All the beauty and all the mathematics [of the Golden Mean] are the natural byproducts of the simple system of growth interacting with its spatial environment.
– Peter S. Stevens, Patterns in Nature.
When I moved into my home, it was a small, dark, half-rotted old hunting cabin in the middle of sheep pasture owned for many generations by a ranch family. A friend of that family had built it in the 40s, so it was also part of a history going back a hundred years or so. But the human part of the cabin’s story stalled as the builder aged. When he finally stopped coming out to hunt, the stove, bed, and cupboards remained – complete with silverware and fridge – while the cabin simply went dormant. I came to it in 1994, a single man with few needs and fewer possessions, but after sixteen years, it’s become a compact homestead that shelters and feeds four of us. There are many ways to tell it, but the story I want to share here is simple, graphic, and based on the physical footprint of the structure itself. It doesn’t exactly have a moral, but it does conclude in a way I hope you may recognize:
It begins with a solitary man (not me), Who builds himself a cabin far away from the world, surrounded by trees and nature.
He goes there to fish and hunt and escape the pressures of life crowded by people and toil. The cabin contains a bed and stove. He cooks on the stove and sleeps in the bed, but spends his days outdoors, wandering or hunting or fishing. He returns to town renewed by unmeasured labor and unexpected gifts – gifts he likes to share. The more he shares, the more often he finds himself inviting others to share in the experience. So he adds onto the little square cabin, basically doubling it in size by adding three new walls onto one side:
He brings a bed big enough for he and his wife, and builds cabinets for food and dishes and tools. They divide the cabin into social and sleeping spaces, and make it cosy and snug – easier to share with friends and family. Still, they all spend most of their time outdoors, until they get too old to hike and hunt – they visit less often; then not at all.
Years later, after making friends with the family, and in need of a place to live and work, I got invited out and offered an opportunity to fix it up in exchange for rent. None but mice and flies had lived in it for years. But my options were few and the price was right. I fixed it up and moved in, and started to learn the joys of living with more trees and wild things than people. But I needed a shop for work, and got permission to expand the woodshed next to the cabin:
I arranged the space for solitary work and solitary life and found contentment and companionship in the world outside my door. I began to find myself at home, not just within the walls of “my house,” but in the unbounded world outside. A few years later, a woman came who seemed to have answers to prayers I hadn’t known I’d prayed. She stayed, and turned her hands to making the land around the house and studio into a larger garden to feed us both:
When our first boy was born, we moved into the studio and I took a larger work space elsewhere – also thanks to yet another neighbor and friend. We organized more space, and had another boy:
As the family has grown, our living and doing have acquired some measure of rhythm, pattern, efficacy – even design. We move in our own ways, but share enough to be able to move together relatively harmoniously. Our activities spiral inward and outward both, depending on the day and the season:
The final figure here is called a “Golden Spiral” because it reflects a natural relationship between growth and form, a principle known in mathematics as the Golden Mean, or Phi. Here, however, it also serves as a parable, an allegory, a simplification of complexities. But it contains some truth. Though it obviously can’t look like a series of boxes enclosing a spiral line, my family and I have grown into and out of a combined cabin and cottage the shapes of which roughly match the shapes of the first 3 boxes, with garden all around. And, like the dot in the box that so aptly described one stage of my college life, the progression tells something essential about my recent history, a pattern of growth that has resulted in enough practical harmonies to make possible the raising of a family. It doesn’t equal the beauty, simplicity, and efficiency of a sea shell, but I begin to see how my own life might follow the same principles which order the curving lines of seeds in a sunflower,
Or the spiralling scales of a pine cone,
Or the spinning vortexes of water flowing down a drain,
Or even the winding trails of stars, spinning around a spiral galaxy.
For me, at least, this visual comparison between the mundane events of my life and the timeless and universal beauty of nature brings real joy: joy at being able to participate in the story of creation; joy that my life, however haphazard, follows fundamental principles of life and nature. To arrive at such feelings gives substance to the idea that beauty binds us all to a common source; it proves the axiom that where death ends one life, it begins another. Lao Tzu says that “to know the way of the Harmonious is called the Eternal. To know the Eternal is called Enlightenment.” Perhaps “enlightenment” is another word for maturity. Perhaps the way of design can lead us into the way of harmony. Perhaps a feeling for native design and harmonies can give us an aesthetic more potent than personal preference, a measure of beauty based on participation and unification rather than analysis and division.