Point of Beginning

From the Field

August 21, 2000
The religion of surveying.

The dawn breaks in Oregon with the promise of another cloudless day in the Elkhorns. The air is brisk with a purity unique to the mountains. The hint of morning haze is a harbinger of the soaring temperatures to be experienced by those living below in Baker City. But up here, the day will prove tolerable. No need for air conditioning at this altitude.

I haven't had to cut any brush in over two weeks as the ground cover is nothing but fallen twigs and branches. The pungent sweet scent of lodgepole pine and white fir, shed by the grand fir, silver fir and subalpine fir forest cover, carried along by the breeze like some unseen purveyor of fragrances, makes these woods seem like some natural cathedral. The sun filtering through the trees gives the appearance of God's Doric columns designed to hold up the azure blue sky above. There is a hint of wood smoke on the air, given off by some distant wildfire, a common ingredient to the natural fragrances carried through the mountains this time of year.

No artist has ever captured the unique combination of ingredients that make up the sensory overload I experience on this morning. God's gift to me, to have life, to be here on this mountain at this moment, and to have the good sense to know that this is the only proof of His existence I have ever truly known. The picture doesn't stop here however. I am at work! Yes, I'm even being paid while I'm having this epiphany!

My task for this day represents the culmination of weeks of field survey, tying together all known evidence of the original General Land Office (GLO) surveys completed in this area before the turn of the century. I've begun to get a feel for the quality of the measurements of the GLO surveyors who worked within this township more than 100 years ago. I've seen the scribing used to mark their bearing trees and the quality of the marks chiseled into their stones. I've retraced their measurements and have acquired some understanding of how their work compares to mine. I see a standard of care I wish some of my contemporaries shared.

I am confident that I will find this missing one-quarter corner, even though the Forest Service contracting officer has told me it's an impossible task at which many others before me have failed. This only spurs me on to dig in my heels and look harder. As I ascend the mountain to my computed search area, I am filled with optimism that another piece of the survey puzzle will be resolved. The air in these mountains is very dry; wood decays very slowly here compared to the coastal regions. Remains of the original bearing trees should still be present, but I am new to these regions and haven't had the burnishing of experience to know exactly what to look for. On this day, God will favor me by my lack of experience.

The Search Begins

I stake out a fairly small search area from my survey control with a lath, like some archaeologist setting up a grid to compile locations of recovered artifacts. I begin by looking at the obvious. The GLO surveyors called for two "black pine" witness trees. To the uninitiated, these are lodgepole pine. I have often wondered how these old surveyors arrived at some of the common names for trees during the 19th century. I love their name for cottonwood: "Balm of Gilead." On a day like this, it's too bad I don't have some of these "religious" trees standing in the area.

I check all the living "black pine" standing within a 200' radius of my search position. No marks indicate "ancient" human activity. However, there is ample evidence of search by others. It seems that every crack, split, seam and scar has been chopped into by someone looking for the elusive original marks. I know at least that I'm in the right area! I get out my increment borer (used to estimate the age of trees) and take a few random borings of living trees. None of them are old enough! Seems that at least one of those surveyors here before me didn't have the old increment borer with them, hence all the chopping, like some rabid beaver run amok in the forest.

Now that living trees have been ruled out, I start checking all the "dead and down" trees in my search area. These include standing snags and old windfalls. Here again the increment borer proves valuable. Coupled with my training in wood identification while enrolled at the School of Forest Engineering at Oregon State University, I quickly determine which of the dead trees are "black pine" and investigate these diligently, but I soon determine that no "original evidence" lies hidden in these trees. For whatever reason, I determine that they are not old enough either. I've now been searching for about four hours, so it's time to give it a break and have some lunch. I know now that the real work begins, because I will have to investigate all the decaying woody material in the area, including old stumps, root collars and any other likely candidate. I'm beginning to get a little nervous about the time as well. It was a two-hour hike into the area and since I only have 15 hours of daylight on this day, I'm left with about six more hours of work to complete my search and set a new monument and accessories before I'll need to leave, or be faced with a two-hour hike in the dark through the woods. This thought spurs me to take a short lunch.

After lunch, I begin examining all stumps with any likely scars. Of course, my predecessors have done the same, so my heart really isn't in this task. Nevertheless, it is evident that no stump in this area is going to yield "original marks." Even the stumps aren't old enough!

