As children, we were taught to see patterns and rhythms in two or perhaps three dimensions. Our solar system was portrayed as a collection of planets circling around a central sun and, if we were lucky, we might have seen a 3D version of this at a planetarium. Yet how far from the truth is this old style harmony of the spheres?
We now know that the Sun itself orbits around the centre of the Milky Way galaxy pulling along the planets in its gravity. The gravitational movement within the comet-like trajectory of the Sun creates a fabulous helix. This pattern is beautiful to behold. Just go to YouTube and search for the Sun’s helical orbit and sit back and enjoy the show. A helix is made by a circle moving through space, whilst a vortex is a moving spiral. What will immediately dawn on you is that these patterns appear in so many forms in our universe and on our planet. We have helical galaxies, the DNA double helix, spiralling fern fronds and phyllotaxis (the arrangement of leaves on a plant stem), and vortexes in terrestrial weather patterns (including hurricanes), whirlpools, antelope horns, sunflowers, nautilus shells, snail and mollusc shells, vine tendrils, and algae.
The nautilus shell, a living fossil that has survived in Earth’s oceans for the last 500 million years, is a logarithmic spiral. Its main feature is the large snail-like shell that is coiled upwards and lined with mother-of-pearl. The shell is subdivided into as many as 30 chambers. As the shell grows, the creature’s body moves forward into the new larger chamber and produces a wall to seal off the older chamber. This is the kind of spiral most commonly found in Nature because it is the most efficient way for a biological organism to grow. By maintaining its shape through successive growth cycles as the spiral turns, it uses the least energy for the most gain.
There are other interesting natural phenomena that are similar to logarithmic spirals. Insects seek sources of light in spiralling flights. Falcons, hawks and eagles attack distant prey from high- speed dives by flying along curved paths that resemble spirals. WB Yeats wrote about this in his 1919 poem, ‘The Second Coming’: Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer...
Our ancestors across the Earth regarded the spiral as the shape of deity. A cross-section of the nautilus shell provides us with a clue. It shows the cycles of its growth as a series of chambers arranged in a precise Golden Mean spiral. The Golden Mean, represented by the Greek letter phi (with the decimal representation of 1.618...), is one of those mysterious natural numbers that arises out of the basic structure of our cosmos. Phi appears regularly in the realm of things that grow and unfold in steps just as the nautilus shell grows larger in each spiral by phi. From the molecules of our DNA to the galaxy we spiral within, life and its forms emerge out of geometrical codes. How I wish I had been taught this at school. I might have tried harder to understand the subtle patterns of physics in our living world.
We find the ‘triple spiral’ is a pre-Celtic and Celtic symbol found on a number of Irish Neolithic sites, most notably inside the Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland (built over 5,000 years ago). The spiral also signified the wind and the feathered serpent deity known as Quetzalcoatl, an important deity in all Mesoamerican cultures on the other side of the world. Perhaps they intuitively knew that each revolution completes a cycle of evolution in the Golden Mean Spiral. This symbolises the unfolding of life’s mysteries and the balanced relationship the new must have towards the whole. These feminine, continuous curves of spirals speak to us of the intimate relationship between the harmonics of Nature and Sacred Geometry.
Thus it is that permaculture awakens us to patterns in Nature. We learn to read the landscape and identify these recurring patterns. We see the fertile edges of sky, sea and land in estuaries and the fact that there are no straight lines in Nature, more crenulations of edge. We become sensitised to the rhythmic unfolding of the seasons and the ebb and flow of plant growth that marks them. It is extraordinary to realise that the Earth is actually closest to the Sun in January, so relative location is nothing to do with its orbit as our seasons are governed by the planet’s tilt.
Then finally to our own rhythms at PM ... With this issue we enter the real time 25th anniversary of this magazine. I had never contemplated a 25-year cycle. It amazes me that a little magazine (relative to the mainstream) in the jungle of the post-crash economy in a depressed publishing market has survived, even thrived. There is a nautilus factor at work. The team here have redesigned the cover whilst Tim and I went on holiday. Now I find them planning our 100th issue. Let’s raise our glasses to unexpected cycles and natural succession.
Maddy Harland is the editor and co-founder of Permaculture magazine and the author of Fertile Edges - Regenerating Land, Culture and Hope. “Her writing is outstanding and shows a profound connection to the land..." Cygnus Review
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