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cartography as a design tool

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Creating a reasonably accurate and to-scale map of the area under your stewardship is extremely useful.  The process of creating the map deepens your level of understanding and knowledge about the land.  The (sometimes silly feeling) act of making the map appear on paper is amazing for constructing the same map in your head. 

When it's finished, a piece of tracing paper laid on top becomes the ultimate brainstorming tool - you can draw anything and get an idea of how it would change things without actually doing anything.  I find it especially useful when designing access roads and paths.

It's difficult for some of us to picture the difference between a tree with a 30 foot mature canopy and a 80 foot mature canopy, but with a to-scale map, the differences are obvious.  It's helpful with smaller plant spacing as well. 

If you're dealing with any kind of slope, a commercial map is going to have contour lines set too far apart to be useful.  You can make your own map as detailed as you want, with aspects that are important to your particular site. 

We've been working on a fairly large map of our cleared area, but we hope to get around to most of the 40 acres eventually.  Two people armed with two tape measures can measure a pretty large area in a couple of hours, once you get the hang of it.  I make a sketch of the area with major landmarks on it (trees, rocks, the corners of buildings) and take notes on the distances between things as we go.  The more triangles you can make, the more accurately you'll place things later.  It looks messy but the numbers are the important part at this stage.  Follow the link to a picture of one of these sketches.


Then back inside, translate your sketch into a scale drawing.  One of those architect's scale rulers helps greatly with this process.  Orienting your drawing with north south is nice - find a couple of land marks that line up with the north star, and use that to get it mostly right.  It doesn't have to be (probably won't be) exactly right. 

A map is a conceptual drawing of a real place, as long as it conveys the information you need, it's a good tool. 

Choose a scale that works with the size and detail of your site and map.  Or choose one that makes everything fit onto your paper.     Then start in a corner (I like to do this, but you may not), or with your landmarks that are your north south reference points.  To cheat an arch without a compass, I make three marks near each other at the appropriate distance away from the original land mark, and then create an arch by connecting them.  Then you do the same from another land mark to that same third land mark.  Where the arches cross is the location of the third landmark.  Sometimes a bit of fiddling is required to get the first three landmarks in the right place, all oriented with each other (use a pencil!).  But then everything else can be measured from these marks, using the same process.

Elevational maps get a bit more complicated.  I think an A-frame with a plumb bob is an amazing tool for finding contours, and that is usually what people are after.  A friend of mine suggested I stake out a 5 foot grid and take the elevation point of all those stakes....sounds like a bit too much work for what we need, but it would make a very detailed elevation map.  That might be helpful or even necessary for pond building and the like. 

When we get the real map more finished I'll try to photograph it and share.  It's a 3x3 foot piece of paper at 3/32" (as in three thirtyseconds of an inch equal a foot) scale.....digitally and small it might just look like a big brown square with some circles on it.....

I also see personalized maps like these as reference points for a place at a particular time.  In 60 years, the land we're mapping will look verrry different, but our map can serve as a record of what we started with.  I'm taking pictures of the better of our brainstorming ideas, to someday compare what we thought we were going to do with what we end up doing.  It's like a memory book of permaculture design.  I learn a lot when I compare what was on a site originally to what people have done with it over 40 or so years. 

Ok.......no bites.  What are other ways of organizing ideas about the real world locations of things?  This is a big part of permaculture - putting the right things near each other to better serve both functions. 

If you can't be bothered with all of the above (and admittedly it can be a time consuming project), how do you decide what goes where?  Walking around and putting things on the ground (a stick as a future path edge) is more tangible to some minds.
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Location: Ashland, Oregon
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Thanks for this!  Maps are quite helpful and are easier to make and use with a little practice.  Although the scale is large and the contour lines far apart I like the aerial soils maps which are readily available from the Natural Recourses Conservation Service (or whatever the SCS is known as these days).  The soil types usually change with the contours and the vegetation, so even though the contour lines may be far apart it is easy to see where the changing features begin and end so you can get oriented.  By looking at the characteristics of the soil and the resulting vegetation, and seeing the terrain you can often get a fine idea of what will do well there.  Just walking the land while making these maps is a very helpful exercise.
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