Pattern Literacy: A Guide to Nature’s Archetypes

The unfolding of the bramble ferns in the spring always feels, to me, like the unfolding of worlds. The tightly packed fronds, formed at the end of last season and dormant all winter, slowly emerge, uncurling so slowly that you can’t see it happen, but if you come back later in the day, you can see clear progress.  I like to meditate with these ferns, as they connect me to the deeper energies of the cosmos.  The unfolding of the fern frond, there in my backyard, is the same pattern as the Milky Way galaxy in which we all reside.  It is in this sacred pattern that I can see the connection to all things and connect with nature deeply.

 

Sacred Spiral in the Spring Ferns

This post is a follow-up to a great conversation about wildcrafting one’s own druidry that members of the Ancient Order of Druids in America (AODA) had in April 2020.  In this conversation, one of the topics that we briefly we discussed was how people who were new to an ecosystem or transient might benefit from understanding nature’s patterns.  In this AODA-themed post, I would like to offer some deeper discussion of this concept of pattern literacy and share a few of these “universal” patterns that we can use in our druid practice.  Patterns can be used as themes for ovate work and understanding nature deeply, but also for bardic practices (such as incorporating them in the visual arts) or druid work (using them for magic, sigils, meditations, and more).

 

What are nature’s patterns?

Within the human realm, we are surrounded by patterns. Writers like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell have helped us identify some of the archetypes within human life (the hero, the warrior, the mother, the hermit). Many cultures, including Native American cultures here in the US, have identified the archetypes present in animals (e.g. bear, wolf, eagle) and their broader representation. These archetypes are fairly accessible–many of us know someone who fits the mother, hero, or warrior role, and it’s clear to see how a bear might embody strength and protection. Thes archetypes help us make meaning of the world and to map our specific experience onto more general principles that are consistent across the human experience.  Of course these, too, are archetypes ultimately deriving from nature.  But today, we are focusing on another kind of natural archetype in the form of nature’s patterns.

 

Although it’s not always as apparent, the rest of nature also has its own archetypes, patterns that repeat over and over again; these are often explored in the practice of sacred geometry as well as in plant identification. Understanding some of nature’s broader patterns can help us connect deeply with nature, hone our observation skills, and engage more deeply with our own spiritual practice.   Nature is literally full of these patterns–patterns in weather, migration, blooming, wind, plant life, animal life, insect life, and more.

 

The other thing here that’s useful to remember is that ancient people knew, understood, and worked with these patterns in nature extensively.  We see them reflected among our most ancient sacred symbols.  We see them woven into spiritual and religious iconography, such as the spiral patterns present in Celtic knotwork designs.  Connecting with these ancient patterns helps us connect with our ancient spiritual ancestors, which I always feel has great benefit.  So now let’s look at a few of these big picture archetypes that nature offers:

The Spiral

After a cold and wet spring, the land is finally waking up and growing green here on the Druid’s Garden homestead. One of the characteristic patterns that can be found now is the spiral, as I shared above, reflected in the fern fronds. I also see this same unfolding patterns in the petals of Witch Hazel as they open in the fall, or in the petals of the New England Aster blooms as they die back and go to seed.  While we have a number of different spirals in the world, many of the spiral patterns found on the planet emerge from the sacred geometry of a number of spirals, including the Golden Spiral.

Spirals can be part of our sacred practices as well!

Spirals can be part of our sacred practices as well!

The Golden Spiral, and its associated golden angle and golden ratio, were well honored by many ancient peoples, and were worked with extensively by the Ancient Greeks. The Golden Spiral is a logarithmic spiral, derived from the golden mean equation, which has a value of 1.6180339877… (I can’t put the actual formula in here, but you can see it here if you are interested). The Golden Spiral is also known as the Fibonacci spiral because it is derived when you continue to add up the two numbers to derive a third.   0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, and so on.

 

Ancient peoples were particularly fond of the Golden Spiral, Golden Mean, and associated principles. These found their way into many other disciplines, like Ancient Greek architecture or DaVinci’s Last Supper painting.  The use of the Golden spiral in this way was another way that humanity could honor and connect with one of the great principles of the universe.  Speaking of the universe, the spiral pattern found in galaxies is–you guessed it–a Golden Spiral.  As above, so below indeed!

