The following exercises take us through nine ways of observing. They are inspired by Bill Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture, and by the lessons I've learned from the Wilderness Awareness School. Some of them will be further developed in later chapters on the elements, but taken together, they are the beginning of learning to read a landscape.
1. I Wonder . . .
In your home base or other natural spot, with your attention on what is around you, say to yourself, "I wonder ... "
"I wonder why lichen is growing on that side of the tree, only?" "I wonder why the snowdrifts are piling up in this particular pattern?" "I wonder what attracts that bug to that flower?"
Don't worry about answering your questions; just notice what questions you can generate. As much as possible, keep your questions focused on physical reality. Not "I wonder how that tree likes all that snow on its branches," but "I wonder why those branches don't break under the weight of all that snow."
This is a great exercise to use with kids. You might ask them, "How many 'I wonders' can you find in five minutes?" You could follow that exercise up at home with a session with the encyclopedia, trying to answer some of the questions. But the focus here is less on answers than on learning to generate intelligent questions.
2. Observing Energy
Ask yourself, "How is energy coming into this system? How is it being exchanged?" There are many different sorts of energy you might observe: sunlight, heat, energy generated by motion of air or water, food, even psychic energy (but take time to focus on the physical before you jump to the psychic.) Also, you might try sketching your spot, or a plant in it, purely as a pattern of light and shadow. Don't worry about producing a 'good' drawing; just let it become a meditation on how light energy is intercepted by form.
3. Observing Flow
In your home base, observe flows of all kinds. How does water move through this system? How do wind and airflow affect the area? What intercepts the flows? What marks do they leave of their passage? What is the source of these flows? How is that source replenished?
4. Observing Communities
What is growing together with what in this area? Which trees with which bushes, which groundcovers? Are there patterns you can discern? Are there sword ferns under the redwoods, and tanoaks near the clearings? What insects, birds, and animals seem to be connected with what plants? Are some plants serving as 'nurses' for the young of others? Do some plants seem to stay distant from each other? Are some plants always found together? (Note: such questions can generally be answered only by many observations over time.)
5. Observing Patterns
What patterns can you see there in your spot? Textures, patterns of growth, distribution patterns, stress marks, all are examples of patterns. What patterns are repeated, on what scales? Can you find spirals? Pentacles? Branching patterns? Patterns based in fours or sixes? How many times does a tree branch from twig to trunk? What functions might these patterns serve? Why are certain patterns repeated over and over again in nature?
Again, you might wish to take a session to draw patterns or forms. Put your thoughts on paper without worrying about producing a work of art, but simply as a meditation to sharpen your ability to see and focus.
6. Observing Edges
Where does one system meet another in your spot? As we saw earlier, edges — places where forest meets meadow, or ocean meets shore — are often the most diverse and fertile parts of an ecosystem. Is that true here? How does the edge differ from the center?
7. Observing Limits
What limits growth here in your spot? Shade? Lack of water? Soil fertility? Other factors? How do these limiting factors make themselves evident? What is succeeding in spite of these factors? What seems held back? How have the plants and animals adapted to these limitations? What characteristics do the successful adapters have in common?
8. Observing from Stillness
Just sit still in your spot for at least fifteen minutes — longer is better. Notice what you can see, and how that changes over time.
9. Observing Past and Future
What can you observe in this spot that can tell you about its past history, and how it might have changed over time? What can you observe that tells you something about the future of this place?"