Reimagining Landscapes I: Rejecting the Machine

How do you separate the personal from the professional?  We are taught to deal in the ‘objective’, in measured things.  But the whole idea of reimagining how we look at landscapes – our so-called ‘working lands’ of farms and forests and beyond – surely opens us to a reimagining of what is the essence of knowing a place, a piece of land, as connected, always connected, to other forms of life (bio) and the other forms of material (physical).  What is a landscape?  We have to look to the wider system because whatever we do, we do to the whole; and we never do just one thing within a complex and connected system.

Why separate?  You cannot fully know landscapes if you do.  You cannot understand, and therefore cannot make the wise decisions without that sense of a functioning whole.  If you remove the children playing, or the caddisflies in the stream, if you do not extend the effects of fertiliser beyond mere pasture growth – on to soil biology and carbon, and then infiltration rates, and then drought, and then back to economic health, for just a start (I could go on and on) – then you are less wise, not more.  Your focus is the problem, not the solution.

All those connections and functions are part of the system.  The ‘cleverness’ of disassociated agronomy cannot compensate for the trade-offs it may create when applied without context.  Without the wisdom to make the right choice instead of focusing simply on, say, increasing inputs to maximise yields, or increasing scale to reduce costs – it cannot see the consequences that are obvious to those who can connect.  Reimagining includes ensuring you look to those patterns and connections beyond a single discipline.  Ask the question, “What else have we done?”  Because there is always something else.

Lines of connection and feedback ripple out from any act.  We’ve put on a pedestal the idea that we can think and act within a measured box, when there is no box.  The cleverness of any act is as of nothing beforeThe cleverness of the act the wisdom of the choice.  Looking at land as if it is a reducible machine has turned that truth on its head.  Disconnected cleverness has come to trump wisdom, and for each problem it creates, another piece of cleverness is devised; what Willard Cochrane called “the technology treadmill,” where the economic, social and environmental health of a place degrades until we lose Arcadia.  Agronomists and other technocrats ought to read Plato.  The story of Arcadia’s loss is being repeated not because technology is bad, but because it alone cannot make the right choices without a reimagined concept of the whole.


So look to land as an integrated whole.  People live in it.  Animals are born and die.  Energy flows from the sun to layers and side connections through all the trophic levels, through one gut to another, including when we die.  There are water patterns; harvest patterns.  There are spatial patterns where the grassland edges to woodland, which edges to wetland, and then to a stream, each vegetation cover with polycultural patterns of their own.

There are economic patterns where the profitable pasture in one area turns to the unprofitable in another.  There are multiple values where the woodland gully is both profitable and protecting; where ecological diversity is an economic benefit, and the wetland a giver of biodiversity, water regulation, recreation, stock health and more.

There are temporal patterns seasonal and through disturbance big and small.  There are thresholds of change, feedbacks, synergies where building diversity and pattern begets improved function begets social, environmental and economic benefits.

Those patterns move far beyond the biophysical function and health of the any landscape.  They impact on humanity in so many ways, both social and economic.  That is the great shame in looking at land as a factory.  The technocrat focused on one thing is more than likely disconnected from the good life, certainly from the rural sociology of degrading communities and the real price decline of commodities.  The solutions lie in the reimagining.  A healthy landscape can create free ecosystem gifts and reduced costs, as well as a marketing narrative and a price premium.  A functioning landscape can create diversity of enterprise because there is kai moana, the pheasants and birdsong have returned, and the landscape is beautiful on a horse.  The emergence of the something new.

By being told to keep to our discipline, and ignore the context of life itself, we both turn away from seeing and thinking about potential, and unwittingly degrade not just that potential, but what we have.  Taken to a place where there is no understanding of broader context, then analysis alone creates yet more dysfunction.  It destroys the connections and the functions it cannot see outside its own analytical bubble.  It imagines this discipline competing with that one over there; a necessary trade-off rather than a potential synergy.  The economist competes with the environmental scientist, ignoring and degrading the very basis of the economy.   The pastoralist may treat soils, wetlands and the woodlands as things to ‘improve’ in their own factory-orientated way,  ignoring and degrading the very basis of a resilient farm system.

So here is a direct reimagining challenge to my professional colleagues.  It is all right to care and to love.  No parent looks at a child ‘objectively’, and no one would suggest that such a view would make a parent wiser; it’s the very opposite.  And nor ought we look at our landscapes that way.   Our analytical tradition of the last few hundred years in the West is but a tool in gaining some aspects of knowledge, but it is not the essence of knowing.  Focus on patterns, functions, ripple effects and connections, including your own.

