Patterns, Familiar and Otherwise

By Boak Wiesner

Early in my walk, I come across some fresh tracks of turkeys. A bit further on, I hear the scratching of dried leaves: something is afoot. I look for any horizontal lines that might catch my eye and there he is, a nice tom turkey. Because all the lines are vertical in the woods in winter (the exception being downed trees, which at this time of year have white snow on top), one need only to seek out a horizontal line to find an animal nearby.

How can other patterns help me to experience Nature in new ways I wonder? At the far end of the boardwalk, I come across some Speckled Alder that has catkins already growing.

Speckled Alder male flowers: catkins
Speckled Alder male flowers: catkins

And it strikes me, for the first time in my life, they show a very familiar pattern, namely, the male flowers are at the terminal end of the branches while the female ones are only on axial branches. Like birch, their cousins. But, it strikes me, also like conifers, which they are completely unlike. Or are they?

The edge of the wetlands is, as usual, a riot of small mammal tracks. Here I see those of a Red Squirrel, easy to pick out in the thin snow cover. These have prominent impressions from the metacarpal-phalanx joints that is so characteristic of squirrel tracks.

Red Squirrel tracks
Red Squirrel tracks

I look up and realize that, even though there are many tree species right along here, some natural and some planted, each has its own pattern of bark. Why are some vertical, like the elms, while others are horizontal, like this Yellow Birch?

Yellow Birch
Yellow Birch

The elms around this area are dying which makes me reminisce about the avenue I grew up on in Minneapolis lined with an archway of mature elms.


The crack following the growth of dead tamarack showed me another pattern that may be the most widespread one in nature, the helix. DNA is only the most famous example. Starch and some domains of proteins also show this. Whole plants including trees grow in a helix, called circumnutation and I wonder if that is the reason behind the spiral I see before me.


Boak Wiesner is a Minnesota Naturalist Volunteer


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