Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mining Claims and Surveying.

Irrigation circles, San Luis Valley, Colorado.
If you've flown over the heartland of the American continent you've seen it.

The patchwork quilt of our nation's agricultural landscape.

Jim Wark, a generous, quiet and personable man, began his career as a mining engineer and geologist. For twenty years now he's been studying the patterns of landforms on the North American continent. And making beautiful pictures of them, from one end of our country to the other.

He flies out of Pueblo, Colorado, in a sturdy front-and-back two seat airplane. Like most photographers, he's moved to digital equipment. But only in his commercial work. These images here, like all of his stock work, were created with Leica R-series 35mm film cameras--those of crystalline lenses. The plane is small, with a high wing and a large side opening for an unobstructed view. I imagine him banking a turn in his little Husky, hanging out the window, wind in his hair. Capturing beauty, one click at a time.

San Joaquin Valley, California.

Jim makes these photographs available at Airphoto North America, "providing 100,000 high quality stock aerial images with coverage from Alaska and Labrador to Costa Rica and the Lesser Antilles - and everything between."

A prize-winning aerial photographer, he's also published a number of magnificent books.

A viewer with a bit of historical perspective sees in Jim's images the bedrock of the American way of life, the blueprint for our national economy. Three of the four presidents featured on Mt Rushmore--George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln--were surveyors.

Oullette, Maine.
Thomas Jefferson--himself the son of a surveyor--proposed a system for overseeing the setting of boundaries and defining the nature of the measurements of the vast land that stretched out west of Washington DC. The basic module of the Public Land Survey System is a Section, one mile along each side, one square mile. Section lines are roads.

In surveying history, Ohio is perhaps best known as the birthplace of the Public Land Survey System, which is still in use today. This system split public land into townships of six miles by six miles. These would be divided into sections, each one mile square and containing 640 acres. The first area surveyed under the Public Land Survey System was in eastern Ohio, and the work began in 1785 with the Point of Beginning, or the intersection of the Western boundary of Pennsylvania and the North bank of the Ohio River.
Thus, the patchwork from California to Maine, from Texas to North Dakota. To the discerning eye it's an elegant, austere beauty, a God's eye view of the countryside. Ask Jim Wark.

Mt Pleasant, Iowa.
In the present layout of our counties, the pattern is unmistakable. One can see it in the layout of the streets, in the layout of the agricultural parcels. Here's Boulder County, south of Longmont, Colorado.

Less visible but nonetheless still in evidence, section lines continued to define our space when we moved to towns and cities. Looking at northwest Denver streets, east and west, one sees 64th Ave, 72nd Ave, 80th Ave, 88th Ave. Each major thoroughfare, one mile from the next.

North and south, one sees Pecos St, Federal Blvd, Sheridan Blvd, Wadsworth Blvd, Kipling St, each measuring off some variation of a one-mile marker.

In Boulder, we see Table Mesa/South Boulder Road, Baseline Road, Arapahoe Road. Each precisely one mile from the next.

And thus it is in one American city after another, making way only for natural breaks in the terrain--rivers, mountains, passes.

Mining Claims.
Superimposed on the Public Land Surveyor System is the system for mining claims, based on the geologically-defined location and direction of valuable minerals. PLSS defines surface rights only; lode mining claims define subsurface rights as well.
Deposits subject to lode claims include classic veins or lodes having well-defined boundaries such as quartz or other veins bearing gold or other metallic minerals and large volume, but low-grade disseminated metallic deposits. Federal statute limits their size to a maximum of 1,500 feet in length along the vein or lode and a maximum width of 600 feet, 300 feet on either side of the centerline of the vein or lode. The end lines of the lode claim must be parallel.

1500 feet long. 600 feet wide. Following veins of gold and silver. The resulting parcel map is a riot of pickup-sticks ownership parcels.

Recently reactivated gold mines along the Switzerland Trail right of way.

(There's a splendid irony that this jumble of chaos lies directly along one of the true spinal axes of the world survey system, the 40th parallel north. Baseline Road--"baseline"--in Boulder. The Kansas / Nebraska border a few hundred miles east.)

Imagine now the complexities of logistics and administration of a system like this, and put it in the context of the management technology available in the 19th century. This graphic was prepared using 21st century state-of-the-art GIS/computer technology and the advantages of aerial orthophotography. These folks used paper and pencil, drafting table and t-square, transit, Gunter's chain and red-and-white pole.

The potential for error and for conflict were immense as the mining claims were being filed and worked--all with an urgency even in our time-saturated pace of today we might find overwhelming.

This was the situation on the ground--quite literally--as people came together to seek their individual fortunes. These were fierce individualists, self-reliant, proud. And facing the absolute reality of requiring protection in a desperately competitive situation. Stripped raw of all political cant, they were faced with the ultimate need to form a government that would respect their freedom while protecting the rights of each of them.

One wonders how the simple geometric layout of our land has influenced the American psyche, so steeped in rational thought and post-Enlightenment thinking. No doubt there's comfort there, the illusion that we've tamed the world. Perhaps there's a clue here to why we so value our time in the mountains and the wild places of the earth?

No comments: