Photo essay: Patterns

The world around us proves to be replete with them

Ripples in a pond conceal the beast underneath. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

A few years ago, I started building a photo album I labeled “Patterns.” It grew to 500 photos, making me realize that it is not just the way I SEE nature it is the way nature IS.

I can hardly step outdoors without noticing ripples in a puddle, the matching designs in butterfly wings or a mackerel sky that forecasts rain.

All four wings of a dragonfly repeat a similar intricate design. So do bird feathers, from the simple — picture the catbird in Quaker gray — to the elaborate — a wood duck clothed in a kaleidoscope of color.

As I write this, I am looking out at a stand of pines at Oscar Scherer State Park. Clouds form the backdrop, but the trees take precedence. Beautifully balanced, the pines attain a perfection of trunks, branches and twigs, all working together to form a repetitive pattern. The whole is repeated in the details. At the end of a stressful day, they are calming — and beautiful to behold.

Remember 20th century artist Jackson Pollack, who dribbled paint all over huge canvasses? Critics dubbed him “Jack the Dripper,” but now scientists have affirmed the genius of his unique artistry, telling us there is order in all those messy paint splatters. They also have found that perceiving patterns (which they call “fractals”) in Pollack’s and other artists’ work is calming, just as I have found in studying the pines.

A Gulf fritillary nectars on a passion flower vine. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

What is a fractal? The Fractal Institute defines it as “a never ending pattern that repeats itself at different scales.”

Richard Taylor, professor of physics, psychology and art at the University of Oregon’s Material Science Institute, has made the study of fractals his life work. He is documenting what happens in the brain when we look at fractals. Along with other researchers, he has studied Pollack’s paintings and found that what are first taken to be random, chaotic drips of color are in reality highly ordered creations. Pleasing to observers, Pollack’s paintings command some of the highest prices in the art market.

Taylor’s research marries science and art, a starling departure from the norm. Perhaps they are all keeping mum about it, but I can count on one hand the number of times I have come across scientists incorporating art into their work.

It was not always that way. Centuries ago, Leonardo da Vinci combined art and science in his life’s work. Each infused the other. In mathematical precision, The Last Supper was laid out in one point perspective, a radical departure from the norm. The Mona Lisasmile resulted from his observations while dissecting human cadavers. The wings of a dragonfly inspired his invention of a helicopter.

If Jackson Pollack ‘dripped’ shorebirds on the beach, would the result look like this? Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Nature is full of fractals — everything from seashells on the beach to hurricane skies. Repetitive decorative designs are everywhere, even in seemingly chaotic landscapes. Woodlands, beaches, desert-like scrubs all contain a kind of internal organization.

Patterns in the Florida landscape change with the seasons. Summer is verdant opulence with dense curving shapes; the winter landscape is pared down to line, light and shadow in tawny muted colors. Both convey the diversity and the richness of the peninsula.

Summer skies are a never-ending progression of patterns. Hundreds of little puffs of smoke (cumulus clouds) that appear early in the day grow into dozens of towering thunderheads (cumulonimbus) in late afternoon, dotting the horizon at sundown. That is nature’s artistry of the highest order.

Repetitive branching habits of cypress show up in winter after the trees drop their needles. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

I have noticed that animal behavior is repetitive, too. The squirrel leaping from branch to branch in “my” pines takes the same route on a daily basis, just as the rabbit emerging from her burrow follows a proscribed route, feeding on grasses and flowers along the edge of the woods. As I am eating lunch, (I, too, stick to a schedule), a gopher tortoise — most likely the same one every time — walks the sandy road, feeding on wildflowers.

In the form of beating hearts and blinking eyes, repetition is programmed into us humans and the creatures around us.

At the beach, seashells — endlessly varied and invariably beautiful — fit into a coherent whole.

Fish move across a flooded road at T. Mabry Carlton Reserve during the rainy season. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Attracted by a school of fish, terns take off in synchronized flight, each bird equidistant from the other. As I photograph them, I am thinking, “This would make great wallpaper!”

In the dark of night, a loggerhead sea turtle comes up out of the water to lay her eggs at Nokomis Beach, where she first nested. The next morning, Mote Marine Lab volunteers follow her labored tracks up to the foredunes to mark the spot.

The sound of waves breaking on the shore — 12 to the minute in the Gulf of Mexico — is another aspect of the beach scene.

Seeds dot the backs of ferns. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

In my yard, a cardinal singing in spring elicits a similar reply off in the distance, like an audio tennis match. When the great horned owl hoots at night, it never emits just one hoot but a rhythmic sequence of hoots. Bobwhite calls his name not once but three times, over and over and over again.

Without even thinking about it, we humans incorporate the concept of fractals into our work, making order out of chaos. Landscaping, tile setting, roofing — it is difficult to think of a trade that does not require patterns. Imagine your bathroom walls or roof in some willy-nilly arrangement.

Lichen climbs on a tree trunk. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

Look at a multi-story building under construction and you will see the regular placement of drywall, insulation and electrical and plumbing systems.

Gardeners who equate beauty with order can carry that to extremes in a weed-free lawn. Devoid of life, the lawn does no good to anyone, especially wildlife (except for fire ants).

Birds and grasses both display beautiful examples of natural patterning. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri

“Perhaps it is human nature to seek patterns,“ Jay Withgott wrote in his article So Long Linnaeus?They rule the world —and our lives.

Understanding natural cycles helped us survive early on. In an orderly unfolding of our planetary year, we could count on the same times of sunrise and sunset as our planet followed its proscribed orbit around the sun. The patterns we see in nature are soothing. They feed our souls. Hopefully, they inspire us to take care of the planet.

Dragonfly wings have matching intricate patterns. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri
Indian grass has a lopsided look. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri
A little blue heron pauses amidst orderly chaos. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri
The pattern reveals the species: corn snake. Photo contributed by Fran Palmeri


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