Walking through the forest, I am at peace. A soft carpet of red pine needles mutes my footfall, while my eyes follow the trail ahead. It turns and twists organically following the Cascade River valley a hundred feet below.
I grew up as a feral child. Like Tarzan, I lost my parents at an early age, but was fortunate to grow up in my own jungle with forests, lakes, streams and swamps. These gave me sanctuary. The forest became my father and the waters became my mother. And even without adults around to provide context, I learned one thing; everything is connected. We are all connected.
As an adult, I still spend time outside. It has the same soothing effect it had for me as a kid. I never questioned this, but as I hike I begin to wonder. Physiologists say that it takes about 20 seconds in the forest for a person’s blood pressure to begin to drop. Is this just a nice thing? Nature always has a purpose in its design.
As I descend to the river, I enter a grove of ancient cedar. I am among old friends. Grasping a fond, I breath in the terpene scent and examine it. I am treated to patterns. Limbs turn to branches, branches to twigs and twigs to groups of needles and groups to individual buds. These are fractal patterns.
A fractal is a never-ending geometric pattern, that repeats itself at a constant rate into infinity. They abound in nature; the cedar frond, the ridge line of mountains, the sea shore, the twists of a river, snowflakes and prairie grasses all possess fractal patterns. Since humans evolved in nature and are visual by nature, we are intimately connected with these patterns. Indeed, our lungs and blood vessels follow this pattern. And we are captured by the ancient beauty in them.
As a kid, I also learned to observe the breaks in the patterns of the landscape. I seem to notice things that others don’t. The hawk sitting in a branch 100 yards away. The ears of a fox in tall grass. Friends tell me I now possess an eagle eye. But this is the way animals hunt. The fox understands the template of the forest, and when this template is broken by the outline of a pheasant, even though camouflaged, the fox is alerted. The same is true for danger. Fail to notice the big cat in the grass and you wind up as dinner.
We may be imprinted by our surroundings as we grow up. Do you prefer the mountains or the seashore, the forest or the plains? What grants you comfort? Does a raindrop hitting the canopy leaves sound the same as the drop that falls from that leaf? Perhaps patterns in sounds?
Scientists can now measure these patterns in a mathematical way. Assigning a value from 0 to 3 depending on the number of dimensions. For some reason those that fall in the range of 1.2 to 1.6 have the greatest attraction for us. The abstract paintings of Jackson Pollock have been famously analyzed for fractal patterns. Those possessing greater fractal content demanding greater prices. Then there is the art of Bonsai. The ancient rule is that the first branch should start at one-third the height of the tree and then the first twig after that and so on.
I can not say I have any world shattering insights based on the fractal patterns of nature. I get comfort in nature. I don’t believe we can measure the beauty of nature nor should we try. Only that we are losing our ability as a culture to appreciate this beauty among our structured cities and cell-phone-based lives. This is perhaps why we are increasingly separate from each other and from the earth.
I sense that this is not good for our species. The growth that obliterates our forests and wild places only obliterates our hearts and our minds. Unless we take each other outside and remember the templates of our ancestors, I wonder if we will see the cat in the grass that may be coming for us?
‘We are all connected. Savor the Earth!’™
L. Hobart Stocking