Humans have long tried to impose form on nature and have delighted in the relationships between what pleases our eyes and minds by reflecting what we assume to be true. Driving through the Midwest one can see mile after mile of straight rows of crops, straight roads and straight lines, all reflecting our passion for the Cartesian Coordinate System. Some of us remember that from our early math classes, the number line being the basis for the concept. Pushing the number line into two directions allows us to mimic space and helps us to map our ideas and mathematical concepts. It seems that visual imagery has a powerful force over what we know and how we can learn and share information with others. Not everyone is visually literate however and we need our other learning modalities to be stimulated as well if we are to reach everyone with information and ideas.
Recently, a book popped off the shelf and called me to attention. It was on Sacred Geometry. Although it is a tiny book, it holds a great deal of information about how we “see” the world around us and gives great insight into the architecture of physical forms and how humans reflect their understanding and belief in structure. It elucidated much of the fascination with numbers and the integration of space and forms that reflect a very mathematical understanding of the world around us. The allure of rows and ranks, regular patterns and perfect designs can be addictive. One of my favorite tricks is the creation of a heptagon, or seven-sided figure. Although it is difficult to draw precisely with a compass and straight edge, more primitive methods reveal it easily. A rope with fourteen equally spaced knots can be used, or seven sticks of equal length can be used to create 1/14th of a circle, and through repetition, the form creates itself beautifully. Our eyes and brains are enraptured by regular forms and the mathematical tricks that echo order from chaos. The ideas are so seductive. One wonders if there are not celestial or godlike qualities that are contained within these shapes.
On the other hand, we delight in nature as well. When we attempt to emulate the natural world, we are often handicapped by our impetus toward order. Our ways of seeing have been forced to conform to theoretical truths. We have confused the sacred and the sublime. In our world of straight lines, perfect circles and box-like homes, we think of them as real and the natural forms that when we are confronted by sweep and curve, the paradox can be unsettling. The sublime order of the natural world escapes most of us because we have lost the language of nature and supplanted it with the reductionist approach of the mathematician or scientist.
Luckily, there are ideas and concepts that can lead us back to a harmony with nature that is desperately needed in our hectic, chaotic and decidedly un-natural approach to our world. Different cultures have different names for this. I like the Japanese term Wabi-sabi. In our age of mass production and mass marketing, there are few objects that I can point to, to get the concept across, but let me say this. The potter who leaves a fingerprint on his clay might have a chance at capturing this essential quality. The magic of wabi-sabi is not teachable and cannot be forced into being. It is more like the unfolding of the Lilly than a photograph of one. It is much more like the line traced by the tip of a bird’s wing than any mark you could make on paper. It combines chaos and order into a fusion greater than either one in isolation.
What we hope to achieve through permaculture is this type of harmony through discord that nature always reflects. Like the pearl that has, at it’s source, an irritation of the clam, so too our imposed order must take a back seat to the unfolding of natural forces that create fusion from polar opposites. This is the quality that draws us to forlorn homes that have fallen to ruin, to the bird’s nest, perfect yet wildly sprawling, to the clouds and sea foam, swirling, writhing and always creating new patterns as they respond to changing conditions. The oddities and exceptions to our expectations are very powerful forces in our way of seeing, but especially if er are to emulate natural systems, we need to include both the outliers and the pioneers amongst the patterns which we impose on our surroundings. They hold great power in the unfolding of life on our planet and for that power need to be respected, if not cultivated.