Wendell Berry's solving for pattern

When I read the book Ecological Literacy several years back, I did not anticipate that Wendell Berry's essay on Solving for Pattern (free pdf download) would stick with me endlessly. It remains one of the most profound essays I have ever read. I took notes when I reread it the first time which I'll share with you here. This will serve as a preliminary to a praxis I'm evolving to facilitate solving for pattern using some of the insights from actor-network theory.

Wendell Berry tells us there are three kinds of solutions:
  1. Bad Solutions that cause a ramifying set of new problems (like warming a wilderness clearing at night with a small campfire that starts a raging forest fire)
  2. Bad Solutions that immediately worsen the immediate problem (like compounding the difficulty of moving forward by removing the wheels to lighten the load)
  3. Good Solutions that function in harmony with larger patterns (like composting to generate nutrients enriched soil and reduce the mass of disposed waste)

He then details attributes of this third kind of "good solutions":
  • The solution accepts given limits of the situation, rather than becoming far fetched or expansive
  • The solution accepts the discipline involved rather than imposing foreign disciplines
  • The solution improves balance and symmetries rather than pursuing singular improvements at the expense of other facets
  • The solution solves more than one problem rather than tackling a complex situation in piecemeal fashion
  • The solution satisfies a whole range of criteria rather than optimizing, idealizing or specializing what gets satisfied
  • The solution makes a clear distinction between biological and mechanical order rather than perceiving natural dynamics as machines to fix
  • The solution incorporates wide margins so the whole is not jeopardized by failure of one component, rather than setting up a cascading system failure
  • The solution realizes a right proportion, rather than going for a maximum gain, overkill and heavy handed solutions
  • The solution is affordable rather than making individuals rich and forcing others to overspend
  • The solution occurs in place and at work within the organism rather than remotely, abstractly or ideally
  • The solution understands the minds, bodies and environment as one organism rather than separate entities
  • The solution is good for each part as well as for the whole, rather than exploiting weaknesses and vulnerabilities
  • The solution is in harmony with good character rather than pursuing novelty, fashion, greed or pride
More than two year ago, I wrote a persistently popular post titled Solving for pattern which explores the cognitive obstacles to this praxis. Last week I realized that we make solving for pattern difficult for ourselves when we picture situations comprised of objects, people and other things. We effectively "black box" all those interactive interests which spawn invisible connections to the other "things". However, when we picture the assemblages of interests in flux, we've set ourselves up to solve for pattern easily. I explore this insight further in my next post.


  1. I agree with all except for: The solution accepts the discipline involved rather than imposing foreign disciplines. Sometimes it takes the imposition of foreign disciplines to realize the boundaries of the discipline involved.

    I agree with out about breaking out of the boundaries. But it is tricky because we have naturally imposed boundaries that help us to access the route of a problem. Using your forest fire example, it is not necessary to pour water on the entire forest to one burning tree or area. On the other hand, who says water is the best solution? Why do we use water? Because we have been conditioned to do so and without understanding why it is effective. In a given circumstance, sand might do better. But if you have never even seen sand, you would not think of using it.

    For my international marketing and international communication classes, I have my students draw a box on sheet of blank paper. Often it looks like a frame with about an inch margin around the picture. Then I have them draw an image (they can use words, drawings, symbols) of a foreign country. Most draw it within the box. When I ask them why, they say because I told them to. However, I purposely don't tell them to do so. Some do draw outside of the box.

    At the route of this (which my students catch on to) is that from the time they are children, they are told to draw within the lines. It is hard to think outside of the box and do something that is contrary to what we are conditioned to do as children.

  2. I suspect that Wendell Berry would welcome your refinement of the concept of "foreign disciplines" by redefining them as integral technologies for defining boundaries, limitations, blind spots, etc.

    Those cognitive limitations you're seeing with your students would function superbly in tribal settings with simple routines and minimal environmental turbulence. Too bad for those students that life is becoming more complex, turbulent and rapidly evolving.

    Thanks for your added thoughts, Virginia!