TREES, WATER, AND FIRE: HUMANITY'S LOVE OF FRACTALS
Updated: Jan 24
Hailing from Minnesota, one thing seems clear – people here love going ‘up north’ to their cabins. This seems to hold true for our upper midwestern neighbors Wisconsin and Michigan as well. How did this desire take hold? What compels us to pack up our homes in the cities and drive 2, 3, 4 hours on a Friday, only to turn around and drive back again on Sunday?
Some may answer ‘tradition’, others may say ‘peace & quiet’, still others remark on the beauty of the trees and lakes that draws them in. However, I’d love to dig a bit deeper for a moment. Tradition is completely acceptable and wonderful – humanity needs ritual and tradition; they are agents of memory – but where did the tradition come from in the first place? Why do we seek the peace and quiet of nature? (which really isn’t all that quiet if you listen intently on a spring morning) Why do we find trees and stones and water beautiful? What drew that first person to that place in nature, and why?
Let me offer you an idea to consider – we are pulled to these places because of a primal tug, deep in the roots of our DNA. This is something much deeper than tradition. One might suggest that eons of tradition ultimately become the warp and weft of our evolution. This tug surfaces more strongly in some of us, but it is there in everyone if we just tune into it. We just can’t help ourselves.
Why can’t we help ourselves? Surely, as rational beings we have agency over our own actions. So, what is implied by this suggestion of seemingly irrational compulsion? To find answers let’s excavate our connections to nature both physically and psychologically.
Physically we share a number of genes with plants, animals, and even bacteria. That percentage varies depending on which scientific study you read but suffice it to say there is measurable crossover. There is even the odd factoid that the hemoglobin cells in human blood are but one atom different (iron vs. magnesium) than ‘plant blood’ cells, or chlorophyll.
Then there is embedded effect of evolving hundreds of thousands of years within the embrace of the natural world. The rational, scientific process has only been in place since a 17th Century Descartes posited “Cogito, ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am.” This was followed one hundred years later by the Industrial Revolution of the latter 18th Century, which jump started modern life as we now know it. One could argue that the past 14 years, since the introduction of the iPhone, have systematically and exponentially ripped us away from a conscious day-to-day knowledge of nature. But technology hasn’t completely erased a gene expression hundreds of thousands of years in the making quite yet. Enter fractals.
The French mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010) coined this term to describe a "never-ending pattern" ubiquitous in nature. Fractal shapes are further defined by Dictionary.com as: “an irregular geometric structure that cannot be described by classical geometry because magnification of the structure reveals repeated patterns of similarly irregular, but progressively smaller, dimensions: fractals are especially apparent in natural forms and phenomena because the geometric properties of the physical world are largely abstract, as with clouds, crystals, tree bark, or the path of lightning.”
Once you become aware of fractals, you start to see them everywhere. 95% of people prefer the aesthetic pull of fractals over Euclidean geometries because our brains can process them easier (Taylor, 1998). What’s even more amazing – like the similarity between hemoglobin and chlorophyll, fractals are also present in nature and inside us. Have you even wondered about the similarity between tree branches or lightning and your circulatory or nervous system? For me it reinforces why I, as a human, am uniquely pulled towards other fractal shapes. And I am not alone in this.
As Nikos Salingaros states in his white paper on healing environments for Terrapin Bright Green: “We recognize and respond positively to fractal structures because our own bodies have these in common with other animals and plants. This similarity links us cognitively to structures that follow the same geometrical principles, such as landscapes, trees, bushes, and animals. On the other hand, we react poorly to structures that are not fractal: smooth or shiny objects or surroundings create alarm. This discomfort occurs because their minimalism contradicts the fractal structures and patterns we are used to experiencing in natural environments.”
So, back to our questions about why we’re drawn to cabins ‘up north’, or sitting and staring at a flickering fire, or being lulled into a state of bliss by waves on the lake? Because we genetically can’t resist! All of the shapes associated with those elements are fractals: trees, waves, fire. We are naturally calmed and focused by surrounding ourselves with fractal shapes, and as Salingaros says above, we’re freaked out by shapes that aren’t. So why do we continually and consciously place ourselves in environments that disturb us or make us feel dis-ease? How did the Modernists hoodwink us all so effectively?
After a year of being forced to slow down and get back outside (as one of the few places of respite safely available to all during the pandemic), I think we’re ready to reconnect with our love, and deep-seated need for, the fractals of the natural world. Think about how you can bring more fractals into your home? How can you use them to instill calm and make yourself a