The Living Landscape: How To Read & Understand It

Pippa Johns | Monday, 3rd August 2009
We take the geography of our towns, countryside and countries so much for granted that we have forgotten how to 'read' the landscapes around us. Pippa Johns relearns old skills from Patrick Whitefield's new book
Author: Patrick Whitefield
Publisher: Permanent Publications
Publication year: 2009
RRP: £19.95

All permaculture design starts with a period of thorough observation. Observing a site over time and doing our best to understand what is going on helps us to make decisions and take actions that work in harmony with the existing natural processes; to choose species that will do well on a site because we know what grows there well already, to make changes only where they are necessary and to get the best results from any changes we do make.

As a permaculture tutor I regularly lead observation exercises and encourage students to develop their skills of observation and I am also always learning and developing my own. This new book by renowned permaculturist Patrick Whitefield is already the catalyst to a huge leap in my observation skills and my understanding of the landscape around me. It is a truly fascinating book, the result of Patrick's many years of looking and listening, taking notes, making sketches and asking questions on his walks, train journeys and travels from the Scottish Highlands to the South Downs.

The book takes the reader on a journey around the British landscape, telling all you need to know to understand how that landscape may have been formed; from rocks, through soil to vegetation and the intricate web of interactions between plants, animals, climate and people that makes a landscape what it is today: "The eternal dance between human and natural factors which goes to make up the landscape".

Learning to read the landscape

The book opens with a chapter on how to go about reading the land-scape and Patrick is clear that we can never be absolutely sure that we know exactly what is going on, there are too many factors at work over too long a period of time. However by developing our skills of observation and understanding we can make a well informed guess. The following chapters then go on to look in detail at rocks, soil and climate, people's historical impact, animals and plants, woodlands, grasslands and moors. There are also chapters on succession or how changes in the landscape happen over time, water and roads and boundaries. There is a huge amount of information here, but the text is always accessible and easy to read and it certainly held my interest. Each chapter is interspersed with diagrams, sketches and notes that Patrick has taken on walks and train rides over the years. These really enhance the book and as a more visual learner were important to my understanding. They illustrate the points being made in the text with real life examples and give the reader a sense of connection with the author and his world – this is in no way a dry text book but the distillation of one person's passion and connection with the land around him.

The book is an excellent learning resource and guide for permaculturists working on the land and permaculture teachers. I am sure it will go on the highly recommended list for our perma-culture courses here in Brighton. But its audience will I hope be much, much wider than this. Whilst Patrick never shies away from mentioning permaculture and his work as a designer and teacher, the book is in no way limited to being a permaculture text. It will appeal to a very wide audience of people who feel some connection to the British landscape and who are interested to learn more about it; how they can read it and how they, historically and in the present, interact with it. My neighbour is a tree warden and active on the South Downs joint committee and I have it in mind to give him a copy. I am convinced he will enjoy it and that it will also serve as a gentle introduction to lots of key permaculture concepts.

A new way of looking at the world

For myself, I now find I am looking at the landscapes around me with new eyes, understanding, where before I would barely have noticed, why the hills are a certain shape, or why a plant is growing where it is; seeing ridge and furrow shapes in the field and knowing how they were made and why, noticing the plants in the woods I visit weekly and beginning to form an understanding of the wood's age and history as a result. It feels like the beginning of a journey that will serve me greatly in my permaculture work and will deepen my relationship with the land I live in.