Reading Landscape With David Holmgren

landscape
David walking through a central Victorian landscape. Photo by Dan Palmer

Permaculture invites us to slow down and really take stock of what is happening in a place before we go about changing or developing it. Whether a garden, farm or something else, we start by asking what is unique about this place and how did it get to be the way it is now? Finding answers to these questions is not always easy and is a once-strong skill modern humans have mostly lost.

Permaculture co-originator David Holmgren has a name for this skill. He calls it ‘reading landscape’, and after decades of practice he’s become really good at honing in on the unique character of a place through direct observation.

This article shares some of the things David does as he reads landscape. Even though these observations are based on David’s experiences of reading large rural properties, they are equally applicable in your backyard or any place you’d like to get better acquainted with.

Slow Down (And Lose Your Design Agenda)

It can be almost impossible to let go of one’s goals, design ideas, deadlines and budgets in order to simply be here and now with a place. To be where there is no agenda other than getting to know here better. But this is an essential prerequisite to really reading landscape, as opposed to merely skimming over the surface.

‘In reading landscape, I’ve taught that if we are in a rush and want to achieve some goal, this doesn’t really help,’ explains David. ‘We’ve got to be prepared to be open and accumulate understanding that turns out to be useful, in some context, over time. If we’re goal oriented and in a rush, it’s better to go off and get the recipe out of the book or do what you’re told. People go, “how can I learn by just staring at what’s going on… what is it, where’s the answer, just tell me!” The answer is that deeper awareness.’

The best answers and design solutions bubble up unexpectedly and in their own time from a deep awareness of what is. Reaching into the cultural grab bag for some pre-cooked idea to impose will always deliver second-rate outcomes. Furthermore, deep awareness and mental hurry are mutually exclusive. If you don’t slow down, as the saying goes, nothing much of value can catch up to you, including the deep truths of the landscape you are encountering.

Turn Up Your Sensitivity

Having slowed your mental pace and lost your agenda, it is time to dial up the volume on your inbuilt sensory apparatus.

‘Our senses are all turned down because of the harsh, onoff, digital, bright, heavy sensory input from our industrialised urban world,’ says David. ‘You take teenagers out into nature and they say, “What’s going on? There’s nothing happening”. We need to turn up the volume and turn up the sensitivity to see the small, the subtle, the slow moving things.’

David will pick up on a subtle increase in tree height or leaf density as we move though a stand of trees planted at the same time. The tiny piece of quartz rock you or I would walk straight past calls out to him as if it were coated in fluorescent paint.

Work The Edges

Something David is constantly noticing and tracing is edges— those transitional zones where one thing stops and something else starts. Where does the red soil stop and the grey soil begin? Where does this catchment become that catchment? Where is the valley’s high frost line or the creek’s high water mark? In tracing these edges, David is unpacking the mosaic of distinct areas that define the place’s unique character.

Even though the focus here is simply observing, the deeper one’s awareness of this character, the better decisions made when it comes to design and develop the place.

Keep in mind also that often such edges are not self-evident. They can be subtle and gradational, where the two sides have coalesced in a fuzzy strip of varying width. It can take a lot of moving about in a mentally unrushed and sensitive state to locate such edges.

Become A Reader Of Signs

When David starts reading a landscape, it’s like the tracker switch has been flicked. David turns into something like a sniffer dog, or a hunter-gatherer using traces such as footprints, tufts of fur, manure, scent and so on to track down dinner.

Yet David’s is a different kind of tracking. Rather than tracking down an animal in the landscape, it is as if the animal being tracked is the entire landscape. It’s like he’s walking around on the back of a giant creature, seeing each part as a clue or indicator bringing him closer to an appreciation of the entire beast (or site).

He talks about the sense in which all of the things that have happened in a place are still there. What he does with this sense is rather subtle. The signs in rocks, trees, landforms and so on become clues alerting him to what happened here yesterday, or last year, or 1000 years ago, or 400 million years ago (the age of much of the sedimentary rock in his area).

David then uses that information to come back and not only to form a fuller picture of what is happening in the entire landscape today, but where it is heading tomorrow, and next year, and where it might be 100 years from now.

