Reimagining the Potential of Landscape I: Start with the Deeper Story

This is a paper in two parts, or perhaps three.  This first part looks to some of the mechanical assumptions within New Zealand’s colonial land management, and a glimpse at the potential by shifting that view.  There is so much potential within that shift for a better economy, and for a better place within which New Zealanders can belong and create.  The second part will be practical – examples of woodland synergies in gully systems and side faces.

I may include a third part on the loss of wisdom that comes from being a colony founded in the days when Modernity was all the rage – all ‘resources’, racial destiny, and land, animals (and inevitably humans) treated as machines, one consequences being that live vivisection is somehow a defensible act.  I have spoken about how we as European colonisers rejected most of the old traditions from whence we came; those traditions that connected us to land and where the wilful destruction and degradation of the commons by the powerful was never without serious challenge and disapproval. (They could not sustain their rationalised horror of live vivisection thank goodness.)

We in New Zealand embraced a dubious destiny and made a factory mirroring the monocultures within colonial minds.  Our country – however romanticised for its declining beauty – is a most ‘Modern’ mechanical Cartesian space where life and land is reduced in meaning to one thing or another, made more so because a colony is a Tabula Rasa – a blank slate – for the dominant voices of the exploration age, importing technocratic extremes uncontested by those dreamer romantics and the wiser indigenous philosophies of either European or Maori tribes.  

The extremes of partition, othering, allocation, monocultural specialisation of this or that where combinations are seen as sub-optimal and where ‘either’ and ‘or’ leave no space in minds for ‘and’.  So we have grass from fence to fence with all the woodland cut and the wetlands drained, because – in the mind of those who cannot see potential synergies – that is the way it must be for the sake of delusion of ‘efficiency’.  And so we lose what we can not imagine.  Oh how the Modern mind blinds itself; oh how these extremes of partitioned and segregated parts – all the murdering to dissect – are now not even seen as extreme, simply normal.  It is a very strange normal in which we live.

What we have done to our country wouldn’t – I would argue – have been permitted in a Europe that – as Bruno Latour famously wrote – has never been Modern, has never fully embraced the soullessness of reducing live and land to machine of cogs. It also would not have been permitted if our own Maori cosmology and philosophy had held sway over the minds of those who cared less for belonging to this new land and its communities than for the adventures of colonial opportunism.  The colonial mind is a distant mind.  It not only doesn’t seek to belong, it positively works against the very idea of one ‘object’ being part of the other.

It’s part of the reason why we should seriously question any romanticisation of colonisation.  In the past and in its current form perpetrated by those who think only of power and money ‘legally’ taking what belongs to others, it represents a dispossession not just of the ‘natives’ of a land, but also of the sense of belonging and moral perspective of the colonisers themselves.  Decolonising is not just an agenda for the dispossessed, but for those who did the dispossessing.  

How we look at land cannot be anything other than a personal journey, and I make no apology to my profession for that.  It is the professions that need to get off their delusions that they see the world through an objective lens.


This is a personal story.  I think all stories are that, including the ones we present in our ascendant academic annals of objectivity and rationality.  It is best to be up-front about TRUTH-300x225our stories of how we see the world – and why – and to expose in the light what lies deep beneath any position – examined or otherwise.

Those academic annals are filled with stories too, with deep-set personalities, their ways of seeing the world. The best examine those beliefs, because truth is I think good, though I can provide absolutely no objective proof to that effect.  Lots of rationale, yes.  Proof, no.  That is what we ought to strive for I think – in my completely subjective opinion – an understanding, a ken, a knowing.

I am increasingly of the opinion that we don’t get that within any belief in the mechanics of uniformity and reduction of the complexity of life to some simple mathematical algorithm. We throw out the baby, and rationalise those things that will ensure our evolutionary end, because we have placed hard technique Where-we_re-coming-from - what lies beneathabove the wisdom of intimacy and connection.

Those ways of seeing are always a part of everything we speak and write, including the ‘professions’, perhaps especially the professions!  I was taught at university to view agricultural land in one way, but it grated like a discordant note against my own lived-in experience, intimacy and love of land.  The rationality I was taught was no more objective than the rationalising of a prior belief by an implicit appeal to the authority of an idea – partitioned Cartesian Modernity in particular.  Most people simply ignore those hidden depths, and presume they are seeing the world clearly.  They then function through an unexamined life, seeing this way because that is how we were taught.

