Reading the land

Deer Beds by Katharine WolkoffDeer Beds by Katharine Wolkoff

What does it mean to read the land?

As someone fascinated with maps — the ability to take in an aerial view of a place gives me immense satisfaction. And so very often, being able to read the land — and henceforth, know the land — is an idea that I take to. Merely an idea.

I often forget how rewarding it can be to be immersed in a landscape, for I spend many hours, many more hours, pouring over concepts and theories and being enchanted and absorbed with what is proposed, suggested, re-enchanted when the immaculate arrangement of words allows me to see one thing in different ways, lends it a different nuance and flavour. It can be intellectually demanding, at times, but all done with with repeated movements of the hands and the eyes while I sit in the comfort of my room, in front of a screen, scrolling, taking it all in.

When one ventures beyond the mere idea of reading, one learns that reading the land has to involve the body.

There are many things that cannot be captured through maps, details dissolve and do not show up. The quality of soil can be represented by numbers, but texture - how do you communicate texture sufficiently without digging your fingers into the dirt and grabbing a handful of earth yourself? The smell of the earth, too, reveals something, has stories to tell.

Reading the land is a capacity, a way of seeing that can only be honed over time. Much like bird-watching, it is a posture that is non-demanding. You cannot make it reveal itself the way one pulls data from Google, or retrieves incoming information from a feed refreshed on demand with the deft and swift gesture led with a thumb on a dominant hand. One walks, studies, waits, observes, listens. The body is subjected to the movements in the field, becomes part of the field.

I am fascinated with reading the land as a practice and sometimes I feel impatient because learning takes time and I want to know now. But occasionally, I notice something new and I feel a rush of joy. A bird, a bird sound, flowers — blossoms that weren’t there before now give me a new way of seeing a plant I’ve always seen. Insects. Squirrel holes. Deer trails.

I always wonder, linger around my own feelings of impatience, around reading land. Notice I said reading. How this act of staying with and observing land is an ongoing process. I am not particularly sure if there is a point of arrival. It is not something one completes and files away as read.

To be reading is to continuously be making kin. Can we be said to be knowledgeable about land, supposing knowing is at times mere performance?

Amidst this state of the polycrisis today — these tumultuous times, I’d rather not find myself arriving at read and known. I’ve come to notice how I’ve been holding a certain fear in my body, a fear of never being able to access wonder, awe or surprise simply because I think I know and have read and am well-read. I’d really prefer to be constantly reading, constantly learning, subjected to discoveries tucked away in a bush and struck by the curious shape of a never-before-seen leaf.

August 23, 2022