The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 21: October 26 , 2011

KYPP Nugget: Voices of the Land

By Claudia Knab-Vispo

This Week in The Columbia Paper: "Deep Diving" by Conrad Vispo
Reflections on how we experience the natural world in FEP's next Perspectives on Place column in The Columbia Paper. 

Voices of the Land: Background Exploration

The book "Voices of the Land" was edited by Jamie Crelly Purinton with photographs by Charles Lindsay and published in 2004 by Chelsea Green Publishing Company in White River Junction, Vermont. It has 71 pages and by mid August 2011, there were several copies available on the internet. We also have some books here at the Farmscape Ecology Program which we sell for $25 to benefit the Ancram Conservation Advisory Council (which is chaired by Jamie Purinton).

If you are interested in delving deeper into learning about the habitats on your (or another) piece of land, we highly recommend reading Hudsonia's Biodiversity Assessment Manual which was compiled by Erik Kiviat and Gretchen Stevens and published in 2001 by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and is now only available on-line from the New York State Library. It forms the backbone of Hudsonia's excellent Biodiversity Assessment Training Courses which are offered at no cost to people serving on town or planning boards, conservation advisory councils, or in similar local government functions. 

The Farmscape Ecology Program offers a variety of ways to join us in the field, including guided walks and volunteer opportunities. If you would like to join us for an outing to see what it is like, please contact me at

If you feel you need personalized help getting started listening to your own land, you can also inquire with us at the Farmscape Ecology Program about a site visit and joint walk-about to learn what we see (and hear) on your land.

If you are interested in exploring more the questions of how to look at the land in a larger context, I highly recommended Karen Strong's very accessible publication "Conserving Natural Areas and Wildlife in Your Community: Smart Growth Strategies for Protecting the Biological Diversity of New York's Hudson River Valley", which was published in 2008 by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's Hudson River Estuary Program and is also available on CD or as a hard copy from the author.

If you own abandoned farmland and are considering to make it available to a farmer, you might want to contact Marissa Codey at CLC, who manages the Farmer Landowner Match Programand maintains a database of land that needs a farmer and of farmers looking for land.
One of my favorite books is “Voices of the Land” (Chelsea Green, 2004). It contains essays by farmers, real estate agents, ecologists, writers, architects, a mushroom hunter, a chef, and others about their relationship with the land. Edited by Ancram landscape architect Jamie Purinton and presented with gorgeous black and white nature photographs by Charles Lindsay, it is well worth the read. I shall take the opportunity to share in this column some of the paragraphs of “Voices of the Land” which deeply resonate with me to the day.

Jamie Purinton told me just recently that the message she had tried to convey could be summed up simply as “slow down - take some time to get to know your land before starting to make improvements”.

Author Michael Pollan, in his foreword to the book, puts it like this:“How much better off I would have been had I waited a year to do anything, took some time first to observe the turn of the seasons, the shifting pattern of shade from the trees, the path that rainwater liked to take around my property on its way to the river. Had I spent some time with my neighbors, I would have known about the excellent hard cider the farmer who previously lived here used to make from the apple tree I’d chopped down, or why, though a dairyman, he’d never had a pond where you might think a pond should be. (Great view from the house, but soil’s too gravelly there to hold water.) … No book can substitute for those priceless conversations with your neighbors, but this one might convince you at least to have them before leveling that old shed or chopping down that seemingly out of place tree. Had I read something like “Voices of the Land” before I went at my land with chain saw and bulldozer, I’m sure I would have come at the project in a completely different spirit – in a spirit, that is, of respect for the people and plants and animals who really created this place I now am said to own”.

Along a similar vein, architect Allan Shope describes the profound impact it made on some of his clients when he facilitated their slowing down and listening to the land: “I was with a couple recently who upon purchasing their land wanted to immediately make improvements. They intended to clean their forest, dredge their pond, and fertilize their fields. As a way of challenging their assumptions, I requested a pre-dawn meeting at their land. As the darkness gave way to light, a crescendo of sounds graced the valley. Delicate songbirds pierced the air as skilled woodwinds. Turkeys boomed, ruffed grouse drummed, frogs burped like bassoons, water spiders danced, and kingfishers swooped over the pond like the coordinating hands of a great conductor. It was in every respect an inspiring harmonic symphony. As we headed back to the car… it was apparent that my clients had learned two simple things. The first was that if they proceeded with their preconceptions, the symphony would be gone and only a shallow song would be left. The second was that they wanted their house to make a statement about protecting the symphony and becoming a part of it rather than dominating it. Not a word has been spoken. They started to imagine how their land itself would be a source of inspiration for the making of a distinct and fitting house”.

Reflecting on land ownership, Jens Braun, the initiator of a Quaker community in East Chatham, writes: “I know that according to one world view, I own this land and can perfectly well use it largely as I please. The imposing memory of another world view however, has a grip on me. I am coming to accept that I will change this land, and already have. But my shoulders aren’t heavy about it because I know I have given the land a chance to change me too, and it already has. It seems odd, but in some way we have conversed… The land and I have agreed that we may use some of the trees for shelter and other needs, maybe even to pay the taxes demanded by the other world view. But they will be carefully chosen and carefully cut.”

Erik Kiviat, ecologist and co-founder of Hudsonia, reminds us to be conscious of who else is living on our land and that “… building a house is an opportunity to protect and preserve nature and creatures as well as to create a perfect place to live. Your first step towards ecological planning is to understand the special habitats of your property. Many species, including many of the less common biota to which we accord conservation value, have distinct affinities with particular habitats. If we lose these habitats, we endanger these species… Not every landowner can be an expert field biologist but everyone can look for unusual features on the land. The unusual or unique-looking spots are probably just that, and often support rare things, so should not be disturbed.”

I hope we can all continue to enjoy the wonderful land on which we live and maybe find the time to stop and listen to its voices…
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