Document Your Homestead’s History by Establishing ‘Photo Points’

Reader Contribution by Eric Reuter and Chert Hollow Farm
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For most of us, homesteading means changing a landscape to fit our needs while appreciating the natural surroundings. Yet it’s easy to forget what came before, or to take the changes for granted, especially when they’re gradual.

Wouldn’t you like to see what your land looked like 25, 50, or 100 years ago? Are you even sure you know what it looked like five years ago? When we bought our land, we asked the previous owner if he had any photos from the past 30 years, but he didn’t (or didn’t want to share them). There’s an old homestead site in our woods, but we’ve never been able to discover much information about its history.

While the past may be out of reach, you can give yourself a future gift by starting to document your homestead in an organized manner. Starting ten years ago, my wife and I began establishing a series of “photo points” at which we took a set of photos in a 360-degree arc (each photo in a defined orientation), creating a reproducible, panoramic view of the landscape at that location.

Since then, we’ve tried to retake those photos every year, creating a long-term record of our landscape and the natural and human changes to it. We’ve added new ones over time, and now have 26 around our homestead, offering a fascinating window into the natural and human history of this location.

Here’s a brief look at some of the changes we’ve been able to document with this approach; a full consideration of imagery and analysis is far beyond the scope of a simple blog post. None of these show the full panorama of photos from a location, only selected paired photos.

Homestead Establishment

You know all the work you’ve done over the years, but does anyone else? And are you sure you remember what it looked like beforehand? The following paired photos show the development of our garden and orchard, from weedy or tree-choked lots to managed, productive landscapes.

Natural Changes to the Landscape

Natural areas on your homestead are always changing, too, but often in ways that are hard to detect or remember. Do you recall how big that tree was five years ago, or whether that rock or bar in your stream always looked that way?

We have photo points set up along several active areas of our stream, which have documented changes in bank erosion and stream pattern. In the case below, these images captured a dramatic change when a large and apparently stable boulder cracked and began to move downstream.

Landscape Improvement

We’ve put a lot of work into thinning overcrowded woods and rehabilitating brush-choked pastures, trying to develop a healthier ecosystem that supports biodiversity and our grazing animals. The photo pair below documents the removal of cedar thickets and the thinning of young trees, creating a more open landscape with many benefits to our homestead.

Annual Seasonal Variation

Every year’s weather is different: early or late springs, wet or dry summers, etc. A written record of nature observations such as bird arrivals or wildflower bloom dates can help to place a given year’s pattern in context, and photo points are another useful tool.

In the collection below, three of the four images were taken on the same day, and the last only a few days early, but look how far head spring 2012 is! That was the year we suffered an awful drought here in Missouri; the 2007 image (not shown) also documents early green-up, and again that was an especially hot, dry summer. This year, we’re again seeing an early spring. Will this summer follow the same pattern?

Setting up a Photo Point System

Here are some tips on setting up a useful photo point system, based on our experience:

1. Choose locations with a good view, unless you’re planning to document clearing work. 

2. Mark or record each point (map, GPS, landmark). It can be surprisingly hard to remember just where you stood last year.

3. Take photos in a consistent manner, using compass directions or clear landmarks to orient them. You want each photo to line up year after year for the best results.

4. Take photos the same time each year, as near to the same date as possible. We prefer early spring, when first green highlights features in the landscape but before leaf-on obscures things again.

5. Create and print a reference sheet for each photo point, using your first photo set. We lay out a grid of photos for each point, keeping them in a binder that we can carry around and refer to when we retake each location. This might include notes on its precise location.

6. Take photos on a cloudy day if you can; the light will be more even and result in better imagery.

Using Historic Imagery           

If you do have access to older imagery of your homestead (or any other location you find interesting), it can be really interesting to re-take those photos and compare the results. We first experienced this approach long ago in graduate school, when we were tangentially involved with the Vermont Landscape Change Program, a digital archive of historic and paired modern imagery used to study human and natural changes around the state.

Whether you have older images or start your photo points from scratch, the upfront investment in time will produce some really interesting results. Documenting your homestead’s growth produces a wonderful record for the future and helps illuminate natural and human effects on the landscape.

Eric Reuterand his wife, Joanna, founded their homestead farm in 2006, within a narrow Ozark-style valley with diverse landscapes and ecosystems.Chert Hollow Farmseeks to integrate food and farming into the ecosystem, at various times managing vegetable & grain crops, perennial fruits, dairy/meat goats, poultry, timber resources, and natural habitats. Read all of Eric’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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