Tag Archives: pattern literacy

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.

Wildcrafting Druidry: Getting Started in Your Ecosystem

One of the strengths of AODA druidry is our emphasis on developing what Gordon Cooper calls “wildcrafted druidries“–these are druid practices that are localized to our place, rooted in our ecosystems, and designed in conjunction with the world and landscapes immediately around us. Wildcrafted druidries are in line with the recently released seven principles of AODA, principles that include rooting nature at the center of our practice, practicing nature reverence, working with cycles and seasons, and wildcrafting druidry.  But taking the first steps into wildcrafting your practice can be a bit overwhelming, and can be complicated by a number of other factors. What if you are a new druid and don’t know much about your ecosystem? What if you are a druid who is traveling a lot or is transient? What if you are a druid who just moved to a new ecosystem after establishing yourself firmly somewhere else? This post will help you get started in building your own wildcrafted druid practice and will cover including using nature as inspiration, localized wheels of the year, pattern literacy, nature and relationship, and finding the uniqueness in the landscape.

 

AODA Principles

Prior to this post, I’ve shared some of my earlier ideas for how you might develop a localized wheel of the year, consider the role of local symbolism, and develop different rituals, observances, and practices in earlier blog posts.  The three linked posts come from my own experiences living as a druid in three states: Indiana, Michigan, and now Western Pennsylvania. For today’s post, I am indebted to members of AODA for a recent community call (which we do quarterly along with other online events).  In our 1.5 hour discussion, we covered many of the topics that are present in this post–so in this case, I am presenting the ideas of many AODA druids that flowed from our rich conversation. For more on upcoming AODA events that are open to AODA members and friends of the AODA, you can see this announcement.

 

Nature as Inspiration and for Connection

While the principle of wildcrafting seems fairly universal, in that all druids find some need to wildcraft to varying degrees, there is no set method for beginning to engage in these practices or what they specifically draw upon in their local landscape. The details vary widely based on the ecosystem and the individual druid’s experiences, history, culture, and more. What an individual druid chooses to follow is rooted in both the dominant features of that landscape, what they choose to focus on in the ecosystem, and how they choose to interpret and build a relationship with their landscape. Here are some of the many interpretations:

  • Following the path of the sun and light coming in or out of the world (a classic interpretation) and looking for what changes in the landscape may be present at the solstices and equinoxes
  • Following clear markers of the season based in plant life: tree blooming, sap flowing, colors changing, tree harvests, dormancy, and more
  • Following clear markers of migrating birds and/or the emergence or stages of life for insects (monarchs, robins)
  • Following animal patterns and activity (nesting behavior, etc)
  • Following weather patterns (e.g. time of fog, monsoon seasons, rainy season, dry season, winter, summer, etc)
  • Following patterns of people or other natural shifts in urban settings (e.g. when the tourists leave, patterns of life in your city)
  • Recognizing that some places do not have four seasons and working to discover what landscape and weather markers mark your specific seasons
  • Drawing upon not only ecological features but also cultural or familial ones (family stories, local myths, local culture)

Transient druids or druids who travel a lot may have a combination of the above, either from different ecosystems that they visited or from a “home base” ecosystem, where they grew up or live for part of the year. There is obviously no one right or wrong way to create your wheel.

 

Another important issue discussed in our call tied to using nature as inspiration is viewing nature through a lens of connection rather than objectification.  When we look at a tree, what do we see? Do we see the tree as an object in the world? Perhaps we see it as lumber for building or as a producer of fruit for eating. But what if, instead, we thought about the interconnected web of relationships that that tree is part of? What is our relationship with that tree?  Thus, seeing nature from a position of relationships/connections and not just seeing nature as objects is a useful practice that helped druids build these kinds of deep connections with nature.

One interpretation of the wheel of the year

One of my own interpretations of the wheel of the year

Wheel(s) of the Year: Localizing and Adapting

The concept of the wheel of the year is central to druidry. Druids find it useful to mark certain changes in their own ecosystems and celebrate the passage of one season to the next–practices which we’d define in terms of a wheel of the year. But to druids who wildcraft, the wheel of the year should be a reflection of nature’s cycles and seasons, things that are local and representative of the ecosystems that they inhabit.  While many traditional wheels of the year assume either a fourfold or eightfold pattern and are based entirely on agricultural holidays in the British Isles and the path of the sun, this system does not map neatly–or at all–onto many other places of the world. The further that one gets from anything resembling UK-like temperate ecosystems, the less useful the traditional wheel of the year is. The disconnection and divergence encourage druids to build their own wheels of the year.

 

Druids describe widely divergent wheels of the year in different parts of North and South America. Some reported having only two seasons (rainy and dry) while others reported having up to 7 different distinct seasons in their wheel. Wheels of the year might be marked by some of the kinds of events described in the bullet points above:  the return of a particular insect to the ecosystem, the migration of birds, the blooming of a flower, first hard frost, the coming of the rains, and so forth. I shared my own take on the wheel of the year here, and also wrote about my adaptation of Imbolc to my local ecosystem and local culture–these are two examples that might be useful to you.  Even if you live in an ecosystem that isn’t that divergent from the classical wheel of the year, you still may find that you want to adapt parts of it to your specific experiences, practices, and connections.