Building the Lens Through which we see the World

My story is about digging down into the roots of how we see our land.

I was lucky in a sense.  The first learning is the experience of childhood, where you build connection and belonging.  You do not like your favourite patch of bush and the very best Tadpoles in a jartadpole pond destroyed (rationally) in pursuit of something called progress.  What do those people know about the feeling you get when you come out covered in duckweed with an Agee jar filled with tadpoles, or when you lie still in a podocarp-hardwood forest?  Isn’t that feeling part of the search for truth as well?

I started the professional life with the study of the broad sciences and first principles underlying forest systems, essentially an ecological systems view, the geography of these places, their history, their multiple functionality and meanings.   I was taught that there was no ‘right’ way to manage a forest, no right goal; that depended on the context, and on people.  What were their goals and constraints, what were their frameworks and their particular conditions.  Go seek context before you act.  It included being taught those agronomic and technical mechanics of assessing the relevant parameters of a site, its establishment, forest health, growth and harvest; but the deeper frameworks enabling strategic thinking within a context were always strong.

My experience of further studies in agriculture was in stark contrast.  I had studied for my forestry honours the complexity and connections of arboreal shelter systems within farmscapes.  At Lincoln College those shelterbelts – so essential for the risk reduction and shelterBelts Canterburyfunction of the mixed farms of inland Canterbury – were pointed at by an agronomy professor while chanting an empty and highly ignorant cliché, “a waste of good land.”  I felt as though he looked at me with a withering eye.  It was downhill from there.

There was only one prime focus and that was agricultural production – usually through more inputs – without any sense of the rhythms of land, or the environment, or the doomed strategy of commodity production to “feed the world.”  There was no thought of qualitative and broad strategy, just measured and narrow technocracy.  The point that in order to function well both science and technology needs art and a moral view, was missing.

There was no base of thought in the ways that an ecosystem dances across time and place.  No history.  No multiple functionality of land.  No social connection.  No environmental connection.  A mechanical, narrow, short term, reductionist and highly technocratic approach to one of the most complex of things in the world – land and the communities embedded in them.  Reduce land to quantifiably regular, people to measured costs, and disregard anything hinting at a complex systems view of life; the contingent and conditional.  And never mind art.

Forget the dance of land, the music of land.  Emphasise the march, and the soulless maddening drone of a single note.  It was physics envy; a search for the Newtonian laws of agronomy, the ‘rational’ pursuit of a mad end.  It is not only some economists who suffer from physics envy.  It is not only Time lapse danceeconomists that would benefit from seeing the world as a constantly dynamic, adaptive and complex ecosystem rather than some Modern Cartesian dream of the machine.  I’ve been trying to climb off the damn thing ever since.  But the machines are everywhere, welcoming you to the cubical and the assigned marching order of what some call a life.

The irony was that while the agronomic minds were convinced of their rational pursuit of positive ends, they were advocating things that had negative consequences for people, the land and the farm enterprise that I thought were obvious.  They destroyed the opportunities they could not see.  In the field, I shut my notebook often at some nonsense and looked around, while most people blithely scribbled on.

Woodlands on Farms

I was particularly interested in how most agricultural academics looked at woodlands within farms, and taught how they should be seen.  In simple terms, any woodland, whether forests or reverting shrubland, was apparently bad because it was not part of the ‘effective’ farm area.  A reverting gorse gully is ‘a waste’, not some indicator of a potential alternative to some poor grass, erosion and stock aversion.  Wetlands were in a similar boat.  Forests at least could be ‘crops’, but only if you factored in the ‘opportunity cost’ of having the areas taken out of pasture.  Pasture and agricultural crop was the baseline reference point from which all other alternatives were assessed.  That is so different and so much more myopic that a base that looks at the economic, environmental and social functions of a landscape as the reference point.

What I learned appalled me.  Lots of numbers justifying the either-or view that putting say 15 percent of your land in trees meant you would lose 15 percent of production, and an even higher percentage of your profit.  That’s complete nonsense!  Apparently, if you plant trees – or establish a wetland – you lose because it isn’t pasture, and so you have to include an opportunity cost as a charge on top of that alternative, that isn’t even there in the real world.  They failed to see the costs because so many were hidden as indirect costs when they are in fact very directly associated with any particular site.

