I learned about Evan Abramson and his company Landscape Interactions through the Permaculture Design Course (PDC) I took with Kay Cafasso of Sowing Solutions in Shelburne Falls, MA in 2020. I was struck by how many directions permaculture can take you, depending on how you “design” your life and goals: from broad categories like food production, natural building, and landscaping, to more targeted endeavors like fermentation and agroforestry. Evan, who took the PDC four years prior, chose to design landscapes and plan corridors for at-risk native pollinators—essentially creating a new specialized service. I wanted to bring his perspective on carving out a regenerative niche to the Soil Centric community.
Meanwhile, as I applied a permaculture lens to our property I saw our priority is enhancing biodiversity. With Evan we are organizing a pollination corridor among landowners in our community. When it comes to threatened pollinators, an island for them is fine, but an archipelago—a string of islands—is that much better!
Photo by Landscape Interactions
Judith D. Schwartz (JS): I was intrigued to hear you had been a filmmaker before you went into landscape design. How did that transition come about?
Evan Abramson (EA): At 23 I spent two years hitchhiking with a friend through Mexico, Central America, the Amazon and the Andes. This was in 2002 when only paramedics and doctors had cellphones, so we were really off-grid—I had just my notebook and camera. We traveled through a lot of indigenous communities, sleeping on people’s floors and relying on the good will of local community members. I had studied creative writing but at one point I put my notebook away and said, “I’m going to be a photographer.” Part of this was to put my focus not on the internal, but the external: accessing others’ experiences and dialoguing with people. This made me a keen observer of human culture and behavior, and kept me pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone and the risks I was willing to take.
For five years I was a documentary photographer based in La Paz, Bolivia, freelancing for publications like The New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, The Guardian, and National Geographic Adventure. I returned to the US to reestablish myself in New York City, and it was a struggle. I hustled hard and wasn’t making much money. I started taking photos for nonprofits. There I started to see how climate change impacts like increased flooding and drought events were affecting communities, as well as the underbelly of financial aid, particularly in Haiti after the earthquake. I took an assignment in East Africa and stayed for a couple of months. Carmen, now my wife, helped me research how climate change was driving pastoralists into war over dwindling water resources. I lived among the semi-nomadic tribes of Kenya, Ethiopia, and Sudan, which led to a short film about these conflicts called When the Water Ends.
A few years and films later, we had two children and moved to rural New England. I wanted to be able to pass on skills that would be valuable to their lives in the Anthropocene. I felt filmmaking was esoteric, that I was making something that lives on a computer. Rather than telling the stories of people who were impacted by eco-collapse, I wanted to change things on the planet for the better. After the PDC I decided to be a landscape designer. I got a certificate in biodynamic gardening, worked on a biodynamic farm, and got an accelerated Masters degree in ecological design at the Conway School of Landscape Design. There we did real projects for real clients, alone and in small teams. My second project was a regional pollinator plan for the Town of Great Barrington, MA. That was my first exposure to pollinators. I quickly learned how severely in decline so many species are worldwide, how important they are to ecosystems everywhere, and what they need to survive. I carried that work with me when I left school, first to work as a regional land use planner in Franklin County, MA, and eventually to start my own business.
Photo by Landscape Interactions
JS: You found something you were passionate about—supporting native pollinators—and built a career around that. What advice do you have for those who long to devote their work lives to an ecological issue that might not reflect a well-trodden path?
EA: When I started, people said, “That’s very specific. Are you sure you’ll get enough work?” Intuitively I felt specialization was an asset, and that it would help me stay focused on my goals. You have to be a bit fearless to be an entrepreneur. You have to be okay not having a steady income stream. I had a burgeoning relationship with Robert Gegear, PhD, a pollination ecologist and Professor of Biology at UMass Dartmouth who’s doing cutting-edge research on the behavior of native pollinators. That made me confident. I knew I was building on something that had data behind it. I can’t say it was easy, but I began work on my first project within six months, a big project that was able to carry me through.
My advice is: if you feel strongly about something there’s probably a reason why. Ask, in your heart: Am I for this for selfish or egotistical reasons or for reasons beyond myself? If it’s the latter—to help the planet, other species, other people—go with it. More and more every day, people are seeing that ecological work is the work that needs to be done. And there’s more economic support for it as a result. The difficulty is how to model your goals into something that’s tangible and doable.
Photo by Landscape Interactions
JS: What was the biggest challenge in bringing a new service to the marketplace?
