Saturday, November 30, 2019

From here to pattern-ity

November was a month of small moments of enjoyment despite a large degree of bad weather. For starters, I took up knitting again, after an approximate four-decade hiatus, in order to have something to do when K and I are without electronic entertainment (either because we’re camping or because our lousy home satellite service is on the fritz). I can’t do anything fancy with yarn and needles just yet—I can barely manage competent much less fancy—but a scarf is essentially a big rectangle, so I have next year’s holiday gifts figured out geometrically already.

K and I also did a couple of fun excursions from home, first going to see the sandhill crane migration on a chilly but pleasantly sunny morning, then the following weekend going to see the cross-country nationals on a chilly and unpleasantly rainy one. These two events would seem to have nothing more in common than both consisting of groups of individuals moving in a pattern as one, but that’s a fascinating commonality all by itself. You may not have lived as fully as you could until you’ve seen waves of cranes descending on a field—or crowds of spectators raucously cheering a stream of runners go by and then turning and themselves becoming a wave flooding over the field toward the next viewing point.

Me being me, I thought about these various small pleasures and considered what connected them. That is to say, I considered a possible pattern. It’s what I do in this blog—it’s what we all do in one way or another. And in this case, the pattern was, in fact, patterns. A pattern of knots becomes a scarf. A pattern of birds becomes migration. Patterns of people moving over a field is a cross country race, but it, all of it, also becomes something surprisingly beautiful.

The propensity to seek and create patterns reflects a level of mental development that humans have in abundance. Patterns of geometrical figures in the dirt become agriculture; patterns of squiggles on a flat surface become written language; patterns of sounds become music. It isn’t just humans that do this; if you’re a fan of nature shows narrated by David Attenborough (which I am, to an embarrassing degree), you’ve no doubt learned of the bower bird, whose astonishing sense of visual aesthetics results in the males’ constructing colorful—and original—creations to attract a mate. I emphasize “original” because each bird chooses different materials and color schemes depending on their own preferences, meaning that this is not simply a matter of bigger and brighter.

Avian aesthetics defy simplistic notions of evolution—did so even to Darwin himself, who was famously frustrated with the seemingly counterintuitive courting behavior of birds of paradise. Why do an elaborate dance to attract a mate when strutting your stuff might make you vulnerable to becoming some predator’s snack? Why not just be big and tough and loud? What does an appealing shake of the booty bring to the table? This perhaps is precisely one reason patterns are so compelling: they seem like they should mean something, but this meaning is often elusive.

Humans’ tendency to look for patterns often gets us in trouble for just this reason. Observe a pattern, record it, test to see if the pattern is consistent and to determine what causes that pattern, and boom, science! Skip a few steps, though, and boom, phrenology! Anti-vaxxers! Climate change is a hoax and even if it were real it certainly wouldn’t be because of human activity! Once we decide definitively what a sequence or a connection signifies, it’s as though we immediately shut our eyes to it. This group of people always acts like this, we assert, so there’s no point in believing otherwise—in treating them otherwise. Take this mentality far enough—which we have, endlessly, through our history—and we end up making war, not art; destroying, rather than creating.

Maybe the way to counter the problematic aspects of our “pattern-ity” is to retain a sort of Darwin-like confusion about it, even while we also retain our aesthetic appreciation of it. We can’t help looking for patterns, and having sought and found them, inevitably we can’t help but wonder what the patterns mean. Maybe the key is to keep looking and wondering.