Following a year of observing the land at Brook End I thought I’d share some of my learnt top tips for effective observation:
- Get into the habit of writing your observations down e.g. a dedicated journal by your bed or a separate digital one on your computer desktop
- Even if you are totally exhausted at the end of the day even a few ‘trigger’ words can remind you of what you gained that day e.g. ‘big storm’, ‘mushrooms’
- Record in a format so you think about all elements e.g. the kamana inventory (link) shows different catergories of reflection e.g. plants, animals, sun, weather (similar to a biotime diary)
- Take photographs! At Brook End I ensured every solstice I recorded over 90 pictures of the land
- Take photos from similar angles to really see the changes
- Look at all heights e.g. not just the herb layer if you’re a botanist
- Read my notes on holistic surveying for alternative ways of reading the land
- Observations can be effective from the same place (a sit spot – link) that you become intimate with and can really notice the changes
- Try going away for a few days and you will really notice any changes
- Ensure you go and observe in all weathers
- Observe not just the land but your self and the family’s energy e.g. When are you stressed? How long is long enough for visitors? Which jobs get ignored because the tools are too far away? How do you walk through the site, why?
- It is these observations and social patterns that have influenced my design decisions more than any other.
On Friday night I had the pleasure of attending a talk organised by Somerset Wildlife Trust given by renowned permaculture designer, teacher and author, Patrick Whitefield.
The talk explored the ‘Living Landscape’; how we can read and understand what we see around us. Patrick wove together an introduction to the core influences of our environment; the rocks and soils, the climate and the ‘biotic’, all the living beings, trees, plants, animals and insects. Humans also come under the biotic and it is clear that we effect the landscape more than other species, but as Patrick revealed this can often be in subtle, unnoticeable ways.
His slideshow of photographs illustrated each of his points, whether it was comparing the height of a tree that had grown in a sheltered spot to one bearing strong winds, or the different plants which can indicate acid or alkaline soil. He also warned about not jumping to conclusions when reading the landscape, giving an example of a boggy area of a woman’s field, which she had suggested for a pond, only to learn it was compaction of the soil that had made the puddles.
My favourite part was his observations of trees, why some had grown gnarled and crooked, and others thin and spindly. What came across was that we are living in a managed landscape, where humans have a function in coppicing trees to stop their crowns from splitting, or thinning out trees to allow light in to the canopy. We sometimes forget the extent to which we have shaped the landscape, you so casually drive past fields and woods and you never stop to think (unless you’re now a landscape reading addict after Patrick’s talk), why is that field that shape? Why is that tree that tall? Why are heathers growing in one spot but not another?
What I took away was looking at the land on a holistic level, considering all of the different processes of social and ecological change that contribute to how the land is shaped. I’m a bit of a self-confessed plant geek and sometimes I am so busy looking down at the ground layer that I forget to look up at the or the trees or sky and the weather above my head and think about their role in it all.
The passionate curiosity for trying to read and understand the landscape came across in every sentence Patrick spoke. I doubt anybody left the little hall in Ilminster without learning something new which will make being outside even richer. I am pretty certain that everybody left seeing the landscape with new eyes, even though it was dark, everyone in our carshare home was certainly peering out the windows trying to put our new knowledge to use!
If you’re interested in learning landscape reading skills you can buy a copy of Patrick’s book, here or see his website for the courses he runs. Thanks to the wildlife trust for organising the event, for a bargain of £2!
Posted in Blog, Book Reviews, Knowledge & Core Theory, Skill Development
Tagged biotic, climate, coppicing, courses, education, enclosure, farming, ilminster, landscape reading, microclimates, nicole vosper permaculture, observation, patrick whitefield, permaculture, permaculture design, plant identification, plants, skill learning, soil, the living landscape, tree, weather, wildlife, wildlife habitat, wildlife trust, woodland