Fractals of Growth

By Eric Alan

(Posted in Celebrate What’s Right With The World, by Dewitt Jones)

When I was a kid, I loved drawing the skeletons of trees, having discovered the grace of bare branches and trunks. They take no wrong turns. One little branch simply leads to the next, yet a beautiful pattern emerges. Each tree’s shape is unique yet consistent in how it forms. Even as a small child, I could mimic patterns of trees with a simple black pen, and watch growth emerge into character. I couldn’t predict or plan my tree drawings, but I didn’t need to. It felt like magic. It still does. It mirrors how we all grow as people.

Tree character shows best in winter, when the camouflage of leaves has fallen away. All that remains is what’s strong enough to withstand hard weather, and that core strength is beautiful. Locally, oaks reveal themselves most. They’re closest to what I instinctively drew as a child.

In my own growth, I discovered fractals and chaos theory while attaining a mathematics degree. Fractals are exactly what I’d noticed and drawn as a child: irregularities within irregularities, from which order emerges. Chaos theory explores a related coalescence, viewing chaos as infinitely complex order, where tiny changes in initial conditions produce vast differences in outcome. Together, they’re a description of nature’s wondrous ways, artistic and mathematical, even spiritual. They explain my childhood drawings and my love of winter oaks.

Time has illuminated for me how that applies to us too, in our weathered soul growth. I understand now that the intelligence of trees—brilliance needing no mind—is the intelligence of growth in general. Growth’s natural insistence is deeper than we are, even as it expresses itself through our compelling instinct to keep growing despite everything. All of life expresses growth’s timeless drive. 

No accident that the most majestic oaks have withstood decades or even centuries of storms. The prevailing winds are visible in the jagged arcs of their unique branches. So is their relationship to other oaks around them, shaped differently by the same storms. It’s evident which trees were able to withstand old fierce weather, and which now feed the soil for others after their strength finally faded. 

We too have to age to see into aging’s beauty; how roughness eventually becomes character. We have to live long enough to see our scars birth new growth. That we can and must do such growth feels ever more truthful to me, as storms of all forms intensify in our current era. 

What tiny differences in our initial conditions will create vastly different outcomes for us, within the order of chaos? An essential one is outlook, and I’ve seen even in my toughest growth how gratitude and celebration change outcomes in relationships, work, even healing from illness or emotional injury. Gratitude is a gritty practical path, within our best and most difficult days.

So I think I’ll go back to drawing trees. I finally understand that my childhood scribbles were a drawing of our shared path forward. Together we’re a grove, an ecosystem, another expression of the fractals of oaks.

May we all grow with the wisdom of trees.

Botanical Gardens, Asheville, N. Carolina

Eric Alan is an author, photographer, and workshop leader who has contributed to the Celebrate project since 2011. His forthcoming book Grateful by Nature will be released in May, 2022. His previous books include Wild Grace: Nature as a Spiritual Path, and Grace and Tranquility. More information at 

Eric Alan

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