The Language of Landscapes: Reading Nature’s Patterns with Noah Charney

Reading the landscape is all about context. To read a landscape, we must discern its patterns to see what stories they are telling. So says Noah Charney, Assistant Professor of Conservation Biology at UMO, who shared examples of this premise from his book, These Trees Tell a Story, with our virtual audience on March 19th.

Using a short video of his own backyard as an example, he described and interpreted some of the patterns in it. The surrounding forest has hemlocks in the understory, but none in the canopy—which is predominantly white pine. There are stone walls in the woods. These patterns tell the story of forest succession, past and future. The stone walls suggest the area was used as pastureland many years ago. When the pastureland was abandoned, white pines colonized the old field and grew up straight and tall. White pine seedlings, however, won’t grow in deep shade, but hemlock loves the shade of the understory. So the hemlocks will sit happily in the understory for decades, waiting for the pines to die, at which point they will grow into a mature hemlock forest. 

Noah challenged the audience to find patterns in photos of a landscape, which proved to be quite a mystery (which he graciously helped to unravel). You can explore this mystery yourself by watching his virtual presentation or reading his book, in which you’re invited to explore a new landscape with him in every chapter. 

It was clear that Noah would be a wonderful person to go for a walk in the woods with as he shared just a fraction of his deep knowledge of geology, glacial processes, plants, animals, and more. His knowledge is based in a profound belief that we lose something of great value when we lose our relationship with and connection to the natural world. He noted that — with the advent of Google maps —we rely on technology to find our way, losing our spatial awareness of where we are on the landscape in the process.

He closed with this quote from his book, encouraging us to truly engage with a landscape by going off trail:

Following the trail is the easiest way to be lost. Sure, that trail might take us to a preordained destination faster, but we’ll have no ideas where we are when we get there. While we’re on the trail, we lose track of what’s around us and where we are in space—we are lost. We put our trust in the trail, ceding responsibility. We give us our awareness, our sense, our minds. Our interface with the landscape boils down to just two numbers: the total length of the trails and the distance we’ve traveled. Staring at the path a few feet in front of us, we are not fully engaged with the surrounding world.

Step off that path and suddenly we have to look up. Look at the shape of the land and decide how steeply we want to climb. Look at the trees in the distance and pick a target to walk toward. Keep looking behind so that we will recognize the forest when we encounter it from the other direction on our return trip. Study the shrub layer for gaps to duck through, following the occasional animal trails worn through the denser areas. Use the network of deer paths when traversing steep slopes to gain level footing. Keep an eye out for poison ivy, rose thorns, and ticks waving their arms in hopes of catching a ride. Study the patterns of light for clearings. Monitor the changing habitats near and far: white tops of sycamores in the distance signaling a creek; chestnut oaks nearby telling us we’ve reached the drier hilltops; the banjo-like plunk of alone green frog calling from the wetland ahead that we hope to steer around. Keep an eye on the rising sun and remember where south is as we walk. This whole time, we maintain a map of the landscape in our heads, filling in the details as we go. That is how we get to know the world and our place in it. 

  • Excerpt from These Trees Tell a Story, by Noah Charney