 

Major themes of the spiral:

  • The Microcosm and Macrocosm are present within the spiral.  When you look at the formula and the numbers, what really unfolds from it is like the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm: the small is in harmony with the large, and the large is in harmony with the whole.
  • Harmony is one major theme of the spiral–all things are in balance and all things have their place within the great spiral of the universe.
  • Paths to growth and wisdom. The spiral reminds us that things ever-unfold and ever-deepen.  This is the path from innocence and childhood to old age and wisdom.  This is the path that every living being walks, their own spiral path, the spiral of life, and living.  The spiral reminds us that while this path deepens over time, we can also learn a great deal

 

The Branch

The branching pattern is another very common pattern found all through nature.  As I look outside my window as I write these words, I am struck by the massive, 250+-year-old grandmother black oak that stands tall, reaching into the heavens.  Her branching pattern isn’t random; the branching pattern is 2:5, representing yet again, the golden mean. (This was discovered by an 11-year-old boy in 2011, which shows the power of citizen science and gives us hope that there is so much left to discover about the world around us!)  I see this same branching pattern when I kayak at a river delta, or when I look at the larger pattern of rivers flowing into a larger water basin.  When lightning strikes during a particularly bad storm, the branching pattern is also present.  When we trace evolutionary histories or even our own family histories, they branch out from us like a tree.

Branching patterns in walnut trees

Branching patterns in walnut trees

While branching may not have the ancient esoteric connections of some of the other archetypes presented here, I think that we can come to some conclusions about it simply based on how it functions in nature.  Here’s my own take:

  • Flowing from the source. Branches are inherently connecting while also expansive.  When I look at the branching pattern of the watershed that I belong to, each of those tiny branches becomes a larger branch, and all of those eventually flow into the same source–the ocean.  It reminds me that even though I might be a small branch, I am connected to the greater whole.
  • Collective thought and action. It reminds me too, of the power of collective thought and action–how a million small branches of a river can add up to a very strong current. We can be the river–each small stream can combine to a larger force!
  • Paths and choices: the branch also can remind us of the many choices that have led to the present moment, and ever-branching before us, the choices in the present and yet unrealized future

As you find this pattern in nature and meditate on it, I hope you discover your own meanings.

 

The Pentacle / Pentagram

As spring is unfolding on our landscape here, I look to the blossoms of the fruit trees: apples, blackberry, raspberry, and hawthorn. These blossoms all reflect another sacred archetype in nature, one that has at least a 5000-year-old human history: the pentacle or pentagram (they are the same symbol, the pentacle is simply surrounded by a circle while the pentagram is not).

The first recorded human use of the pentagram was by the Chaldeans of Mesopotamia, who lived between the 10th and 6th centuries BC.  Chaldeans were a nomadic people who were known for their skill in magic, astrology, writing, and the arts.  They often inscribed the pentagram into their pottery (for more on the fascinating Chaldeans, check out Chaldean Magic: Its Origin and Development by François Lenormant). The ancient Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, who lived in the 5th century BC, likely assigned the five elements to the pentacle: earth, air, fire, water, and spirit/psyche.  We see similar uses of the pentacle in antiquity in China and Japan.  Again, as with the golden spiral, the ancient peoples understood and worked with this symbol as one of nature’s archetypes–long associated with the elements and protection.

I find it ironic that, even in my own mundane landscape here in Western PA, people choose to adorn their houses with 5000 year old magical symbols in the form of “barn stars” or “country stars” or the more elaborate cut-out wooden pentacles that can still be seen on old barns dating to the 18th century.  Most modern folks just see them as a “country symbol” but a quick dive into history tells a very different tale!

Magical Barn sign in Somerset County

Magical Barn sign in Somerset County

In nature, you can find the pentacle not only in the blooms of the apple, but later, in the seed pattern.  Cutting an apple lengthwise allows you to see the pentacle pattern reflected there in the seeds.  Once you start seeing the pentacle and other five-fold patterns, you’ll see how abundant and rich they are.  Another cool tidbit–Rubus allegheniensis, the Common Blackberry, reflects this pattern in multiple ways.  You can see it in the spring in the petals, but also in the mature largest leaves (a 5-fold pattern), and, if you cut the stem straight across, the stem itself has a five-pointed pattern.  (And, you can see a Golden Spiral reflected both in the distribution of fruit clusters, leaves and thorns!)  Here are a few interpretations of this incredible sign:

  • Protection. The pentacle and pentagram are all about protection.  They don’t end up on barns in Western PA (or houses or anything else for that matter) without the desire to protect what is inside the barn.  For many early settlers, barns represented their survival: their animals and crops were their life.  Protecting that with the pentacle allowed them to thrive.
  • Unification of the Elements.  For millennia, the pentacle has also represented the union of the five elements of earth, air, fire, water, and spirit.

