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Four ways of reading the land

Story & photographs: Russ Grayson 1998

An ability to read the landscape is a critical skill for landscape designers, farmers and other landusers.

David Holmgren describes four techniques that have proven of value.

ACCORDING to David Holmgren, author of Trees on the Treeless Plain – A Revegetation Manual for Central Victoria and Permaculture — Principles and Pathways Towards Sustainability, there are four approaches to reading the land: scientific information, field naturalism, contemplative awareness and the reading of indicators.

“An ability to read landscape”, says David, “provides the landuse designer the opportunity to work with rather than against the processes of nature.”

The value of scientific information

Bodies of scientific knowledge such as ecology, geography, geology and botany provide a systematic set of tools for understanding landscapes and the processes which have shaped and that remain active in them.

The use of analysis, field guides and botanic keys to identify the geology, soils, plants and animals in the landscape, and knowing something about their interactions, gives us clues about natural processes and how they shape sites.

Field naturalism

“This is a more subjective approach than the use of scientific information because it involves the use of the senses — sight, touch, smell, taste”, says David.

“In this process, we make use of the techniques of the nineteenth century naturalists. In assessing an area of land for potential use we utilise observation and the recording of what is observed, then we make deductions to uncover patterns and processes active in the landscape. ”

Drawing, photography, the use of a tape recorder and, in the case of plants — pressings— are the tools of field naturalism. Simple field sketches showing the outline of landscape features, with labels, is another useful tool.

Contemplative awareness

Passive, relaxed perception is the key to the use of contemplative awareness as a tool of landcape design.

“The brain’s reasoning processes are not made use of and the mind is allowed to enter a relaxed, quiet and receptive state. Immersion in the process is the key”, insists David.

He says that mountain tops are especially suitable locations for the use of contemplative awareness.

“The high vantage point induces a sense of detachment and allows perception of patterns of vegetation, geography and settlement in the landscape.”

The use of indicators

“Indicators are signposts in the landscape”, says David, “the knowledge of which is gained through scientific information, field naturalism and contemplative awareness”.

Plants, animals and geographic features can be indicators that signify processes and environmental conditions in the landscape.

“Knowing the appearance of particular patterns of vegetation found in a region and making deductions about microclimate and soil conditions facilitates the rapid reading of landscapes”.

Other methodologies

“Pattern is a particularly important factor that leads to insights into landscape processes”, says David.

“Patterns may be of gully, ridge and valley, vegetation and drainage. The colour of vegetation, the form of tree growth and the way that foliage reflects light can indicate conditions such as the type of vegetation, the microclimate and soil conditions”.

A knowledge of geographic and geological features is useful in reading pattern in a landscape.

Techniques are complementary

“This suite of techniques to read the land is complementary — each techniques complements the others”, David explains.

“Together, they build a broader appreciation of the landscape, its condition and the processes shaping it. With this knowledge, designers can work with landscape processes to develop solutions in accordance with the land’s unique characteristics”.

The landuse designs resulting from the use of this combined suite of techniques have greater chance to be time and energy efficient, productive and durable.

Landuse planning tools

Remote sensing

The use of satellite and aerial photography images are of limited use in the planning of small parcels of land but provide an idea of the larger landscape. Satellite images are made in visible and infra-red light, less commonly by radar with synthetic colour.

Geographic information systems

Integrated, computer-based land information mapping systems combining remote imaging, topographic and cadastral mapping and text-based information.

Topographic maps

Available in various scales and showing the height of land above a datum point (Australian Height Datum) and topographic, vegetation, settlement and transport patterns.

Cadastral maps

Show the location of property boundaries.

Orthophoto maps

Combine aerial photography overlaid with conturs, the location of structures, transport routes, towns and landuses.

Sketch maps

Hand drawn, topographic impressions of an area made with limited land survey information. Less accurate than topographic maps.

Tourist maps

Show landforms by colour, transport routes and the location of settlements. Little topographic detail.

Oral history and traditional knowledge

Documented or undocumented information that may be useful to landuse planners as a record of earlier landuse, events and processes. Information may be held by older community members and documented in books, articles, old photographs, illustrations (such as art work) and official records.

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