How to Read a Landscape

Where does one start to engage with the land? Here’s a simple checklist you can use to guide your observations.


Intro to Site Assessment and Mapping

  • Orientation:

    • Where is North? Mark N,S,E & W on the map

    • Solar arc - mark summer and winter solstice arcs

    • Dominant winds - what are the dominant winds and where do they originate from? Mark them on the map.

    • Local winds - interview people, look at the trees, take note of winds at regular intervals over a year

    • Draw landmarks or prominent features e.g. Trees, structures, boulders etc

  • Topography:

    • Visual slope - take note of the highest and lowest points. Which way is the land sloping? Is it sloping in more than one direction?

    • Mark features (natural and manmade) - boulders, mounds, ridges and valleys, roads, bundhs

    • Visual and tactile soil assessment - take note of soil colour, texture; Map soil zones (are some areas rockier than others? More sandy? With lighter or darker soil? Mark them on the map)

  • Water Flows:

    • Draw in any canals, erosion points, collection ponds, puddles and pools, check dams and gully plugs, borewells

  • Microclimates:

    • Note any differences in temperature, humidity (how do you feel?), wind and shade

    • Are there some patches that are more lush than other areas?

  • Sectors and Flows:
    What is flowing through the landscape and where does it originate from? Understand the following through observation and interviews.:

    • People - how do they move through the area? What kinds of activities do they engage in?

    • Animals - what kinds of animals visit the land? Where do they enter from and do they have a typical route?

    • Fire - where is fire most likely to enter the land from? How will it move through the landscape. Think of winds, slope (fire tends to move up hill).

    • Dust

    • Noise and sounds

    • Electricity lines

    • Views - any you’d rather keep? Any you’d like to cover?

  • Vegetation:

    • Roughly identify types of vegetation e.g. grasses, shrubs, trees, thorny plants etc

    • Draw vegetation zones e.g. grassy areas or area dominated by [particular plant]

    • Take note of the health and condition of plants and trees

  • Resource Assessment:
    What is the land already providing?:

    • Rocks, pebbles, piping, sand, clay, resources from plants and vegetation, other building materials etc

Please Note:

  • It helps to use different colours or to use butter paper as overlays on your basemap e.g. one overlay for sectors and flows, another for vegetation, another for topography and so on. This makes it easier to recognise patterns, and prevents the basemap from getting cluttered.

  • In addition to taking notes, take photographs during your observation walks

  • Make sure to write the date on your map, and repeat this study over the course of a year to get an in depth understanding of the area. Observation is an ongoing (and never ending!) process, whatever actions we take will be based on what the land is telling us.


Praveen, the project manager of The Tamarind Valley Collective, surveying the land with Rocky