So never mind that the the two cattle beast you lose every year in the bog – because stock losses

Gully system Northern HB.png

Wetland, Northern Hawke’s Bay, where stock once went to die

are in the ‘overheads’ column undirected to that site, so doesn’t count in the Gross Margin analysis you use that includes the $500 one off cost of a fence! You see the on-off cost, but not the perpetual savings made.  Never mind that the areas put in trees by farm foresters are not the average of any farm – they are those areas where low production, high cost, land use problems and environmental sensitivity all combine, and where woodlands and trees provide shelter and other benefits.  A win-win, not a win-lose.

We can design a landscape of synergies by building a self-organised, low-input, low risk, and profitable agro-ecological system.  But first, you have to be able to see the picture smacking you in the head.

Report after report by the professionals within agriculture used an assumption of uniformity and complete disregard for landscape patterns that simply isn’t true.  You don’t get an either-or loss by putting woodlands in farm systems unless you are a complete idiot.  I knew it wasn’t true.  I had grown up with a father discussing the consequences to land and stock from over-enthusiastic land clearances, as well as the importance of stock health and therefore the environment within which they ate and sheltered from the storms and the sun.  I had been exposed to a few old and venerated farm foresters who had come back from the war and made a song out of some very hard land indeed …. with trees.

Yet all these agricultural farm-forestry reports going back into the 1970s coming out of the Department of Agriculture and the agricultural colleges that I collected all said the same thing – it can only be done at a cost.  The opportunity cost approach to trees and wetlands within landscapes.  All they saw was loss of opportunity and reduction in scale efficiencies of the ‘factory’.

Where was the reference point to healthy landscape function, to healthy land, to good land management?  I saw a similar unseeing delusion when researching and presenting on drought within farmscapes.  Many agricultural advisors simply saw drought as a function of lack of rain, resulting in less grass, so destock.  I did not start with that premise.  I wanted to get across that there are things other than destocking that we can do.  We can make the land healthier, more whole!  So we started by asking the farmers, “What is a drought?” because if your farmscape *function* is such that no rainfall soaks in and holds, no roots reach far below 100mm, no run-off is checked by wetlands from whence it can be redistributed, and the evapotranspiration is running at 4mm/day, then you can have a drought a day after a 25mm rainfall.

Stop trying to simplify the land to some asinine machine of measured grass growth and stock and perhaps you’d be able to imagine something organic and alive.

It was through looking through such reports that I realised that their presumed ‘objectivity’ and professional ‘rationality’ was entirely premised on a false view of land.  I know this may come across as an obsession of mine; but perhaps that is because it is so pervasive in our country.  I see it in policy making, in the rationalisation of approaches that are the opposite of strategic in many primary sectors.

Symptomatic is a focus on uniformity and quanta, treating land as a sausage machine where the presumed ‘efficiency’ of the scale of one thing trumps the potential synergies of many things; or where production is everything no matter the future, or the consequences both inside and outside a particular farmscape.

We see in the ‘industrial’ structure of the New Zealand dairy sector.  We see it in the renaming of these various primary sectors through which rivers flow, birds fly and children play as primary ‘industries’.  The land framed as industrial factory.  We see it in the quite incredible lack of concern within the ‘industrial’ minds of the ‘professionals’ when the precious elements upon which the capacities and function of the land depend – nutrients, organic matter and soil – are washed down the ‘drain’ most others see as functioning streams.  They may even – in their myopia – attempt to *justify* the need to pollute in pursuit of the gross production god, mining their future and present profit as they go.

We see it in the belief in predictability and controllability rather than managing for the built-in resilience to the inevitable surprises and shocks; for the qualitative capacities and integrity of land.  There is no need to ride the storm if there are no storms considered – let us assume there will be no surprises.  We measure the wrong things, assume too much, and disregard what really counts because of we cannot count it.

Gully forest Plantings GisborneThis approach to analysis represents a disconnect between economic, social and environmental futures by either choice or by resigned acceptance of a false philosophical view as truth; one that sees only a land of averages, without variation, or pattern, or connection.   Talk about the loss of opportunity because of the unexamined assumptions of narrow technocrats.  Talk about the inevitable reduction in resilience and the actual increase in uncertainty by building a system that presumes regularity.

