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Pattern Seeking Brains
Tevere MacFadyen
October, 2015

Every year in early fall a big truck comes lumbering down our narrow dirt road, scraping against encroaching branches on both sides, and disgorges two or three cords of fresh-cut firewood in a great heap at the edge of my lawn. The load is usually mostly oak, with occasional veins of maple, birch and ash; heavy, wet, and fragrant. It tends to sit there for a month or so, waiting a bit reproachfully until I get around to stacking it.

I enjoy stacking firewood. There is something satisfying about converting that huge random jumble into neatly ordered rows, thousands of individual logs nested together to form something stable and square. I move the wood from the front of the house to the rear in an old handcart, a few loads at a time, until I’ve accumulated a much smaller but still random pile out back. Then I begin stacking – and sorting.

Evenly sized logs with clean, flat sides are reserved for the end caps, crisscrossed layered columns that contain the main body of the stack. Small, slim wedges are set aside to balance and support gnarly, misshapen and uneven pieces marked by protruding whorls and knuckles. Round pieces too small for the splitter fit nicely into accidental hollows. There is no plan or intention to any of this. It just sort of happens.

There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, about the construction of Boston’s famously ugly neo-brutalist city hall. The building itself is surrounded by a vast, barren brick-paved plaza, and while it was being built the architects instructed the contractor that the bricks in the plaza were to be laid randomly. One day, inspecting the site from atop the unfinished structure, a designer discerned evidence of patterns: alternating lights and darks, even and odd rhythms, ephemeral herringbones. He told the contractor to have those bricks removed and replaced, randomly, as specified. Which they were, but the next time he climbed the scaffolding to have a look, patterns had emerged in different places. He ordered them eliminated again, but again they reappeared. This occurred several times before the architect conceded defeat. The masons, it seems, couldn’t help themselves. As they toiled away under the blazing sun, each on his own patch of paving, each with his own palette of bricks, they inadvertently classified the resources at their disposal, and then set them out in their proper sequence.

Some years ago, when we were developing Bringing the Heavens to Earth, an exhibition about archeoastronomy for the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum in Chicago, one of the museum’s staff astronomers explained tried to explain to us how ancient cultures, without benefit of technology, found meaning in predictable astronomical events such as solstices and eclipses. “Humans,” he observed, “have pattern-seeking brains.”