EA: I put a lot of time into setting up our website as an educational steppingstone to learning about our work, why it’s important, and what services we provide. People find me. I don’t have to hustle to find work, so I am able to focus more fully on design and project planning, as well as directing people to our free online resources. I have designs and plans available for download on our site, so that people can mimic the plant arrangements and management guidelines without having to hire us or pay us. I’m trying to encourage people to not hire me, but to DIY it as much as possible. We’re a small company, and I’m not ready to hire a full crew of people to create designs and plans without still being intimately involved.
Each year is bringing brand new projects and approaches. I’ve done a few town-wide plans and we now have a watershed-based project running through dozens of towns. The question that guides me is where can I have the biggest impact? Right now that means doing new types of designs for different types of landscapes, bigger projects in terms of acreage, and projects in different states or regions. Meanwhile we’re building a catalog of a “how-tos” for others to get access to for free, scale it out, and replicate.
Photo by Norm Levey
JS: Many people seeking to devote themselves to regeneration lament the lack of opportunities. What do you see evolving?
EA: It’s probably easier to get a job writing code at Meta, but you have to say to yourself: what will make me happier and able to sleep better at night? We all need to support each other to invest the time, energy, and resources required to make the earth better.
There are lots of opportunities for regeneration in the landscape world because most landscapes right now are not ecological. Every day people are paying others to mow and fertilize their lawns and trim their ornamental hedges. Educating clients as to the many benefits of stewarding their property ecologically and enhancing biodiversity can make a huge impact. Then you have all the stores selling the plants. Demand for true native plants, not cultivars of natives, and plants not treated with bee-killing pesticides like neonicotinoids, will drive better landscaping decisions.
Photo by Landscape Interactions
JS: You mentioned Landscape Interactions is seeking people trained in AutoCAD (a Computer-Assisted Design application) and GIS (Geographic Information System software). What skills are most in demand now, and what do you anticipate in coming years?
EA: We are always looking for talented designers and planners who understand the principles of ecological design and are skilled in those tools. We do also train people. Software skills can be learned without getting an advanced degree, though eventually you have to buy the software. With GIS you can learn a lot online on your own. People are doing good work without an advanced degree, or not even going to college. Hands-on skills are important too: working on farms, in landscaping, conservation, trail-building, invasive species removal. Down the line you can always earn a degree and learn the software. If you can use machinery, that’s also helpful. In today’s design world, so much is done on the computer. A nice balance between digital software skills and understanding the landscape—that’s where it’s at. If you’ve worked on a farm or done trail-building and also have software skills, you are a valuable employee. If you’ve done scientific field research, that’s very marketable in conservation work. If you can identify native plants and know their habitats and can also do mapping, that’s a great combination of skills.
Photo by Tom Halliwell
JS: Do you recommend taking a Permaculture Design Course as a way of opening doors?
EA: The PDC first exposed me to landscape design, because doing a design is required for the certificate. The PDC is a low-hanging fruit. It costs much less than graduate school, and it gives you a good grounding in basic ecological processes. Permaculture can play an important role in urban and suburban areas, since we’ve already altered the landscape so much. But I’m concerned with permaculture’s tendency to recommend certain plant species, all the time, over and over again—the “Permaculture All-Stars” as some call them. In most cases these plants are exotic to the landscape, with no evolutionary relationship to the variety of animals (including insects) that inhabit it. They certainly don’t support species at risk. We should not put the same list of plants on every site. We as humans do need food, but so do moths and bees. We also know we need insects in order to survive, and not just species but complex relationships among species that run throughout the food web, all the way up to top predators including humans.
Systems thinking informs my work, but so does hitchhiking and documentary photography. That taught me to observe, how to ask the right questions, and determine somewhat quickly what a given situation requires. I encourage people not to be afraid of having different “micro-careers” at different times. And if you have a diversity of experience, landscape design is a great place to bring that all together.
Judith D. Schwartz is the author of three books on regeneration —The Reindeer Chronicles, Cows Save the Planet, and Water in Plain Sight — each of which has advanced the regenerative movement. She is a founding member of Soil Centric’s Advisory Board.
Soil Centric was founded on the premise that everyone has a role to play in solving the climate crisis. By aggregating and curating opportunities, resources and examples of regeneration taking place around the world, we’re here to help you find your role! Our web-based app can help guide you on your regenerative journey.