This past weekend I participated in a seminar called 21st Century Landscape Literacy at Apeiron Institute for Environmental Living in Coventry, RI. Apeiron’s mission is to promote sustainable living practices and ecologically healthy communities in southeastern New England. On their property, they’ve built an eco-house using green building practices. (You can take a virtual tour here, it’s really cool.) Apeiron held this seminar to teach people how “to read our lands remembering the ‘old ways’ and with new technologies toward sustainable relations.”
The seminar lived up to its promise by combining modern and historical ways of understanding land. It began with a presentation on geographic information systems, or GIS. I write about GIS occasionally for one of my clients, but have never actually seen it in action. With GIS databases and software, you can search specific parcels of land, sometimes by plat or lot number, or by address. You can view a “bird’s eye” view of the property using online aerial photography, or see a mapped outline. We learned how to eyeball potential property boundaries like streams and old stone walls, a typical boundary marker here in New England.
There’s expensive software that you can buy and learn to use—frankly it didn’t seem all that user-friendly—but there’s also a lot of free databases on the web, if you know where to find them. (They didn’t seem all that user-friendly either but hey, they’re free.) Almost every state has an online GIS database—google the name of your state +GIS and you should be able to find it.
GIS databases have a ton of data, apparently entered over the last 20 years by geology grad students. The data ranges from meteorological and geological data to the location of sewer lines , endangered species, community wellheads, and sewer lines. You can call up different datasets and “overlay” the data on top of the base map or aerial photo of the piece of property you’re interested in. You can apply multiple layers and analyze your property in various ways.
After lunch came the historical part of the seminar. We took a walk on Apeiron’s property and learned visual ways to “read” the landscape. For example, you can learn a lot about a piece of forested land with an old stone wall by examining the size of the stones in the wall. A forest with a stone wall was usually either used for grazing cattle or for agriculture. If the stones are small, it means the field was probably used for agriculture—the fist-sized stones so common in New England’s soil would’ve torn up many plough blades. The landowner would have integrated the smaller stones into his stone wall. There are a lot of other methods like this discussed in a great book called Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England by Tom Wessels—highly recommended reading if you hang out in the woods, especially in New England.
Next, we discovered a third and very different way of relating to the landscape. We listened to Native American readings and talked about how the deep knowledge of the land, akin to a oneness with the land, has been all but lost in today’s society. We were encouraged to imagine how our ancestors knew and used the land. We then entered the woods as a group but spread out so that each person found a special place that spoke to us. We stayed in this place for a little while and let it speak to us, and then we returned to classroom.
Here’s what I thought about, in sort of a progression as I moved through the woods. As I looked for a “special spot,” I was first acutely aware of the other class participants. I heard them crunching the leaves as they walked and from the corner of my eyes, I could see their colorful coats and jeans. Then as we spread farther away from each other, I felt more alone. First, everyone was around, and then they weren’t—it was kind of a spooky transition. Even though I knew exactly how to get back to the classroom, the feeling of being alone in the woods was a little unnerving.
At first, I felt like a kid again, because I used to explore in the woods all the time, by myself and with my brothers. I didn’t know and didn’t care who owned the 20-or-so acre wooded lot behind our house, I never even thought about it. My brothers and I explored it every day that the weather allowed, for too many years than I can count. There were no trails…we simply explored everywhere, climbing trees and hills, digging holes, buiilding forts and tree houses, that kind of thing.
Which brings me back to my weekend walk in the woods. As I soaked in the spooky “alone” feeling, I realized that the exact same feeling used to thrill me when I was a kid. But as an adult, whenever I go into the woods, it’s a much more “civilized” experience. I always know who owns the property—I would never dream of trespassing on someone else’s land. Whenever I’m in the woods now, I’m on public or perhaps private conservation land. There’s usually a trail map, so you won’t get lost. You don’t go “off-trail” and explore. The spooky-yet-thrilling feeling of being alone in the woods doesn’t really exist anymore.
It made me kinda sad—I felt the loss of a childhood experience that I didn’t realize I missed. But it was still a good experience, mostly because it was so thought-provoking. Thanks to the good people at Apeiron Institute for the interesting and free opportunity to learn.
Next time I’m in the woods, though, I think I’ll climb a tree.