Now begins the shovel and rake work. I turn over all likely pieces of rotten wood with no success. I then remove the top layer of woody debris from the search area to see if I can uncover any root crowns from very old tree evidence. This yields two likely candidates, but after careful excavation at the base of these in the location of where the "original marks" should have been established, I find no evidence. Now I'm getting really worried. Could this be one of those instances where all the naysayers were right, and I won't find the evidence I need? All my work up to this point indicates that the GLO surveyors were here and they set a monument and accessories just as they had indicated. The original monument was called to be a squared fir limb, so I don't hold out much hope of finding surface evidence remaining. I need the accessories! I expand my search area and work in a clockwise direction around my initial 36' radius circle, examining a 6' wide swath for any decaying evidence. I turn over a rotten piece of wood with an oddly flattened side, but at first glance, nothing catches my attention. I keep on searching.

By the time I finish examining the expanded search area it is 4 p.m. Clouds are galloping across the afternoon sky like discarded cotton and the wind is picking up from the southwest. With the passage of each cloud in front of the sun, the light patterns are changing all over the forest floor. It looks like rain might be in the forecast within the next day or so. Desperation sets in. I have learned over the years that desperate times require desperate measures. When it comes to performing due diligence with respect to search, I have often been called upon to pull out "all the stops" in my arsenal of search weapons. Today was one of those occasions.

That Which Was Lost

Now there are many among you who might think what I'm about to say is corny or hocus pocus; but then, I found the evidence of the original accessories. No one else before me had any success. Just like the use of "divining rods," some of you just won't believe. It is immaterial the means or methods at my disposal, but the fact is that I've used this technique successfully on four other occasions during my surveying career. Sometimes, when I've exhausted all my investigative faculties and no amount of my past 30 years of surveying experience has helped to discover "that which was lost," I will ask for help from another quarter. I know many of you have faced the experience of looking so long and hard at a problem that even though the obvious solution is right in front of you, it remains obscured by all your frustration. This was such a time!

I prayed! With no one watching, I didn't have any embarrassment to face. After all, this day, in terms of weather, location and work, was truly what I imagined heaven to be like. What was so illogical about inviting God here to share in my experience? I simply asked Him to reveal to me "that which was lost." I had exhausted all my tools. It was His turn! Something stirred me to look in the direction of the oddly flattened piece of rotten wood. At that moment, a passing cloud cast a shadow over the ground in front of me. As this shadow began to diminish, the sunlight changed to that "long shadowed" afterglow of early evening, filtering through the trees and the smoky haze to cast an otherworldly light to the forest floor and illuminate the debris I had turned over. The oddly flattened piece of rotten wood was now lying exposed, as if backlit by some misdirected lamp. In these shadows, much to my disbelief, I could swear I saw writing! I imagined Moses in that most holy place and the awe he must have experienced upon seeing the writing on the tablet of stone.

I pulled a can of fluorescent orange paint from my vest and holding it close to the ground, sprayed a light fog over this exposed piece of wood to highlight the raised portions. This also outlined the piece with color so I could replace it in the exact position where I had found it. The marks "1/4 S BT" were now discernible on this piece of wood. The only evidence of the original "black pine" bearing tree was the rotted face. Assuming that this had simply fallen face down from its original position, I set a "guinea" at the reconstructed upright position. I then measured GLO record distance and direction from this face to the position for the original monument and set another "guinea." From the reconstructed position for the monument, I then measured to the record position for the other "black pine" bearing tree. A similar piece of rotten wood lying face down revealed perfectly preserved marks "1/4 S BT." Eureka! That which was lost is now found!

From the reconstructed positions of the two original bearing trees, I determined a more precise location for the original monument. I carefully removed the woody "duff" from this spot and began to shave away the soil in thin layers to reveal the rotted ring of the original fir limb and 2' below the ground surface, the perfectly preserved sharpened point of the original monument-43' from the center of my computed search area and 7' beyond my computed search envelope. I replaced the original monument with a Forest Service-approved version, erected a mound of stones, set new accessories, tied them into my control traverse and walked out in the dark, full of the elation I always get after a good "find." Isn't it ironic that the most memorable and difficult "finds" I've had during my career were shared!

The next time you perform a search for a lost or obliterated corner, remember ALL the tools at your disposal. If you don't and establish the monument at the proportioned position, someone like me might come along to overturn your establishment by finding original evidence using ALL of my tools. Won't you be ashamed?