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How To Read The Landscape

When preparing to read a landscape, know what to bring and what to leave behind. Preparations for reading a landscape begin before the reader actually steps outside their door; the most practical consideration (aside from choosing a landscape to read) is deciding what to bring with you and what to leave behind. Figuratively speaking, you should remember to take with you a sense of curiosity and openness, while leaving behind assumptions, biases, and projections that inhibit experiencing the landscape outside of the comfort of our own disciplines. Literally speaking, you will want to bring a limited set of tools that will allow you to learn and record some components of the landscape, but leave behind anything that will inhibit or encumber your experience. Resist the urge to bring the library or the laboratory with you to the landscape, opting instead for a small, portable selection of only the most essential tools (perhaps a camera, a notebook, a small guidebook or two, or a pair of binoculars). Recognize that you will encounter a number of cultural, biological, and historical components to your area of exploration, and that it will take multiple visits (perhaps at times with knowledgeable guides) to create a thorough and meaningful experience. (Jacquelyn Gill)

How to read the landscape


Take note of the types of land use in your landscape, such as crops, pastures, lawns, parking lots, and so on. One or two land uses may be dominant, or the landscape may be more like a patchwork. Are there many small patches of different land uses, or are there large patches? Imagine a map with different land uses shaded different colors (crops, animals, natural areas, residential areas, etc.). Consider how complex this map would be. Can you visualize any patterns? Think about how the people in your landscape supply their basic needs (food, water, shelter, social relations, etc.), and how those needs might relate to the different types of land use. (Abigail Popp)

Visit your landscape throughout the year. Pay attention to how the landscape changes each season. Note the species of plants or animals that you see at particular times of the year. It may be useful to talk to someone about the local ecosystem. Consider the ways in which the changing seasons might have affected other aspects of the landscape, such as the food people are able to eat, the physical location of structures such as dwellings, or the methods of human transportation. (Abigail Popp)

Look at the landscape through a different lens. When reading a landscape, people tend to look through a disciplinary lens that reflects their own education and experiences. This perspective can provide depth into your observations, but you should consider other ways of looking at the landscape that reflect different disciplines. Try to travel through your landscape with someone who is a specialist in a field other than your own. (Abigail Popp)

When reading American landscapes from a historical perspective... documents such as land survey records, old photos, aerial photos and census records can tell you a lot about how the landscape has been transformed over time. These documents can best show pre-European vegetation histories along with information on the ethnicities of settlers and their occupations, which can provide insight into previous impact on the land. Good questions to ask yourself when assessing these documents are:

Landscapes always express and reflect relationships: learn to recognize and understand these. Landscapes express the networks, connections, and mobilities that drive the ongoing process of place-making. This dynamism means that landscape is situated in a relational process and should never be regarded as pre-given, isolated, or static. For example, a seemingly ordinary landscape of a Wisconsin farm near a small town has always been affected by in-state markets, inter-state transportation systems, international trade, global flows of goods, and so on. Accordingly, landscape should always be understood as manifesting spatial relations on multiple scales. (Po-Yi Hung)

Think about the relation between landscape and modes of production and consumption. Modes of production and consumption constitute many elements and spatial relationships that you will find in landscapes, so the ways landscape functions have changed in different times and spaces. These can be traced by thinking about changes in production and consumption. The drive-through facility in fast-food restaurants, for instance, may reflect a history of Fordist car production, highway construction, and mass consumption. These in turn have helped create the fast food culture now embedded in contemporary American landscapes and the lifestyles that go with them. (Po-Yi Hung)

If you want to experience the landscape like a yogi, begin with an intention. Choose one element that you wish to engage with deeply. If you know ahead of time what that will be, take a guidebook with you. Perhaps you want to know better trees of a particular landscape. Look at the leaves to help you identify the particular species. Get to know their names, since familiarity creates possibilities for richer connections. Notice any pattern to the ways trees are planted and consider what story this may tell about why any patterns may exist and what functions the trees may serve. By focusing on a particular feature of the landscape, you can become more deeply familiar with its interconnectedness to physical and cultural aspects of a landscape. (Cathy DeShano)

What is your purpose in reading the landscape? Are you trying to generate broad questions, narrow down an area of focus, or examine particular features? Defining your purpose can guide you as you plan your itinerary, but it can also help you figure out what kind of research you need to do before you go. Leave yourself open to the possibility that the field trip itself might fruitfully disrupt your plans. (Michelle Niemann)

Your best tour guide in a landscape you do not yet know is the sun. Ask how the sun's location in the sky affects the look of the landscape around you. What flora has positioned itself in full sun? Which has made a niche for itself in the shade? How does the look and activity of a place change with variations in sunlight? How are dwellings (human and otherwise) constructed in relation to the day's dose of sunlight? Sunlight can reveal the characteristics of living things, such as the temperatures they prefer, their processes of drawing energy, and the qualities of their tools for navigation and hunting. It can also showcase the relationships between living things. Flowers and pollinators; predators and prey; winds and the boats, seeds, and winged things that ride them all have their preferred light of day. (Brian Hamilton)

Tasting a landscape is important. Taste (and make!) some of the traditional foods made on that landscape. Consider where the ingredients come from. Are they grown in that landscape, or were they brought from somewhere else? See if you can tell which plants and animals here are grown for food, and whether they originated in a different part of the world. See whether the food products remain within this landscape or travel to other landscapes. (Abigail Popp)

How do I learn from the locals? Sometimes the local people serve as a better (or at least more colorful) source of information on the landscape than the guide books, especially about the history of the town and the importance of local landmarks. Here are a few tips to making the most out of your talks with local people:

Your Neighborhood: Borrow a Cup of Sugar You just moved into a new neighborhood. Find the oldest neighbor on your block and go borrow a cup of sugar. She might live in the house with the birdfeeders in the backyard and a cherry and apple tree. This neighbor is retired and has time to talk. She happens to have built the first house on your block. She knows how many deer live in the wooded park and which ones eat her rose; how old the trees are and that a precious few came from the farm which once stood where this subdivision is now. When the bulldozers came, she dug up a few baby sugar maples and planted them and they light the fall landscape in gold and orange. In the sixty years since she left Germany, she's seen the local climate change: she'll show you flowers in her garden that could not grow in Wisconsin before. She'll also tell you how the neighborhood has changed ethnically, and that she is not happy about "those loud people" in the neighboring apartments. And then she'll send you home with a jar of raspberry jam she's made. (Trish O'Kane)

Think about where the water goes. When rain falls on the landscape, look at what kind of land it is falling on (pasture, cropland, urban areas, etc.). Different types of land will have different effects on water quality. Notice where the rivers, streams, and lakes are situated and where they go. Try to imagine how the pathway of water might have been shaped by humans. Are there dams, diversions, ditches, gullies, or gutters? What might those things tell you about how humans have used water in this landscape? (Abigail Popp)

What would an ecologist see here? Ecology is the study of the interactions of organisms and their natural environment, so an ecologist would look at what life is present in the area and how the land supports this life. What are the plant species present? Are they fed on or do they serve as habitat for animals or fungus? If there are herbivorous animals (deer, hogs, iguanas, etc.), what plants are they eating, and are there any carnivores that control these populations? What are the climate type, soil conditions, land cover, and geology that support this ecosystem? A passionate ecologist would read ahead of time about the composition of the ecosystem or ecosystems that she would be visiting to know what species to look for and then look for the relationships of those species and try to understand how that system supports life. (Kevin Gibbons) 041b061a72


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