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Witness

My dad is retired now, but for the many years he worked, he was a land surveyor. He learned the trade in the Navy during the Korean war, in the Seabees (the nickname for the Construction Battalion). Once he was home, he worked for the Montana Highway Department and then for a few civil engineering firms in Montana, then went into business for himself in the 1970s, then later still, again worked for other engineering firms, this time in Nevada. Sometimes he stayed in an office, sending crews out to jobs, but even as a supervisor he often worked in the field.

For much of my childhood, he wore khakis and leather Red Wing work boots, drove a truck with a floor shift and vinyl seats that were uncomfortable in literally every kind of weather, and took his coffee to work in a steel Thermos and his lunch in a black metal lunchbox.

Dad says that surveyors draw straight lines on a round ball. It’s a job that requires stamina and math in equal measure, plus a fair amount of legal knowledge, an ability to sweet-talk the occasional grumpy landowner, and most importantly, a three-dimensional awareness of our world’s many undulations, because the Earth is not, as it turns out, flat, not the smooth plane we see on our phone screens; if it were, Dad’s job would have been much easier.

A surveyor’s job is to measure and map where one piece of property ends and another begins, to mark where a corner meets another corner, to stake the slope of a driveway over a few feet or of a pipeline over hundreds of miles, to indicate the degree of curve and angle of bank for a bend in the road. Surveyors understand that curves are made out of both circles and spirals, and why, and when to use which kind (cars and trains require different types of curves, as it happens). And sometimes, they must adjust for the roundness of the ball: changes in elevation due to that roundness are measurable over a mere few hundred yards, so on a large project, those tiny adjustments accrue and become big changes; if not accounted for, water will not flow where planned, roads being built from two ends won’t meet in the middle, and too much concrete will get poured where it doesn’t belong or not enough where it does.

Surveyors measure using meters and feet but also with arcane, ancient units, rods and chains and furlongs; they divide miles and feet into hundredths and tenths, so that our Imperial system becomes mathematically manageable, if not metric; they describe areas of land in a progression of sizes, acres within sections within townships, and label them in degrees and minutes and seconds, trying to fit together the planetary puzzle pieces.

It’s easier said than done: plots of land can be irregularly-shaped due to natural borders like mountains or rivers. And:  Surveys are often done piecemeal over widely-separated periods of time, meaning they are measured by different people with different technologies, meaning the fourth dimension comes into play. The truth is, finding agreed-upon points – literally common ground – can require as much creativity as math. Sometimes, in other words… you need to shave the edge of a puzzle piece to make it fit.

The measuring of land has been going on for a very long time, is part and parcel, you might say, of civilization itself. My dad is aware of his place in that history. He has always liked mentioning that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were surveyors. Dad has read journals from the 1800s – still sitting in a courthouse file, official records like any other plat or blueprint – written by one of the first survey parties to venture into Montana territory. He said that in one entry, the lead surveyor noted that their group had sighted native people in the area. The journal was incomplete after that, and the final pages were inked with bloodstains.

But in surveying, the history isn’t just interesting, it’s useful – whenever a piece of ground is being re-mapped or developed, the new surveyor checks for previous work to see what is known and where to start. Out on a property, the work often requires looking for what are called monuments – scribed stones or engraved brass caps placed on specific shared corners, agreed-upon reference points from which to measure outward. Even older, pre-GPS monuments are often exactly where they should be, meaning the original surveyor, with maybe just a slide rule and a sharp pencil, was good at his job.

Some old monuments can be hard to find without digging, because the Earth tends to swallow them over time. But sometimes they really aren’t where the map says they should be. The original surveyor might have made a mistake, or maybe there was a landslide, or a river changed course and wiped out the spot – but as often as not a sneaky landowner has moved the monument to gain a bit of desired property (like a spring or a riverbank), or to cover his tracks because he already built a fence (or his house!) on land that’s not his.

Other times, it’s not physically possible to place a monument on a corner – if the corner is in the middle of a lake or inside a cliff, for example. In that case, the surveyor picks an accessible spot nearby – sometimes a natural object like a boulder or a tree – and marks it with the bearing and distance to the true corner’s position. Such a useful orienting landmark is called a witness.