An example is David approaching an old pile of rocks. He firstly ascertained whether they were formed on the ocean floor or by a volcanic lava flow. Finding them to be volcanic, the next question was whether they were rounded from the erosive flow of water (which would indicate they had come from an old stream bed) or chemically rounded (which would indicate they had been pulled directly out of the 4 million year old lava flow which formed them).

Playfully Inquire

‘Reading landscape involves hypotheses, guesses, question marks all the time—much more than it involves answers,’ says David.

David reading landscape is an inquiry. He is constantly moving from direct observations to theories that might explain them. Often he’ll reason from several observed facts to a hypothesis so compelling it might seem to become a fact. But a moment later he’ll casually throw it aside and generate an alternative even more consistent with the observations.

This ability to hold one’s theories lightly, to constantly try and break them against the facts, and to not forget that they are theories, is integral to David’s whole approach. There are also times when David will make predictions from a theory, seek and find multiple supporting observations, to the point where that theory has now actually been observed and does become a fact.


Clockwise from top: David trying to figure out what caused the damage to this tree trunk; David investigating a sheet layer of ironstone forming the base of a creek; David observing the clues in some small stones where a new fence post has just gone in. Photos by Dan Palmer


Observe And Interact

Observe and interact is one of David’s twelve principles of permaculture design and he certainly walks that talk when reading landscape. He doesn’t stop at observing. He is regularly touching things, poking and prodding them, pulling up a small rotted stump to look beneath, rolling a stone around in his hands, chipping away at a rock surface, digging a hole to look at the soil. He observes, then interacts, which brings up something new to observe.

Zoom In And Out

Our default way of understanding something is to pick it out and then zoom in to observe its component parts. David does this when he looks at a gum tree—he becomes curious to identify, then zooms in to examine a component leaf or gumnut.

Yet he is constantly doing something that is culturally less common. He is constantly zooming out to see that thing as a nested part of a larger whole system. In the case of the gum tree, if the gumnut could indicate either of two species, he might now zoom out from the gumnut to the row of trees that individual tree is part of, then out even further to the entire valley the tree line sits within. This constant iteration between zooming in and zooming out is another kind of scanning that David uses to deeply unpack a place.

It can be a little overwhelming—in the course of a minute he’ll take you from the tiniest stone right here and now to the massive basalt plateau that flowed down over the sedimentary base layer 4 million years ago. One second you’re looking through a magnifying glass, now from a hot air balloon 1000 metres up, now you’re lying on an ancestral gold-lined riverbed 40 feet underground, and now you’re 400 million years in the past under a kilometre-deep ocean watching the future sedimentary soils get laid down as floods seasonally spew materials out from the river ends.

Enjoy And Be In Awe

David can take on a childlike energy when reading a place. He is clearly having a lot of fun and regularly expresses a sense of awe for what he encounters. Whether it is the decomposing remains of a raptor, a glorious remnant snow gum or a particularly hard chunk of ironstone, utterances like ‘Wow, look at that!’ or ‘What an incredible example!’ are never far away.

You might think David has spent so many hours walking these landscapes that nothing would be surprising any more. But to the contrary, the more he learns, the more open to being amazed he becomes.

Find Great Mentors, Read And Practice

I used to think that David was some kind of freak and no one else would ever be able to do what he can do. But rather than being anything supernatural, I’ve realised that David’s ability is on the contrary super natural; as in really, really natural. As in the kind of thing humans not only chose to get good at, but had to be good at in order to survive through most of human history.

I don’t think David was born with this skill any more than you or I were. His ability has been hard won through decades and decades of learning from incredible mentors, plenty of reading, and most importantly, getting out and practicing.

There are no shortcuts but there is no reason we can’t be continuously practicing and improving our ability to become more and more familiar with the landscapes we are part of, came from and will return to. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any kind of positive future for humanity without it.

David and Dan run an annual four-day workshop where both reading landscape and reading people (which turns out to be the same sort of thing) is a core focus. See www.holmgren.com.au for details.

In addition, Dan is preparing a Kickstarter campaign to produce a high-quality documentary film about David reading landscape. To learn more and support this project, please visit www.readinglandscape.org

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