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Weekly “What is it?”: Reading the Land

When you know how to read the signs, hidden stories of how humans, animals, and plant life interact can come to life. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

Most of our grandparents could do this, and certainly our ancestors before them. For people more dependent on the land and water than a grocery store to supply regular needs, a keen awareness of one’s surroundings can mean the difference between life or death. Many of our predecessors could read a forest the same way we read interstate signs. Now predominantly the domain of hunters, farmers, army scouts, and curious ecologists, only a handful of people in the general population can walk into a local forest or field and tell you much about it.

The high bluffs on the southern shores of East Bay in Santa Rosa County have provided our family a safe waterfront location for over 50 years. Photo credit: Elizabeth Stevenson Clanton

For modern American life, understanding the “lay of the land” may seem unnecessary. But you’d be surprised how useful these skills can be. When my husband’s grandparents bought their waterfront property on East Bay, they walked the land and talked to people who had ridden out storms in fishing camps throughout the area. Satisfied that their home-to-be was on a safe bluff high out of the water’s reach, they purchased the land. Seventy years later, they have never experienced flooding or storm surge from even the most brutal hurricanes our area has endured. Imagine the heartache that could be avoided if new residents could read the “signs” (or even interpret satellite imagery) that might show the trees in their new backyard are wetland species, that the hydrology of a site means water flow will funnel towards their foundation, or the home they are considering is situated upon a high water table. With every rainfall—especially in an extreme year like this one—you hear of people who never expected to flood, with floodwater in their houses.

Small piles of broken coal on a ridge indicate the site of a former coal mine at the bottom of the gully. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

During a recent trip to the Tennessee mountains, my family hiked with a history professor friend who is co-teaching a course with a biology professor. They give separate classroom lectures on the human history and ecological systems in the area, then lead students on hikes to see how these factors interact. Along the trail, Dr. Willis pointed out atypical single-species stands of tall trees (which indicated a clearing in the forest 100 years ago), piles of coal on a hillside (showing where coal hoppers were hoisted up a bluff from a mine), and unexpected ornamental plants and broken glass in the middle of the woods, evidence of a long-lost abandoned homestead.

While fascinating to history and ecology buffs, one might not immediately appreciate how interpreting these clues is relevant to life in 2021. But learning to “read the land” has so many carryover skills. The ability to really see your surroundings and notice something awry can help avoid dangerous situations when walking, biking, or driving. Close observation of cloud types, wind direction, and even the habits of animals can yield information about incoming storms. Finding links between disparate observations is a hallmark of creative thinking, which leads to all kinds of new ideas, products, and societal improvements. In a world where it’s so easy to get lost in our digital screens, it is invaluable to look up, look around, and make connections to the world around us.

If you are interested in learning more about interpreting the stories behind our area waters and ecosystems, join us next month as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Florida Master Naturalist Program. Locally, we will lead a guided paddle to Fundy Bayou (in Santa Rosa County), and our Extension colleagues will be hosting events statewide in November. Contact your local Extension office for more information!