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  • Writer's picturej. matthew thomas

Baselines and Meridians

The conquest of the United States was initiated by lines. It was and continues to be a series of geometries that determines what ‘land’ is and its inscribed value. In 1785, in the wake of the American Revolution, the Public Land Survey System was created, extending a national grid through the land.

This system allowed for the division of the great American landscape, mostly to sell of land to help fund the debt that occurred during the war. As we know, within this mapping there was no regard to the natural landscape or the indigenous peoples already present.

The Public Land Survey System is defined by a series of meridians and baselines, starting at a point in Ohio. A survey would establish: a baseline, which runs east-west, and a principal meridian, which runs north-south.

Next, at a defined distance interval, commonly 24 or 30 miles depending on the year and location, standard parallels of latitude are established parallel to the baseline. The meridian, baseline and standard parallels thus established form a lattice upon which all further surveying is then based. Subsequent work divides the land into survey townships of roughly 36 square miles or 6 miles on each side. Lastly, townships are subdivided into 36 sections of approximately one square mile and sections into four quarter-sections of 0.25 square mile each.

Though not used throughout the country, one can primarily see its impact in the West. Roads, highways, farms and the like reflect the layout of baselines and meridians.

I’ve spent most of my life in the West, growing up in Missouri, school in Kansas, and now practicing in New Mexico. The grid has been the background of my life. My movements through these landscapes have been dictated by meridians and baselines. It’s easily observable in Kansas, with the highways, counties and towns configured within this artificially configured grid placed upon the landscape.

The implementation of the grid was for the sale of land to private hands. Landscape as commodity. Ignored would be natural features, such as creeks, mountains, rock formations, and even more so ignored would be any native American tribes previously settled upon this land.

What are the impacts of this system placed upon the land, and my upbringing within it? The landscape seen as a commodity, something that is yours or mine, bought or sold, ends here and begins there. And most importantly, the disregard for what is present, the living systems, ecologies (and humans!) that are within that system. The sameness of the grid limits the potential in understanding the diversity of our surroundings.

While the grid allows for locating where I am in space, it ignores where I REALLY am in space. I’m simply a coordinate in the matrix of the grid, and not deeply engrained within the texture, folds, hills, bumps, stories, love, fears, trauma, spirituality, of a place.

The land has more than one narrative and the dominate one is the one we can predict – the grid.

How could you represent what is this landscape? What is the map we can draw of a space, a place? Is mapping just another form of conquest?

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