Lisa Lillywhite shares how her children’s Waldorf preschool inspired her own creative journey into looking for numbers and shapes in the natural world
As a relatively new mum, I enrolled my children into a Waldorf-inspired preschool, and my early parenting was guided by the creative, nurturing and rhythmic philosophy of this Steiner-influenced setting. My creativity up until then had been as a designer within the high-stress entertainment industry in London, and I wasn’t prepared for the creative ideas that came to me outside my usual working environment.
Yet the preschool inspired me. I assume it was intended to nurture the preschoolers, but I gained just as much as my children did. It offered a fertile ground to try out my faltering attempts at parenting toddlers who were quickly developing independent minds.
The attention to natural materials and the fairy tale-style storytelling kept me engrossed. It introduced me to rhythms of seasonal planting and crafting which I had long forgotten, and it awoke the child in me. I remembered myself building a bushy den in the garden. I remembered making things from fabric and thread. Who is that girl? Where is she?
Inevitably, my children started school, and the introduction of the education system didn’t sit well with me. “We do one number a month,” her infant teacher explained. “It’s October and we’re doing the number six: six is one plus five; six is three plus three, and so on. That’s about it really.” That is a direct quote! I was speechless, but I didn’t know why. And it took me a while to work it out. How could this new educational space be so disconnected from that nurturing and playful preschool?
There is a language of pattern and symmetry throughout the natural world
That’s when it started. This ability to put the designer’s eye onto nature and see the archetypes of the numbers that exist therein. Having been a designer for theatre, the ability to tell stories through pictures was a skill I realised could transcend the entertainment industry.
Six is a snowflake. Six is a beehive.
A snowflake is the perfect display of symmetry. It will always tell its sixfold story because that’s the way the structure of water vapour crystallises. And the bee tells a story of hexagons being the optimal use of space with the wax secreted from its abdomen. It’s the least amount of wax to hold the maximum amount of honey. Hexagons fill the space entirely leaving no gaps. The bee knows and lives out this story.
So that’s what I do. I continue to see shapes and patterns as they sit within the natural world. And I thread those shapes in the understanding that this offers a soulful experience in line with the “head, heart and hands” Waldorf philosophy.
Leaving behind abstract number
It is necessary to consider what numbers are – to see them as shapes and expressions, not as numeric measurements. We deal very much in abstract numbers in this era, a concept given to us by the ancient Greeks – the ability to ‘think’ of number and to perform abstract functions with it. And there are many others down the long line of history who have packaged numbers for us.
“Who is ever going to come up to me in the street and ask me what 3(y+7)-42 is?” my daughter asked, as I dropped her at school one February morning in her first year of secondary school. Put like that, you have to agree with her. “What is the point of algebra?” she continued. I didn’t have an answer. At least, not one that fit into the 60-second ‘goodbye-and-have-a-great-day’ window.
So, on top of the ancient Greeks and others, we have mainstream education to thank for putting all these things into a curriculum which appears to bear little relevance to the life of the Instagram-powered teenager.
If I’d had time at that drop-off, or my time again with the infant teacher, I might have taken the words of the research scientist and author Ian Stewart. On the beauty of mathematics in nature, he writes, “Those symbols on the page come no closer to the true beauty of the subject than the staves and sixteenth notes of musical notation come to a complete Beethoven symphony.”
Number is an expression and there are endless ways it can be expressed
Numbers can be expressed as digits; as Roman numerals; as words; as collections of rocks; as a shape with sides joined together; as intersecting lines; as a glyph of a Mayan god on an ancient calendar. And if we take the time to look at nature, we will see an expression of the number five in a primrose or in a seed pod. We’ll see it at the centre of the apple. And we’ll see it in the unfurling sepals of the rose. We’ll see it in age-old fossils and echoed through the varied forms of marine life. We’ll see it in the pattern the planets make, and we’ll see it in ourselves. When you have discovered the forms the number five takes and how it multiplies infinitely, the regenerative power of five will leave you humbled.
Pattern is where numbers interact
One expression of a number will interact with another: that’s pattern. Pattern is the way these expressions talk to each other. Pattern is where numbers interact, and form is where numbers are manifest.
The geometers of old knew this. They practised geometry to know the mysteries of the universe. To understand the universe’s ability to create cycles of shapes and patterns was to know life itself. All has come from the infinite and all will return.
But I realise that claiming maths is actually spiritual development is even less likely to attract the teenager!
Of course, we no longer think of geometry in this way. We use protractors and Pythagoras to prove theorems and pass exams. In a world of CAD drawing, the need to construct an accurate square on a piece of paper seems defunct. In Google SketchUp you can model a house in 3D or you can create your fantasy world in Minecraft. One can bypass 2D altogether. I was a stage designer remember – I draughted drawings on tracing paper and I’m not even that old. Computer-aided draughting and 3D took over very fast.
Yet, like a car journey compared to walking, you arrive at your goal so much quicker, but what do you miss? The flowers at the roadside; the chat and lunch in the pub; the energised ache of muscles stretched. You skip the ‘experience’.
By skipping the building blocks of pattern and form we have lost experiencing an understanding. We miss developing a subtle consciousness of what the universe is made from. And continuing on the journey from there, like a house without foundations, our knowledge is ungrounded. It doesn’t seem to run deep enough to offer sustenance when it’s needed.
So rather than harp on about what we lack, let’s introduce an experience of these simple symmetries that can be seen in the natural world alongside their inherent mathematical beauty. There is so much we can see if we really look. We can engage the head, hands and the heart. It’s similar to Eastern religions that offer practices to open up the awareness and consciousness to experiences of the concepts of these philosophies.
I believe it is time to introduce a consciousness to the understanding of numbers. We need this now more than ever. And maybe this can be done through the threading of simple natural forms.
Ian Stewart, the research scientist previously mentioned, refers to two kinds of mathematical beauty: the logical and the visual. “This kind of [logical] beauty is intellectual and not easily accessible to the uninitiated. Visual beauty in contrast has an immediate and direct appeal even to a casual observer.” About the snowflake, he says, “It appeals to our sense of symmetry and complexity, and these are the essence of mathematics.”
We can experience this simplicity and complexity at the same time. That “essence” can be experienced through our hands, into our hearts, as we craft and thread, returning our soul to a long-forgotten understanding. And, in that, there is healing.
Lisa Lillywhite lives in Clonakilty, Ireland, with her partner, Shane, and their daughters, Scarlett and Blaze. Shestarted The Smart Happy Project to introduce families to the wonders of natural shapes and how numbers are manifest in nature. Following in the footsteps of philosophers and geometers, Lisa reveals our journey as humans through a natural world governed by patterns we can see and understand.
Stitch Upon a Star kits are available at The Smart Happy Project shop. These simple threading kits explore the quality of the number five through craft, while encouraging the observation of how this archetype appears in nature around us.