 

From my earlier article on the wheel of the year, here are some practices that you might do to start building your own wheel:

  • Nature observations: You might start by observing nature in your area for a full year and then noting: what is changing? What is different? How important are those changes to you?
  • Interview the Old Timers and Wise Folks: Talk with the old farmers, wise women, grannies, and grandpaps in the area who have an innate knowledge. Ask them how they know spring has arrived, or that fall is coming, or what they understand to be the seasons. You might be surprised at the level of detail you get!
  • Look to local farms and agriculture. Most traditional agricultural customs and products are directly dependent on the local ecosystems. You can learn a lot about important things that happen in your local ecosystem by paying attention to the agricultural wheel of the year and what is done when.  If you have the opportunity to do a little planting and harvesting (in a garden or on your balcony) you’ll also attune yourself to these changes.
  • Look to local customs and traditions. You might pay attention to regional or local fairs and festivals and/or look at regional calendars to see what the important dates are.  Some of these may be contemporary customs from much older traditions (like Groundhog Day) or customs that used to take place but no longer do (like Wassailing in January).  Reading about the history of your region, particularly, feasts, celebrations, and traditional activities might give you more insight.
  • Consider family observances. Some families develop their own traditions, and some of those might be worth considering.  For others, family traditions are often religious and may belong to a religion that you no longer want to associate with, and that’s ok too.
  • Consider where the “energy” is. What is this season about? Where is the energy and power in the land at present? What is changing?  Observation and interaction will help.
  • Speak with the nature spirits.  Perhaps the most powerful thing you can do is to connect with the nature spirits or spirits of the land and see what wisdom they have for you (using any number of inner communication or divination methods).

 

Pattern Literacy: Nature’s Archetypes

All druids seeking to wildcraft and connect deeply with the world around them would benefit from understanding what permaculturist Toby Hemingway called “Pattern literacy”.  Patterns are nature’s archetypes;  they are the ways that nature repeats itself over and over through broader designs, traits, configurations, features, or events.  Each unique thing on this planet is often representing one or larger patterns. Learning pattern literacy is useful for all druids as a way of starting to engage with and develop wildcrafted druidries.

Rosaceae – Patterns from Botany in a Day book

 

Let’s look at an example of pattern literacy from the plant kingdom to see how this works. The rose (Rosaceae) family is a very large family of plants and includes almost 5000 different species globally–including blackberries, apples, hawthorns, plums, rowans, and much more.  Members of the rose family are found on nearly every continent in the world. Rose family plants have a number of common features, including five petals, five sepals, numerous stamens, serrated leaves (often arranged in a spiral pattern).  If you know this pattern, then even if you don’t know specific species in the ecosystem you are in, you can still do some broad identification–you can recognize a plant as being in the rose family, even if you don’t’ know the specific species.  This information–along with lots more like it, comes from a book called Botany in a Day, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in learning plant patterns.

 

For those of you who are transient, traveling, or looking to connect to a new ecosystem, pattern literacy offers you a powerful way to form immediate connections in an unfamiliar ecosystem.  Connections are formed through relationships, experiences, and knowledge–you can have a relationship with one species and transfer at least part of that connection to similar species in a new area. With pattern literacy, you an learn the broad patterns of nature and then apply them in specific ways to new areas where you are at. Once you can identify the larger patterns, you are not “lost” any longer, you are simply seeing how that familiar archetype manifests specifically in the place you are at.  These kinds of immediate connections in an unfamiliar place can give you some “anchoring” in new places.

 

The best way to discover patterns is to get out in nature, observe, and interact.  Reading books and learning more about nature’s common patterns can also help.  In addition to Botany in a Day which I mentioned above, you might be interested in looking at Philip Ball’s series from Oxford University Press: Nature’s Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts. The three patterns that he covers are: Branches, Shapes, and Flow. Mushroom and plant books also often offer “keys” or key features that repeat over many plant families (e.g. shelf mushrooms, gilled mushrooms, boletes, agarics, etc).  These kinds of books are other good sources of information.  Learning nature is learning patterns–and pattern literacy is a critical tool for druids.

 

Recognizing the Uniqueness in the Landscape

Another useful way of wildcrafting your druidry is thinking about what is unique and special about your landscape.  These can be natural features, beauty, diversity, insect life–and these unique features can be a land’s journey through history and restoration from adversity, the story of that land.  Finding and connecting to these unique features may give you a way of seeing how your land is unique in a very local way.  Some landscapes have old-growth trees, others huge cacti, others endless fields of flowers, and still others huge barren mountains with beautiful pigments.  Each place is different, special, and unique.

 

For transient druids, traveling druids, or druids who are new to an ecosystem, recognizing the uniqueness in the landscape has added benefit. It allows you to focus on what is special and best about the landscape you are in rather than focusing on a landscape that you miss (e.g. being able to appreciate the prairie for what it is rather than focusing on the fact that there are few to no trees).  Thus, this offers a way of orienting yourself in an unfamiliar environment.

Ready, Set, Wildcraft!

Hopefully, this post combined with my previous writings on this topic can help you develop a connection with your landscape, and thus, find new ways of deepening your wildcrafting practice.  Find the cycles, find the patterns, discover what is unique, and discover what changes–all of these suggestions can help you better understand the world around you.  If you have any strategies or ideas that weren’t shared here that have helped you wildcraft your druidry and connect with your local landscape, please feel free to share!