Chaining the Land

by Bruce Patterson, March 13, 2014

What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
--Jim Morrison, 1969

About 30 years ago the master surveyor, the late Don McMath, told me about how, back in the middle of the 17th Century, Europe’s first large-scale scientific land survey took place. Sponsored by the King of England, it was done in Ireland immediately following what’s called the Cromwellian Conquest. For fifteen years the “old Irish” had been in rebellion, and it took Cromwell and 20,000 “Ironsides” sailing over from England to finally put them down. When it was over, perhaps as many as one in four Irish men, women and children lay dead. Nevertheless, as punishment for having rebelled against their Sovereign King, 2,500,000 acres of Irish land were to be expropriated and the Catholic landowners, their tenants and dependents, either be exterminated, sold into slavery or exiled into the barrens of Connaught, which was about as far beyond the pale (outside English protection) as the land allowed.

While most all large inhabited islands consist of coastal plains with mountains running their spines, in Ireland it’s the opposite. Here it’s near the center where the flatlands lay, and these lands, and many more, were to be awarded to the king’s allies and loyal subjects—Protestants. Yet, when time came to divvy up the spoils, should a soldier-of-fortune’s share equal that of his commanding general’s? Should a general’s share equal that of the nobles who had financed the king’s righteous counter-insurgency? And—crucially—how can the size of a share (a viable economic unit) be determined without first knowing exactly how much land is available for cultivation and development?

In steps one Sir William Petty. After convincing the royal court that he has the tools and the methodology to give them what they want, with their blessing he sets about his task. That the land is either flat or gently rolling radically simplifies the job. Drive a stake in the ground and run a “chain” in a straight line of a specified length oriented to compass north. Drive a stake there. Pivot exactly 90 degrees and, at the same length, drive another stake. Move over it, take a bearing back to your original stake, then pivot another 90 degrees and drive a stake there. Do the same from there and, if your pivot leaves you dead-centered on the north stake, you’ve created a geometrically precise square. Using its sides as baselines, surround it with more squares and you have squares within squares: 4-square, 16-square, 36-square, etc. Count each square as a share and distribute them accordingly. Problem solved.

In medieval times an “acre” was an estimation of how much land a yoke of oxen could plow in one day. The distance a yoke of oxen could plow before requiring rest was known as a “furlong”—a long furrow. Since, by minimizing the distance of the turns, long skinny rectangles are the fastest to plow, medieval acres measured one furlong in length (40 rods or 660 feet) and 4 rods (66ft.) wide, or 43,560 square feet. What would become the Imperial (and American) acre is 208.71 feet on a side, or 43,560 square feet. While it can take any shape, the square acre (a city block) became the American ideal. Along the country’s eastern seaboard, an agricultural parcel was typically 40 acres. Combine four parcels and you have a quarter section of land. Combine the four quarters and you have a section: 640 acres or one square mile (5,280ft. on a side). Combine 36 sections and you have a township (a greenbelt surrounding a crossroads point of light).

Before I could fully appreciate the elegance of the system, Don—he was like this—issued two caveats. Since acres are aerial projections, not all are equal. A mountainous acre can have twice the square footage as a flat one. Fill an acre with a 20-story building and you have quadrupled its surface area and multiplied its floor space by 20. Secondly, because the world is round, even the flattest ground isn’t a true plane. Look out into a glassy sea from the water’s edge with your eyes elevated five feet above its surface and the water disappears after about three miles.

While most folks who grew up out west were taught a little something about Jedediah Smith, Joseph Walker, Kit Carson and John C. Fremont, not many remember John Wesley Powell. If it wasn’t for Walt Disney’s movie, Ten Who Dared (1960), and Wallace Stegner’s seminal Beyond the 100th Meridian (1954), today hardly anybody would have heard of Powell even though he was by far the most important of the bunch. While the extent of Powell’s (western) explorations couldn’t match those of the others, the commonsensical conclusions he drew about the economic potential of the Western Region were, well, prescient. In other words, the opposite of what people wanted to hear.

The Imperial System of land distribution worked with the towns and farmlands in the rich flatlands back east, Powell acknowledged. But out west suitable agricultural lands were somewhere between non-existent and scarce, and reliable rainfall was even scarcer, so what reason would there be for cities? Except along its few major watercourses, Powell maintained, the west was good for cows but not for plows. Moreover, the chaotic terrain made the superimposition of a hypothetical grid impertinent because—his key insight—out west water would always be far more precious than land. Since the key to land development would be water management, Powell suggested that the most basic administrative districts be watersheds. When everyone drinks from the same well, he argued, a rational (sustainable) and equitable distribution of water is made more likely.

Although Powell would become the head of the US Geological Survey (1881-’94), and even though he was a Union Civil War hero (after losing most of his right arm at the Battle of Shiloh in April of 1862, he returned to his outfit and finished out the war), his ideas were denounced as balderdash and himself branded an Indian-Loving scoundrel. With vast fortunes at stake, the railroad barons organized Powell’s . . . neutralization. As a part of their reward for having extended their tracks across Indian Country to the shores of the Pacific and the gates of the China Trade, the federal government had awarded the railroad barons with 183,000,000 acres of land. Determined to transform their holdings into farmsteads (paying customers), the railroad barons were not about to let a little truth get in their way. To counter Powell’s conclusions, they turned to the east’s big city newspapers to help paint the man as a lunatic. Simultaneously, they broadcast a novel idea: rain follows the plow. If enough people plowed up the western plains, the newspapers promised, the rains will come. With America’s doctrine of Manifest Destiny functioning like the Hula-hoop craze of its day, Powell’s ideas were forgotten.