My dad did all kinds of surveying over the years, for all kinds of human endeavors – runways and roads and missile silos and mines and housing tracts and running tracks and power lines and playgrounds and oil wells and office parks. Years ago, for the Crow people in Montana, he surveyed a cliff-top that had long been used as a fasting and vision-seeking place for young men in the tribe, that the Crow wanted to preserve as an historical park. My dad mapped every tree, every rock bigger than a fist, and located several vision sites on the promontory, person-sized circles and ovals of stones, that no one in the tribe knew were there. Terrestrially at least, Dad came to know the place better than anyone alive, maybe as well as anyone ever.

Because Dad worked in the West, mostly in Montana, he has spent time in a lot of open and wild country, for better and worse. He has hiked up and down mountains carrying a heavy tripod. He’s had his shoulder blade broken by a falling rock (with the bonus of it sending him rolling through a patch of cacti). He’s had hummingbirds buzz around his face as he set up his transit in a field of wildflowers, he’s found an ancient buffalo skull sticking out of a dry cutbank, he’s watched a golden eagle dive toward an unsuspecting jackrabbit, talons out, only to be halted by a sudden, strong updraft that stalled the bird’s attack at the last minute and alerted the rabbit, which then escaped.

I always liked hearing what he saw when he was out in the field for the day. Sometimes, in summer, I even got to tag along with him if he needed to finish up checking on a job on a weekend, which usually meant we’d spend a small part of a Saturday morning tramping on a hillside, then spend the rest of the day fly fishing.

Most days, as with most people and most jobs, there were no particular stories to tell. He’d come home, drop his lunchbox and thermos in the kitchen, and change out of his work clothes. But now and then, the lunchbox didn’t go to the kitchen. He’d instead set it on the dining room table, waiting for me to notice. If I didn’t, he’d say casually, “You’d better go check my lunchbox.” Because that meant he hadn’t just seen something – he’d found something.

A couple of times, I opened the lid and found horned lizards, or “horny toads” as we called them. Dad built a screen-and-wood enclosure for the little lizards that we kept outside all summer until I let them go again in the fall. Another time I opened the lunchbox to find an amazing insect that Dad called a “sand baby,” one of many nicknames for what’s also called a Jerusalem cricket, a big, flightless bug that looks like a cross between a hornet and a grasshopper. I kept it for months in a small terrarium.

On several occasions he brought home fossils. The photos show two of them that I keep on a shelf in my office. They are remnants of a time when North America was divided by a vast, inland sea. One is a petrified bivalve shell, like a clam or oyster. The other, the bullet-shaped object, is a Belemnite, an extinct order of cephalopods related to squid, cuttlefish, and octopi. Belemnites checked out at the end of the Cretaceous alongside the dinosaurs, sixty-five million years ago. The fossil was once part of the animal’s internal shell, similar to the internal “cuttlebone” of modern cuttlefish.

The third item, which I’ve kept in a little plastic pill box since the 1960s, is the rattle from the tail of a rattlesnake – or “buzz worm,” as my dad sometimes calls them. (Me being me, I would have been more excited if he’d brought me the actual live rattlesnake, but I guess that would have been asking too much. And, I suppose, terrible parenting. But what a surprise it would have been to open the lid!)

A rattlesnake rattle, like a fossil, is an indicator of time passed. A newborn rattlesnake has a single small button on the tip of its tail; each time the snake sheds its skin as it grows, it adds a new section to the rattle. Snakes can shed more than once a year, and rattles can break off, so the number of rattles does not match how many years old the snake is – but the length of the rattle still shows layers added, measurements recorded, like tree rings or fish scales or scutes on a tortoise’s shell or pencil marks on a door frame as a child grows up.

My lunchbox-borne treasures, the fossils and the buzz-worm rattle I still have, the horny toads and the sand baby I remember, are important to me. But they’re not just leftover childhood souvenirs, interesting bits of nostalgic flotsam. To me they are useful. They are points on a survey. They are witnesses, orienting me to shared corners, showing me straight lines on a round ball, drawn from my dad to me across the undulations of time.


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