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Nature's patterns are evident on a winter walk

On a Sunday morning I walk along suburban streets to the local grocery to pick up bagels for our breakfast.

It is one of those lovely clear winter days, the sky a soft blue. No sun, though: it is hidden behind those heavy clouds that often circle the southern horizon down toward ski country.

As usual in winter, clear means cold, and it is indeed a crisp morning. The temperature read 20 degrees when I left home. There is no wind, however, so walking is pleasant, much of it this morning on bare-shoveled sidewalks.

I'm walking in the so-called dead of winter, but that doesn't mean that there aren't things to observe. Most evident on this day are the patterns of this quiet season.

With their leaves gone, each deciduous tree is an intricate display of dark lines of varying widths etched against that blue sky. There is a large measure of randomness to the thinning, twisting and dividing of their branches, and each tree is unique. The design is not entirely random, however. Although some branches are horizontal and a few even turn downward, the general thrust is ever upward. Trees are indeed reaching for the sky.

Scientists have developed computer programs that seek to match these intricate tree patterns. Artists also paint their stark outlines. But even though the computer scientists build randomness into their processing and the artists take hours to mirror what they observe, the difference between their results and the real trees I am observing seems evident to me.

Now a pattern of sound is added to my experience. Against the silent, snow-deadened background I hear a two-second rattle. Shortly the sound is repeated. I look for the source but cannot find it. I know, however, that what I am hearing is the drum roll tapping of a downy woodpecker.

Until I reach the market the only birds I see are two chickadees noiselessly darting about pecking at branches. I assume that they are gleaning insect eggs or cocoons. Absent on this morning are the soft caws of crows and the screams of blue jays.

But outside the grocery another pattern appears. This time it is a dozen pigeons sitting on wires. Their dark shapes look exactly like a series of notes on a musical scale.

My morning walk is so pleasant that I drive to a nearby field after breakfast and walk out into the open area. The snow is no more than a few inches deep, so I don't need skis or snowshoes.

I immediately realize something that didn't occur to me on my earlier walk. Then everything I saw by looking up. There was nothing worth observing looking down. At this time of year our monoculture lawns are simply vast white carpets.

Here in this unmown field, the situation is reversed. Again there are patterns, but they are below instead of above, and the blue sky background of earlier is replaced by the white background of snow.

Patterns here are smaller. For example, the delicate tracery of Queen Anne's lace is as lovely and intricate as that of this morning's trees, but it is at a different scale.

Some patterns are even tinier. I carefully avoid a common burdock because I don't want to spend time removing the burs from my pants when I get home. But I pick one of the spherical fruits and examine its lovely symmetry, each of its scores of bristles curved into those hooks that hitchhike on passing animals.

Nearby a milkweed pod is still releasing its last delicate seed-carrying parachutes. Although individual carriers seem identical, closer inspection shows them to be as different as individual trees.

Finally, I realize that there is also an overall larger pattern. The entire field around me is a mosaic, a ground-hugging forest, with its details all contributing to the larger picture.

I can name most of the nearby plants, but my focus is not on identification. Rather, I see individual wildflowers and shrubs up close fitting in the distance into a lovely overall background.

These winter patterns will soon be replaced as spring progresses, but there is still time to enjoy their pristine beauty.


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