Reading the Landscape

On our KSCA Regenerative Agriculture Road Trip to New England, we visited three significant agricultural landscapes: two established farms (Tim Wright and Glenn Morris) and the in-transition land of The Living Classroom.

At all three sites, our hosts walked us around, drove us about in the back of utes, and showed us detailed maps of the land. We had a great time drinking in their wisdom of “land management”, which is about intentionally designing complex systems and constantly monitoring them to see whether they are functioning as planned. It’s about oscillating between radically different scales: poring over plans and documents, and having an embodied experience out there in the field.

tim wrights map of lanaTim Wright’s map of Lana showing sequence of stock movements from paddock to paddock in a holistic grazing system.

eloise inspecting a field at Lana
Eloise Lindeback visiting one of the paddocks at Tim Wright’s farm Lana.

As someone who has followed the work of PA Yeomans for several years, I’m particularly interested in topography and hydrology – the way that the surface of the earth rises and falls, and the way that this local variation in altitude affects the flows of water over the land. Careful design of Keyline systems can hold water within the soil rather than having it run off quickly to the creek, and this relies on deep understanding of topography. I’m always really impressed by the successful functioning of dams in Keyline farming systems, with their ingenius overflow channels seeping into the land down-hill.

nevallan pa yeomansNevallan – a farm by PA Yeomans – Detail of offset lithographic print by Ian Milliss and Lucas Ihlein, 2011

Looking at topographical maps, 3D models, and aerial photographs it all makes sense (and it helps to have the extra annotations and diagrammatic arrows on the page). However, physically “reading” the topography of the land itself can be more difficult.

A few years ago I wrote this blog post about “seeing landscape” – and I asked how we can develop the ability to visually understand topography, following Yeomans’ example.

Since our road trip, I’ve been thinking further about this. Beyond “seeing” landscape, I’ve been wondering how we can “read” landscape … What if we imagine the paddock as a page?

When you hold a book in your hands and read the words, you can instantly see the whole laid out in front of you, and the connections between the components. Your eyes make a journey through a landscape of words on a page whose connections are clear and linear.

The Challenge of Landscape contour map YeomansPA Yeomans The Challenge of Landscape and The City Forest Contour Map – Detail of Offset Lithographic print by Lucas Ihlein and Ian Milliss, 2011

However, imagine that your body is the size of a tiny comma on the page. Now you have to traipse across each letter to painstakingly piece together each word, each sentence, now a paragraph, and finally an overarching narrative. That’s a bit like how it feels to be on the land – to be reading it from within, at a 1:1 scale.

I imagine that, like any form of literacy, it takes much time and practice to develop this sort of landscape-literacy.


  1. Interesting thoughts, Lucas. For me it’s the difference between embodied and rational knowledge – know-how and “know-that” (to use Gilbert Ryle’s terminology). We can “know that” such and such through facts and maps, but know-how and skills and virtuosity can only be developed in direct interaction with the landscape. I don’t think being the comma is a limitation. Our body is the best research tool we have. Still on the topic of different kinds of knowledges, the Portuguese language (and I’m sure other Latin languages too) makes a distinction between “saber” and “conhocer”. The former is for knowledge that one learns intellectually; the latter is for first-hand experiential knowledge and is used, for instance, when talking about knowing a person or knowing a certain place. I’m really interested in the idea of getting to know (or falling in love with) a place, as one would a person… heaps more thoughts, but I’ll save it for the campfire!

  2. Thanks Marco – yes I see what you mean about know-how vs know-that, and the use of two different verbs in latin languages (in italian it’s sapere and conoscere).

    I wonder if knowing landscape is somehow a combination of these two modes of knowing? Perhaps that the know-how of experiencing landscape is enhanced/deepened through the use of know-that which maps and facts afford?

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