Sunday, March 28, 2010

All Your Ducks in a Row

Yesterday, my wife and I ventured out to one of our favorite local garden centers, Scottsdale Farms in Alpharetta. Scottsdale was busy, so much so that for a moment, it was easy to forget about the recession and its deleterious effects on our humble gardening efforts. We have watched this business grow from a semi-rural startup to what now appears to be a full-service green entertainment center, complete with a chic little cafe, a perpetual Christmas mini-shop, and tons of unique specimens that are hard to find elsewhere. In short, Scottsdale is a success story, and I think I'm beginning to understand why.

As I wandered through the store and around the property, I could not help but notice the pervasive symmetry of the place. Everywhere, pots were lined up in measured rows. Even the buildings themselves adhered to a balanced structure. And it dawned on me that one of the primary factors which gives this place so much appeal is that very symmetry, which is consciously or unconsciously displayed everywhere. The eye is drawn to the straight lines of trees, the grid-like groupings of plants of the same type, and even the roofs of the greenhouses. The whole effect is very calming in a way.

Of course, our attraction to symmetry is not limited to garden center displays -- symmetry in human faces and bodies has a similar effect. Researchers have postulated that the degree of symmetry possessed by a person provides subconscious clues to that person's genetic health. We are programmed in the womb to be perfectly (externally) symmetrical, to develop two sides with the spine as the center. Nevertheless, various factors such as genetic abnormalities, poor nutrition, or mild infection can morph our initial symmetry into the features with which we are eventually born. Perhaps that is why a wink or a sly, crooked smile catches our attention. Is it that one-off introduction of asymmetry that makes us take a second look?

Architecture is, obviously, full of examples of symmetry dating back as least as far as the Roman Empire. The traditional Federal-style architecture so prevalent in the late 1700's and 1800's continues to influence design of both commercial and residential structures, even today. Federal architecture was employed to a great extent in Eastern cities such as Charleston, Savannah, and Boston, cities where we typically regard the homes as "grand" or "stately". There is no getting around the fact that the careful symmetry of these buildings is a large part of what makes them so appealing to us.

And of course, symmetry is found everywhere in the natural world, from the shape of a maple leaf to the antlers of an elk. There's no escaping it, and that is probably a good thing, for without it, the world would be dangerously out of balance. Would you eat a lopsided cheeseburger or find yourself attracted to a person with a third eye on the side of his or her head?  Well, okay, maybe you would, but that's fodder for another blog entry altogether. For now, just relax, enjoy the balance of nature, and try to sit up straight. Someone may be watching.