The Wave

A final common pattern is the wave.  This pattern is often on the level of the landscape: we see the wave pattern as waves in the ocean or sea, sand on the ocean floor, the pattern of sand from the wind in the desert.  We can see the same wave pattern in water flowing on a river or in blowing tall grasses in the wind. If we look into the sky, at times, the same pattern is sometimes reflected in the dispersion of clouds.  Waves reflect movement and the intersection of the elements: the sea with the shore (ocean waves, waves in sand under surface), the sand (earth) with the wind; the water in the clouds with the air.  Waves are all around us, showing us that change is constant.

  • Movement and energy. I think of the wave a lot like “The Chariot” card from the tarot—waves signify patterns of movement.
  • Variety–While the movement and energy are constant, the changes present in the wave pattern also teaches us the power of repetition, of pattern, and of predictability of change.  Each wave that crashes on the shore is unique and yet, consistent with other waves. waves remind us that change is all around us, the wind and waves are constantly changing and yet, also, repeating their unique patterns over time.  In the same way that humans have certain characteristics (e.g. two eyes, two hands, two feet) but infinite variation.

Key Plant Patterns

While I’ve just offered four major patterns in nature, I also want to talk briefly about other kinds of patterns, those we can find in plants.  Each plant family has its own patterns–patterns that repeat across species.

For example, the Rose (Rosaceae) family plants happen to mostly follow a pentacle pattern, particularly with their flowers, while the leaves are alternate and usually oval-shaped with serrated edges.  Plants in the mint family (Lamiaceae) instead, have a square stem/stalk, leaves that grow opposite from one another, seed pods that contain four seeds each, and are often aromatic (e.g. when you crush a leaf and smell it, it has a distinct smell).  Plants in the pea/legume family (Fabaceae) have an irregularly shaped flower that often has two large petals (called banners), two smaller wings, and a single petal called a Keel (similar to the keel on a sailboat). They often have pea-like pods and pinnate leaves.  I share these three patterns to help you see that each plant family has its own characteristics, things that define them, and if we learn those things, we can better understand, connect, and identify with life.  (I’ve mentioned it before, but the book Botany in a Day is the best guide out there to learn plant patterns).

Understanding these kinds of patterns can also help you navigate the world safely and with identification skills that can come in handy. For example, a few years ago, a friend and I decided to camp in the Flordia Keys–we had never been there and wanted to do some kayaking, etc, and get away from winter for a bit When we got there, I noticed a particular pattern that appeared to be what I would consider “Toxicodendron” like (e.g. in the sumac family). And I was right: I had just met a poisonwood tree–which turned out to everywhere in the Keys.  Poisonwood isn’t actually in the Toxicodendron subspecies, but it does belong to the larger sumac / cashew (Anacardiaceae) family.  Because I already knew the pattern of what these plants looked like from my longstanding relationship with Poison Ivy, I was quite good at quickly spotting them–saving my friend and I a nasty bout of dermatitis. 

The other piece here with plant patterns is useful for those that might be traveling and/or moving somewhere new.  If you are deeply connected with your local ecosystem and have to temporarily or permanently relocate, learning these larger patterns of nature can really help you reconnect.  Maybe you can’t find that which was growing in your old home, but you can find plants in the same plant family, which can help you re-establish and build these relationships.

Patterns in Spiritual Practice

Patterns in nature and in plants can offer many different kinds of insights for spiritual practice in the bardic, ovate, or druid arts.  In the ovate arts, plant patterns can help you more deeply connect to nature, identify plants, and work with the land and the spirits of the land.  You can establish deep relationships with plants across similar species by understanding them, identifying them, and looking for patterns.  In the druid arts, consider using nature’s patterns for themes for ritual work, meditations, or sigils.  In the bardic arts, you can use nature’s patterns as themes and inspiration for poetry, writing, visual arts, music, dance, and more!  The sky is the limit in terms of what you can do with these powerful patterns.

I’d also argue that many of the symbols that are developed over time by human cultures have their ancient roots in nature.  We might have advanced writing systems and iconography, but if you go back far enough, nature’s language is embedded within all of our symbols.

Patterns of the World

I hope that this post has helped illustrate the many magical and wonderful patterns present in our natural world.  Do you have any additional patterns to share?  How have you worked with these patterns? Are you working with other patterns? I’d love to hear more.

 

PS: Tarot of Trees 4th edition! I also wanted to announce that we are working to fund the 10th-anniversary edition of the Tarot of Trees.  If you liked the original, please check out the Indegogo campaign here.  We are offering the Tarot of Trees in a larger size with a new design.

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