The notion that rain follows the plow would be gospel for thousands of starry-eyed homesteaders and squatters, clodbusters and hoppers (You busted um; you hop um). And while it’s tempting to scorn those earnest seekers for their lollipop-licking gullibility, we’d do better to take a good look at our own social selves today. One particularly entertaining example: in 2012, elderly American Consumers of means spent at least $120 billion cash money on “anti-aging” herbs, drugs, poultices, devices and procedures. Even though virtually all of the anti-aging products came with steep price tags and dire warnings of possible side effects—eyelashes and eyebrows shedding, cardiac arrest, incontinence—and even though not a single one of the products delivered as promised, the advertisers had to beat back the customers with sticks. It goes to show that when wolves are allowed to police wolves, sheep get eaten.

The fact is that commonsense has rarely been a match for wishful thinking, much less the mass-produced kinds. Given the power of the homogenized and pasteurized mass media to shape opinions and values, now having an educated population seems to have only increased our mass gullibility. As Mark Twain wrote way back during pioneering times, “the man that does not read has no advantage over the man that cannot read.”

Your land doesn’t have enough water to sate your thirst? No problem. As Los Angeles, San Francisco and other many western cities would prove, steal water and the settlers will come. Out west the Imperial system would be upheld, federal water projects would make the desert bloom, the ancient plantation system would be replicated and peasants from around the world would be imported to tend to the livestock and bring in the crops, dig the canals and the coal, lay the tracks and build the harbors. With the guidance of Great Men of unchecked Vision and seemingly endless Means, we the people would conquer Nature. We’d bend the landscape to our purposes and refashion it into our own image. Such is our destiny: “Clean, affordable, secure American energy for generations to come,” promises the oil cartel hologram lady on the nightly news.

A while back when I read in the AVA that the CSD has formed a committee to study the feasibility of incorporating, say, greater Boonville, my first thought was: what took them so long? Always seemed like a no-brainer to me. I mean, barring a slew of boom-and-gone mining and logging camps, the top priority of virtually every frontier settlement was to grow into a respectable town where townsfolk have a democratic say in town matters. What under the sun is more advantageous than a measure of self-rule? Even in feudal China the authority of the Emperor was supposed to end at the village gate. Even during Ireland’s blackest days, people knew what they were missing.

Then, feeling a pang of cynicism, I remembered what Laura Houck had told me some years ago: “Organizing writers and artists is like trying to herd housecats.” While I caught the meaning and saw the humor, it struck me dumb because I’d always assumed it was the other way around. Weren’t writers and artists just two kinds of Educated People? How many Educated People are living in the hills overlooking the spread of plantations?

Whether I was a part of a crew harvesting crops or out logging, or helping lay out vineyards, or stretching pasture fence, I always hung out with who I was with. Farmers like hanging out with farmers, lawyers with lawyers and so on around the world and all the way back through time. So what makes writers and artists so different? Granted, often times their efforts are necessarily solitary. But so is pulling graveyard shift in a 7/11. Moreover, seeing how difficult it is for artists and other kinds of Educated People to earn a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work, you’d think they’d get organized. How do they think the oil cartel, king coal, transnational conglomerates and global banking empires came to rule this sorry, self-destructive world?

Since most of the work in Anderson Valley is done by people who either can’t vote or don’t, who is to take the initiative and in whose name? Obvious that there are plenty of community-minded people of all kinds in the valley, and there are plenty of community-based organizations, too. And, if you look closely at what being community-minded has always meant, you see that establishing a measure of self-rule isn’t so much a burden as the fulfillment of an age old aspiration. If democracy doesn’t begin at home, where does it? Without democracy, what does that make you? Because everybody in Anderson Valley drinks from the same well, everybody should get a fair share of say in the future.

Since I’m dreaming, I may as well add that, because Anderson, Indian and Rancheria creeks come together just downstream from Philo, a new township’s geographic heart should be located right there.

One Response to Chaining the Land

  1. Rick Weddle Reply

    March 13, 2014 at 11:34 am

    re: ‘conquering’ Nature…While the notion that plowing the ground would bring the rains may have been something of a propaganda coup, seeming to have worked miraculously well to populate and cultivate a wild land, the Dust Bowl showed just how smart it was in fact. How odd and dangerous that many of us should now think of the Dust Bowl as a ‘natural’ disaster. Yes, it does matter how we define words like ‘stewardship,’ and ‘civilization.’ It matters even more how we act in light of our definitions. And these have never mattered more than now, when resources are disappearing, and further, are to be divided between ever more ‘users.’ Again, I’m reminded of the tv commercial some years ago that showed some fool felled by a lightning strike (he was holding a golf club over his head?)…the voice-over rumbling, ‘…it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature…’ Best of Luck, Humans

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