You shake your head at the obviousness of it all.  It is like being told that the dog is harmless while it has its jaws around your arm.  That is when I went searching.  I discounted the bullshit figures to three significant figures.  I wanted to know why they had this so wrong; why couldn’t they see?  What are they thinking that results in the rationalisation of nonsense?  What is their life and education story that justifies the answer they want to hear?  Do they even bother to question the norms?  Did they actually bother and go out and ask a farm forester?

I went searching for the refutation.  I had received a wake up call – the professionals are not necessarily the wise.  I even studied philosophy with a focus on environmental philosophy, ethics, and the history and philosophy of science as part of the quest, not for land use alone, but because there were all these other faiths trying in all innocence to rip the heart out of the world through what they presumed were rational means and the best of intentions.

Thankfully, there are thinkers amongst all professions. They are the ones that are not afraid to stray from the mantra of “this is what we do.”  There were excellent agronomists researching farmscape patterns in Invermay, outside Dunedin.  Gordon Cossens had production variation figures between paddocks.  He insisted that the range of production was 100 percent plus/minus the mean, and said the same range of variation occurs within paddocks.  And farm foresters nodded their heads when I raised it.  You ask them why they plant trees and where, and it is in those particular areas that are a drain on the functioning of the *whole* farm; those areas that create problems.  They do not deal in averages.  They deal in particulars of place, and how those areas relate to a wider view of the farm.

Matching the Patterns

The secret to understanding why farm foresters do well from trees lies in the patterns as well as the combinations and alignment of those patterns.  This is the alternative to the Farmland near Wharton Fell overlooking Lammerside Castle, near Kirkby Stephen, in the Eden Valleyuniform industrial model of land.  Production and feed utilisation varies with site.  Costs do not spread evenly over the landscape; 80:20 principles hold often where most costs of this or that relate to a smaller proportion of the land.  Eighty percent of woody weed control may occur on 20 percent of areas – usually gullies where the stock do like to go.  We were neither taught to look for those patterns, nor to work within them, and so we worked against them.

Consider the patterns and irregularities of the following especially across the space of a farmscape, but also across time (think of the sine wave frequency of pure notes, and then think about combining them in harmony):

  • Gross pasture production;
  • Stock utilisation and preference;
  • Total cost including those costs conveniently termed ‘overheads’ rather than directed to particular sites (like labour, weed control, r&m, stock losses) where 80:20 patterns hold;
  • Returns on investment where any given investment may multiply the gain, or you lose it all for nothing other than a by losing soil, OM and nutrients to make both a polluted stream, a lower ‘natural capital’ value if you measured it, and a lower bank balance;
  • Potential for other farm benefits (shelter, fodder, retention of fertility, drought resilience, evapotranspiration reduction, stock health, soil holding, water regulation, ecosystem services, diversity of economic option, etc.);
  • Suitability for other land covers – woodland, wetland, herbaceous leys; and
  • Environmental sensitivity.

They all vary as patterns in the landscape; pure notes ……..

…….. and they all tend to align with the Sound wavelengthpotential to strike a chord or create a harmony; low production areas combine with high cost, low returns on investment, better suitability for woodland or wetland compared to pasture, and high environmental sensitivity.  These areas combining negatives represent both financial and functional black holes when kept in pasture.

In contrast, there are also alignments of high production and low cost in pasture – areas that make most of the money on any farm, give high return to investment, and are cheap to maintain without environmental risk.  Patterns and synergies; functions and dysfunctions; the potential to combine land health, water health, soil health, bank balance health, social health.

Economics and environmental benefits can align; do align. We just have to stop thinking in averages and maximums, and stop listening to the minds that promulgate such views. The narrow industrial machine view that seeks to make uniform and maximise the efficiency of one thing is death to a deeper knowing of land, and to the chance of creating a farmscape that provides the best of all worlds.

You would be far better to go and have a discussion with a farm forester instead.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley has a field experience, management, policy, consulting and research background in land use, rural economies, environments and communities, remains an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability, and is currently the Green Party Candidate for Tukituki.

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2 Responses to Reimagining the Potential of Landscape I: Start with the Deeper Story

  1. Graeme Nahkies says:

    I think you would be interested in Ian McHarg’s ‘Design with Nature’ if you haven’t read it. ‘


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