Have you ever stopped to consider why our thumbprints look like tree rings? Why our nervous system resembles tree branches or lightning? It certainly wasn’t something I thought about very much until I started spending much more time in the forest.
The more time I’ve spent surrounded by the fractal forms of nature, the clearer this connection has become. I often find myself traveling down mental pathways of curiosity as to the ‘why’ behind this connection. I’m not sure there is a conclusive answer to this question, but there are certainly many similar properties – biological and geometrical - to be discovered while wandering the woods that can be applied as metaphors to my, and maybe your, life.
Humanity shares a kinship with the geometry of biology
As Terrapin Bright Green mentions in its white paper on healing environments:
“There are geometrical rules of biological forms with which we share a template. This structure is believed to elicit a general response in humans of recognizable “kinship” that cuts across the divide between living and inanimate form. Manmade structures with basic properties in common with our own bodies resonate, “strumming the strings” of our biophilia. Mechanisms of living structure are either the same, or they parallel the basic organization of biological systems. Biophilia, therefore, mixes the geometrical properties and elements of landscape with complex structures found in — and common to — all living forms.”
Could this ‘kinship’, these similarities, exist to help nudge humanity towards a deeper ecology of partnership with nature; rather than our current surficial, extractive ecology of domination? That which reminds us of us is less easy to destroy? Maybe. Or could they be ways to help us comprehend the world’s complexity? A pattern language similar across scales and species – as Salingros says a “unique trademark of nature that applies to virtually any domain of life” - helping humans make a visual connection to our commonality with the rest of the species on the planet.
Pictures, L to R, Top to Bottom: Lightning, Bronchial Tree, Blood Vessels, Tree Branches, Leaf Veins, Human Nervous System
I have also come to believe that these similarities are some of the reasons behind why humans gain so many positive benefits from surrounding themselves with nature. Fractals are a powerful tonic to us – because they are so deeply embedded in our physical bodies and our psyches – they can affect us nearly immediately. As Smith and Lee show in their research, “The benefits of fractals specifically, and of nature more generally, have been shown to occur within minutes, even seconds.” (Smith et al., 2020; Lee et al., 2015)
I’m sure you can recall a time when just walking outside made you feel instantly better – that whiff of crabapple or lilac flowers inspired you to breathe a bit deeper, relaxing your muscles ever so slightly. Or when the fall colors held you in awe and you found yourself treating others with a bit more kindness and empathy. If this is what the woods can achieve in mere seconds, imagine what the benefits could be if you made wandering them a regular habit?
I invite you all to commit to taking some time to intentionally head outside this weekend and slowly experience the interconnected fractals of your body, water, forest, and prairie and see how you feel. I bet you’ll be smiling.