic patterns which are outlined in the ‘Designer’s Manual’ can be seen in many common everyday phenomena. For example, the spiral of a snail-shell, the way water in a stream can rush suddenly into an overbeck jet; waves on the sand of a beach; the fractal repetition of a fern-stem as it grows; the tessellation of fish-scales or beehives; dendritic action in the roots of plants; or symmetry in the wings of a butterfly.
Once you begin to consciously understand how these patterns function, you can begin to start incorporating them into your physical designs, choosing the appropriate pattern depending on what effect you wish to achieve. For a quick explanation on how to work with common patterns and their functions, you can look at my workshop outline here. [iii]
Along with such directly visible patterns there are perhaps less obvious patterns too. There are patterns which are observable in time like the seasons, the moon phases and the sun’s position in the sky. Our ancestors arguably had a much closer link to such patterns. As many of us grew up in modern industrial society, we may have been subject to somewhat of a cutting-off from natural patterns. Perhaps with an emphasis placed on literacy, numeracy, computers and other human-controlled patterns over those based on art or wordless understanding. David Abrams book, “The Spell of the Sensuous”, makes good reference. [iv]
On a personal level this can be seen in things such as living in a house with climate control so that the patterns made by the weather make little or no impact on our awareness. Such conditioning can potentially have the effect of clouding our abilities to intuitively sense patterns in nature. This therefore makes us unconfident about implementing natural patterns in our designs. Coming to terms with the wider patterns around us which are invisible yet tangible could therefore be seen as a skill which has to be learned, or perhaps, rather, remembered. This remembering could take place as a simple widening of perspective;
“Beyond the rigour of the simple Euclidean regularities beloved of technologists and architects, there remains most (or all) of nature. Nature imperfectly round, never flat or square, linear only for infinitesimal distances, and stubbornly abnormal. Nature flowing, crawling, flying, weeping,and in apparent disarray. Nature beyond precise measurement, and comprehensible only as sensation and system. Nothing we observe is regular, partly because we ourselves are imperfect observers... Regular things are those few that are mechanical or shaped (temporarily) by our own restricted worldview; they soon become irregular as time erodes them. Truth, like the world, changes in response to information.” Permaculture: A Designers' Manual, Bill Mollison, Page 71
Observing and interacting with patterns
So now we have looked a little into why understanding patterns is important. How permaculture can help us to connect conscious and intuitive understanding. Plus the importance of re-finding our connection to natural patterns in order to become aware of how we can alter or enhance the patterns within which we are living. In order to put these into practice, the first step seems to be to follow the first permaculture principle. ‘Observe and Interact’. Where can you find patterns in your own life? How would you like them to be incorporated into your own design?
Observing and interacting with those patterns around us, which are visible in time or space, can be very rewarding. It is also an effective way to begin any design adventure. However, there are also many types of pattern which are perhaps more difficult to immediately map. The invisible patterns.
By invisible patterns I mean those which are clearly present as some form of pattern but which cannot at first be directly observed. Examples of these kind of patterns include the connections between different beings within an ecosystem, or between different human members of a community. These patterns are also present inside our own minds and mental structures. They are in the habits of communication which we engage in on a daily basis.
Patterns and social permaculture
In my work with social permaculture, I find that these patterns can be sometimes difficult to detect. However, once we become aware of them, we can be very well-placed to create truly effective change within the systems we are designing. In following parts of this article I will explore some ways we can utilise ‘Pattern Understanding’ in social permaculture. I will look at some key practitioners of this field and their work, and make some suggestions for how to apply this within your own life.
Don’t miss Understanding Patterns part 2: Patterns in Social Permaculture
[i] Mollison, B, 1979. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari: Tyalgum, Australia.
[ii] Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Griffin: New York City, USA.
[iii] Ashwanden, C, 2019. ‘Workshops and Resources: Understanding Patterns’. Abundance Dance Garden, 5/9/19. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2019/09/05/understanding-patterns/ – retrieved 5/9/19.
[iv] Abram, D, 1997. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World. Vintage: New York City, USA.