Look around you. How many right angles can you count? We are surrounded by squares. We drive along street grids to get to our office cubicles to spend our days staring at spreadsheets filled with cells of numbers. Modern humans love order and there is nothing more orderly than a square.
And, while there is much to celebrate about grids — checkers, bingo, waffles — they aren’t natural. They are a human construct. Spend too much time with right angles and they will make your ancient primate brain anxious and irritable.
I know this from experience, spending most of my days with well-ordered thoughts: budgets, strategic plans, tactical execution. A leads to B leads to C. But what if you need to think outside the grid? What if you need to innovate, set your mind aloft or just simply relax?
What if you need A to lead to L — or purple?
That is the moment to break out of the neat right angles of the modern human world and go to the woods: a place without squares. An amble through the non-linear woods encourages unexpected connections and bursts of creativity.
Off the Grid in Central Park
This is not a new idea. In the 1850s, when Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were designing Central Park in New York City, they were very deliberate in their approach to bringing the randomness of nature into the city’s famous grid. As Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar relate in The Park and the People, “Vaux and Olmsted intended to insulate Central Park visually from the city’s ‘confined and formal lines.’”
To accomplish this, they painstakingly landscaped whole swaths of the park to ensure a lack of symmetry, and as Vaux wrote, “suggest the pleasant ideas…and agreeable variety to the eye.”
They even constructed a maddeningly inefficient path through one part of the park, that will ensure you are late getting back from your lunchtime walk should you happen to stumble into it. It is aptly named The Ramble.
Standing in a Spreadsheet
Not long ago, after a fairly intense period of rational thinking and work, I craved a long walk to allow my mind to wander. To help me get from A to L to Purple. And so I went for a walk in the George Washington National Forest in West Virginia.
On this humid August day, the crunch of the gravel, the rustle of the trees, and the buzzing maracas of the cicadas laid down a nice groove for these mental wanderings. The trail meandered up and down hills, around ancient Appalachian stones, across streams and under a canopy of general deciduousness.
It was the opposite of right angles. And as I tromped along, the rows and columns of my normal thoughts slowly faded away and were replaced with the gentle turns and unexpected switchbacks of the wandering mind.
I continued my tromp for some time. The forest around me was present in the background, but not in focus. Most of my brain power was somewhere else — daydreams, thoughts of the past or the future. It was therefore only slowly and subtly that I perceived a change in my surroundings.
Something was not quite right, so I stopped tromping and stood still.
I looked around. Canopy of trees above, brambles below, pine needles at my feet. All still nature. All still forest. And yet somehow strange….?
In an instant I realized what was wrong. I was standing in a forest filled with right angles. At some point in my walking reverie, the randomness of nature had changed to orderly row upon row of perfectly evenly spaced trees. I was standing in a spreadsheet.
My first thought was that we really are living in a huge virtual reality video game and one of the designers had gotten sloppy. My second thought, which was more rational (though perhaps equally likely) is that I had stumbled on an abandoned tree farm in the middle of the forest.
I welled up with the hope that I had found The Farm of Forgotten Christmas Trees, and I was already imagining the best-selling children’s book I could write of the same name. Sadly, right at that moment, a fellow hiker happened by, looked up, and informed me that it had likely been a pulp tree farm. The Farm of Forgotten Pulp Trees seemed to have far less publishing potential and my mind moved on.
Here I stood in the right angle pulp forest, reflecting on this unexpected diversion. It bothered me. It pulled me out of my daydream and back to an orderly puzzle to solve. “Even here,” I thought, “humans have quietly invaded nature with rows and columns — for shame!”
For Pete’s sake.
Happily, as I continued my stroll, the tree grid vanished as quickly as it had begun, and I was back amongst nature’s non-symmetry.
The big Appalachian rocks were once again dotting the trail as if they had been casually dropped there millennia ago; the trees were happily scattered, some straight up, some leaning in odd ways; the path itself was serpentine. My shoulders relaxed, my feet crunched in the leaves below, I took a deep breath and began walking again.
In time my mind returned to its random wandering: once again happy to mimic nature’s disorder all around me. Once again providing an agreeable variety to the eye.
The next time you find yourself stuck on a problem or having trouble thinking outside the box, consider stepping outside the grid. There’s a whole forest waiting to help. Just watch out for those abandoned pulp farms.