There are solutions to the decline in our landscapes, and the people and economies they support, that run far deeper than the endless treadmill of techno-fixes presupposing landscapes as machines.  We need to become wise again, and part of that involves re-embracing connection, and what it is to belong.  Embrace the personal.  Hell, celebrate it!  Dare to write a technical paper and mention the word beauty.

Podocarp Hardwood - Totara Walk Spencer Clubb

New Zealand Podocarp Hardwood forest.  Photo: Spencer Clubb

So here is something personal.  Our life creates the lens through which we presume to ‘objectively’ see.  I grew up on land, caught cockabullies and koura in the creek, threw dead lambs into the wetlands to watch the eels come, lambed my first ewe when I was only four, knew the cold places from the warm places, knew when to avoid the magpie trees.  I wanted to study forest ecology because I loved Ball’s Clearing as a child, a Podocarp Hardwood remnant sitting beneath the Kaweka Range in Hawke’s Bay.  The experience of that place was all the motivation I needed.  The sounds of wind in the canopy, boughs creaking, birds singing; diversity in pattern, colour and light.  The grandeur and beauty of height and dance. The smell – almost the taste – of the air.  The overwhelming sense of something being alive; something being literally wonder-ful.

And then I went to university and learned many things about ecological function and links to society and economy, but I had to hold those memories within because I was not taught about the patterns of light and the smell.  Perhaps you cannot teach an appreciation of art and beauty.  Or can you?  You can at least acknowledge it.

Here is the nub.  Our disconnected and mechanical view of landscapes in New Zealand that reduces irregular complexity to measured and homogenous regularity has led to the continued degradation of those landscapes.  Along with that degradation we have lost values vital to community and local economies for the short-term benefit of a few who do not even seek a life in that place.

A reimagined view of our landscapes can do the opposite; create multiple beneficial Gestalt tree & lionsfunctions; take the Gestalt and make it both.  We can restore environmental, social and economic health to place.  We can recreate the functions of water regulation to mitigate or avoid droughts and downstream floods.  We can improve aquatic ecological systems and water quality.  We can reduce the boom/bust cycle of feeder streams.  We can improve biodiversity and with it the economic and social values biodiversity gifts to us all.  We can increase input/output productivity, even increase the great god gross production, while reducing energy inputs and building deeply functional carbon banks, and reduce greenhouse gases.  We can increase the quality of produce and reverse real price decline.  We can improve the economy and resilience of farmscapes to the irregular events of climatic extremes and market shifts.

And when we do it from a reimagined worldview, there need to be no trade-off between the land, community and enterprise; just synergies.

So why hasn’t it happened yet?  Because the Modern ideas that dominate the minds of those who consider themselves ‘objective’ are the wrong ideas.  Those ideas, oh so ironically considered ‘objective’ and value-free, are deeply embedded within the culture of New Zealand land use.

The unsettling of America Berry.jpg

Wendell Berry was right to frame the crisis in American agriculture as “a crisis of culture.”  New Zealand is no different.  Unfortunately, the culture has shifted from one mode – the Modernity of Colonial thought – to another not dissimilar mode, the Modernity of Corporate Agribusiness.  Both have an interest in mechanical and homogeneous production systems (factories); cost-efficiency through scale rather than building free ecological gifts, value or diverse resilience; increasing production and throughput of a commodity; cheap ‘resources’; and the viewing of both people and landscapes as sets of those ‘resources to utilise’, rather than ‘potential to realise’.

Both impose those subjective reducible factory beliefs on our landscapes with the justification of supposedly ‘objectively’ measured reports.

We need to decolonise and decorporatise our minds before we can decolonise our landscapes.  That is where the problems lie deep.  Changing that mythology of machine, reimagining that, is where the solutions lie, hidden from sight.


Chris Perley



Reimagining Landscapes II: The Biophysical Agroecological Argument

Reimagining Landscapes III: The Resilience Argument

Reimagining Landscapes IV: The Microsite Economic Argument

Reimagining Landscapes V: The Market Narrative Argument

Reimagining Landscapes VI: Rebuilding Decentralised Knowledge and Value Systems

Reimagining Landscapes VII: Breaking the Policy-Education-Research-Agribusiness Nexus

Chris Perley has a background in the field, in management, policy, consulting and research relating to land use, the environment, rural economies and communities.  He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

This entry was posted in Alternative Vision, Land Use, Land use strategy, Landscape function, Reimagining, Thought Pieces, Ways of Seeing. Bookmark the permalink.

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