There are patterns I must follow just as I must breathe each breath. —Paul Simon

Grandma's quilt - c1927

Among the family heirlooms I most treasure is a hand-pieced quilt that once belonged to my Dad’s mother, Grandma Grace.  I don’t write about her as much as I do my other grandmother, but this photographic essay is dedicated to her.  The reason is simple; her quilts instilled in me my earliest impressions of the idea of “patterns.”  Quilts are all about patterns, and the traditional quilts like my Grandma made and owned have names that reach back for generations.

This essay isn’t about quilts, although it is about “patterns.”  Singer Paul Simon wrote a song in the 1960s by that name.  His song was rather dark and fatalistic, as I think back on it now, but it did contain one lyric that appealed to me very much then and still does–“there are patterns I must follow just as I must breathe each breath.”  In addition to the quilt patterns to which I was introduced as a boy through my Grandma Grace, I’ve also  been captivated by the patterns in nature.  I am drawn to such patterns–yes, just as I must breathe each breath–and on my good days I do have the eyes to see some of the patterns that nature  so abundantly weaves in plain view.

When I was 22 years old, I encountered a book that still comes to me like few others.  It was published by The Sierra Club in the 1960s and contains texts selected by two twenty-something brothers who had spent as much time as possible exploring “the corners [of nature]…not to escape from but to escape to: not to forget but to remember.”  Their book also included photographs taken during those expeditions that were, in their words, “of the lowest fidelity obtainable.”  Since discovering Terry and Rennie Russell’s book, entitled On the Loose, I’ve been inspired to also seek out quiet corners of nature and to record my own encounters with such places through photographs.

This photographic essay offers seventeen “lowest fidelity” pictures (taken with my cell phone camera) over a six month period during summer and fall of 2011.  They offer an array of the patterns I observed during that time in two “corners” near my home in Little Canada, Minnesota–Gervais Mill Park and the John Allison Forest.  These are places to which I also escape to remember.  These photos in this essay were selected because, to my eye, they are inspirational.  The texts I chose to accompany each of the pictures are from four observers of nature whose writings have been profoundly insightful for me through the years: Wendell Berry, Rachel Carson, Mary Oliver, and Henry David Thoreau.  I trust that these texts and photos will speak to–and perhaps inspire–you as well.


Wonder at the meaning (John Allison Forest)

…drink in the beauty and wonder at the meaning of what you see.

—Rachel Carson from A Sense of Wonder


Within the circles (Gervais Mill Park)

Within the circles of our lives

we dance the circles of the years,

the circles of the seasons

within the cycles of the years…

—Wendell Berry from “Song”


Mysteries too marvelous (Gervais Mill Park)

Truly, we live with mysteries

too marvelous

to be understood…

—Mary Oliver from “Mysteries, Yes”


Every fruit (Gervais Mill Park)

Every fruit, on ripening, and just before its fall, acquires a bright tint.

—Henry David Thoreau (journal, October 24, 1858)


Refrains of nature (Gervais Mill Park)

There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature…

—Rachel Carson


Just hoiding on (Gervais Mill Park)

The trees, the trees, just

holding on

to the old, holy ways.

—Mary Oliver from “The Trees”


Unimaginable (Gervais Mill Park)

Keep some room in your

Heart for the unimaginable…

—Mary Oliver from “Evidence”


As to feel (Gervais Mill Park)

It is not half so important to know as to feel.

—Rachel Carson from A Sense of Wonder


Halleluiah (John Allison Forest)

Halleluiah, I’m sixty now,

and even a little more,

and some days I feel I have


—Mary Oliver from “Halleluiah


Bleached herbage (Gervais Mill Park)

So the bleached herbage of the fields is like frost, and frost like snow, and one prepares for the other.

—Henry David Thoreau (journal, November 13, 1858)


Upon the snow (Gervais Mill Park)

Upon the snow that says nothing,

that is endlessly brilliant,

there is something…

—Mary Oliver from “Landscape in Winter”


Against the sky (John Allison Forest)

The pine trees were brushing


against the sky

as though they were

painting it…

—Mary Oliver from “Thinking of Swirler”


A poem (Gervais Mill Park)

And I say that this, too, is a poem.

—Mary Oliver from “A Lesson from James Wright”


Faith (Gervais Mill Park)


is the instructor.

We need no other.

—Mary Oliver from “Spring”


Beauty exists (Gervais Mill Park)

Let me ask you this.

Do you also think that beauty

exists for some

fabulous reason?

—Mary Oliver from “To Begin With, the Sweet Grass”


Contemplate the beauty (Gervais Mill Park)

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.

—Rachel Carson from A Sense of Wonder


Go out to seek (Gervais Mill Park)

This is what I go out to seek.  It is as if I always met in those places some grand, serene, immortal, infinitely encouraging, though invisible, companion, and walked with him.

—Henry David Thoreau (journal, January 7, 1857)


This essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2011.  All rights reserved.



8 Responses to Patterns

  1. Your essay has provided a wonderful way to start this day, Steve. Your photos and the poets’ words–great pairings. Living in place has its great rewards; you show us some here. That so-called “low-fidelity” camera did its work too. I’m not surprised that Mary Oliver appeared a number of time. Thank you for what you’ve given us over the year in this venue. Gerri

    • steverobert says:

      Thanks for perusing the essay, Gerri. Not surprised that Mary Oliver’s words connected with YOU–she definitely has a sense of the whole and a fine way of expressing it. 🙂

  2. Beth Waterhouse says:

    What a holiday / solstice gift to us all, Steve. You have found your calling, to be sure. Your eye, your recall, your memory for quotes… It all comes together here and gives us a taste of grace. See you next week!


  3. Don Coon says:

    Steve, I have never been a great admirer and lover of nature, even though I do believe in the God that created it, and most times just take it for granted. But being with you this year and seeing it through your eyes, including in this essay, causes me to occasionally see nature in a whole new light. Thank you for the insights and the great way that you express yourself in words and pictures. You have influenced my life in a real way.

    • steverobert says:

      And to be fair, Don, nature CAN be a tough taskmaster. Growing up in Wyoming, you probably at times saw nature very differently than it is depicted in my essay. Thanks for your affirmations and I’m glad the words and pictures in my essay have helped cast a new light on nature for you. 🙂

  4. Jim Wilson says:

    Steve, what a wonderful way to combine the visual with the text! I’ll be more aware of patterns on my walks and in a few weeks on the North Shore. Some great thoughts from the writers. Thank you!

    • steverobert says:

      And we’ll have to be sure and look for patterns on Keller Golf Course when we play there together next summer, Jim. I hope that one pattern we see then is a string of pars! 🙂

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