Civilization Squared

Hancock County Iowa  (   Latitude 42°56'21" N Longitude 93°52'24" W   )  by Dennis Dimick, July 6, 2017.

Hancock County Iowa (Latitude 42°56'21" N Longitude 93°52'24" W) by Dennis Dimick, July 6, 2017.

A view from above reveals the framework for a nation's creation

Mapping the Iowa landscape into squares like these seems reasonable until Earth's roundness eventually collides with our desire to square things.

But the reason for a grid of one-mile squares is more significant than their appearance or whether they align

What you see is the foundation for the creation of the United States, when land surveyors mapped the western spaces of an emerging nation.

The Land Ordinance of 1785 was passed by Congress to set up a standardized system for land survey and sale. Each of these mile-on-a-side squares, called sections, contains 640 acres. A six-on-a-side grid of 36 of these sections creates a township. At the time of survey, five sections of each township were set aside for government, and one for schools. A quarter-section, or 160 acres, became the basic unit of public land offered to settlers by the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed any American to claim free federal land as enticement to colonize the West and help realize Manifest Destiny, a philosophy that drove U.S. expansion across North America.

What you see is the foundation for the creation of the United States, when land surveyors mapped the western spaces of an emerging nation.

Why it matters?

Besides generating revenue for a fledgling U.S. government, this grid mapping and land sale provided a framework for settlement, property ownership, governance, taxation, and creating public schools, seen as a "tool in a grand socializing experiment to inoculate the settlers to democratic ideals."  (The severe impact on native people who already lived here is another story.)

This landscape grid extends west across the United States, and into Canada, also surveyed at a time when parts previously were U.S. territories. In midwestern U.S. states like Iowa, most of the original U.S. public lands were sold, but in far western U.S. states land transfer from public to private ownership was not as successful. The region's primarily mountainous, arid, and remote landscapes were not as appealing to farmers and ranchers.

Today the U.S. government still owns about half the land in the 11 Western U.S. states that had been surveyed into sections and townships initially intended for public sale. Some western ranchers have argued for federal land transfer to the states, and these arguments have become heated in recent years.

Want to know more?

University of Oregon professor James Earl has written about the beauty of the view from an airplane: "Window Seat: The Art of the Circle Field."

In a book called "Correction Lines," named after roads that jog meridians east or west to compensate for their northward convergence, Curt Meine explores questions of land use, the tension between utilitarian and preservationist approaches, and between biological realities and social aspirations that are all linked to a landscape marked by these one mile squares.

What's in it for a photographer?

Understanding modern political battles over public vs. private landownership in the West starts with an awareness of society's foundational marks: land surveys that produced the grid pattern of one-mile square sections. To understand where the West is going one must understand how the nation became what it is today.

In the Anthropocene, as you figure out what's worth pointing a camera at, first seek to understand the meaning of what you see. Who owns what, as exemplified by this gridded landscape, is an initial step on a journey of discovery that seeks insight into where human aspiration and the planet collide.

Also See: The Instagram page the.jefferson.grid and this movie (below) about Gerco de Ruitjer's photographic project Grid Corrections for more insights about grid imperfections.

Grid Corrections by Gerco de Ruitjer   This film was made mining the Thomas Jefferson's Grid in Google Earth. By superimposing a rectangular grid on the earth surface, a grid built from exact square miles, the spherical deviations have to be fixed, resulting in the grid corrections seen here.

Dennis Dimick

Dennis Dimick served as executive environment editor at National Geographic magazine and was a picture editor at the National Geographic Society for more than 35 years until his retirement in December 2015. He guided a variety of major magazine projects including a special issue on global freshwater in April 2010, a 2011 series on global population, and the 2014 Future of Food series on global food security. Dimick co-organized the Aspen Environment Forum from 2008-2012, and continues to regularly present slide show lectures on global environmental issues. For 19 years he has been a faculty member of the Missouri Photo Workshop, and in 2013 received the Sprague Memorial Award from the National Press Photographers Association for outstanding service to photojournalism. He currently serves as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists. He grew up on an Oregon farm, and Dimick holds degrees in agriculture and agricultural journalism from Oregon State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.