Sparrow and Finch Gardening Noah Charney teaches you how to read the land with the help of trees

Noah Charney teaches you how to read the land with the help of trees


DO YOU know your backyard or the larger landscape context in which it is situated?

This new book, “These Trees tell a Story: The Art of reading landscapes,” takes you on a journey through diverse places, looking for clues on how to get to know the land, as its author Noah Charney suggests.

Noah is an Assistant Professor of Conservation Biology at the University of Maine. He and Charley Eiseman are co-authors of the award-winning field guide Tracks & Sign of Insects & Other Invertebrates, one of my favorites.

The publisher of Noah’s book, Yale University Press, describes it as a “deeply personal Masterclass on how you can read a landscape and uncover its unique ecological history.”

Plus, Leave a comment in the box at the bottom of the webpage for a chance to win the new book.

You can listen to my podcast and public radio show for June 19, 2023, using the player below. Subscribe to future editions of my podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyand Stitcher. You can also browse through my archives here.

Noah Charney – reading your landscape

Play this episode Margaret Roach: Hi, Noah. You taught a class called “Field Naturalist,” I believe. Is this correct?

Noah Charney: That’s correct. In that course, we would go to different places on the landscape every week and take the van to a spot where the students would need to find out where they were going. They’d then encounter a mystery like the trees changing from one side to the other of the line or something. The students would then have to figure out what drove that pattern and what caused it. They would only have a couple of hours or a day to find all the forces behind the story.

Margaret : The forensics is fun. I should mention that I am familiar with your collaborator from your previous book, Charley Eiseman. I know that you have both taught animal tracking, as well as other subjects over the years. You’re very good observers. It was only after reading this book that I realized you were a very astute observer.

You know what I’m saying? You knew which spiders made what type of [laughter], and what kinds of cocoons and animal tracks and other things.

Noah : To be honest, neither of us knew much about insects before we wrote the book. When we were studying animal tracking, we noticed that there was no book about insects and invertebrates. So we did a lot of research. Charley, as you know, has studied leaf miners and galls in great depth and is very knowledgeable about them. We didn’t start out in that direction. We are just curious naturalists.

Charley did the UVM field naturalist program, and that was the basis of the course I taught. So very well-trained and interested.

Margaret: Right. Curious is the right word. You tell a story in your new book about a hike you took with a friend near Boston. You eventually came to a “greenway,” which is like a bike trail with narrow green strips along the side. You call this an “invasive-dominated degraded ecosystem.” [Laughter.] You walk for a little longer, and then you see some trees that you like and close your eyes. Tell us what you see when you have your eyes wide open and what you see when you close your eyes. What happens in such a situation for you?

Noah: Yeah. With my eyes wide open, I can see non-native plants. I can see the asphalt, the children with strollers, and all of the noises that go along with city life. It looks like it could be anywhere. Then, when I saw that particular case, there was like a silver birch and perhaps a cottonwood.

Close my eyes, and I remember that those trees are floodplains and they live in soils with a lot of moisture. It was probably a riparian wetland there before it became the bike path. Close my eyes, imagine, and hear the wood frogs, spotted salamanders, and other species breeding in the wetland before it became a bike path. Then see that the echoes of this ecosystem are still present. The soils under that bike path were still created in a way that would allow for those types of species.

Margaret When someone asks, “What type of soil do we have? “we often refer to what we’ve “made” or “almost made” in our raised bed. It’s not… The question “What kind soil do you possess?” has a different meaning when you talk about the type of explorations that you describe in this book. It’s ancient, underlying, and so on. It’s the thing that has defined the place for a long time, right?

Noah: Yeah. It’s also the way I look at it. We can move away from good soil versus bad and instead ask, what is this soil like? It may not be perfect for what you were hoping to grow, but it will tell a tale of the place, the plants that grew there naturally, and how it was formed.

Margaret, Can you provide me with any references?

Noah: It depends on the layer. There are also the USGS bedrock maps and surficial geology maps. I was looking at New York State published some. You can see the landforms of the glaciers and, at a finer resolution, the soils of your locality. Then, at a local level, such as this side of a hill versus that side, it is a microscopic scale, just like the bike path.

These things are going to be hidden from the geologic surveys. But you could have topographic surveys. There may also be natural-communities inventories that could map these things. At that scale, the focus is more on the trees and plants and how the landforms create tiny ecosystems.

Margaret: Like slope. In the book, you talk about the pitch. You mention slope in the book. What does rise to say to you as an investigator or curious person?

Noah The angle, the aspect, and the direction of the slope are the most critical factors. Does it face south or north? As everyone knows, this has a significant impact on soils. The sun in the Northern Hemisphere is always at the southern end of the sky. This causes the slopes facing south to be very hot and dry. On the other hand, the north-facing slopes are more relaxed and humid and provide different conditions for various species.

It is a drainage zone. The soil accumulation on the slopes gets less as you go higher. This zone is prone to erosion. Then, at the bottom of the hill is a depositional area. You’ll find more soil layers and a significant proportion of wetland-type soils at the lower slopes. Many different factors affect that.

Margaret: Right. Again, I have lived in a downhill environment for a very long time. I don’t think much about it. I think of what… I’m not a professional, but I consider air drainage. I guess I get colder than the people in the “flats” below me during prolonged cold periods, such as overnight or so o,n because I believe that air drains over my head. This is my amateurish, yet again, interpretation [laughter]. I had thought about it but hadn’t considered the drainage area or what you mentioned about how there was less soil above and more below.

Noah’s This is very site-specific and context-specific. My house, where I spend most of my time, is on the edge of the glacial deposit. There was a lake 10,000 years ago, and the sediments that are now in our yard were part of it. Walking up the hill above the lake level, it suddenly changes to glacial till. This change is dramatic. No rocks are in our yard, but many are above us.

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