While surveying a residential lot in Downingtown, Pa., in 1976, I learned a valuable lesson from a seasoned party chief. We had a rod man fresh off the street who was full of himself. This particular rod man would provide an assortment of problems.

One incident I recall involved a very large tulip tree and the need for a backsight from a traverse point near the base of its trunk. During the course of the traverse, ITrimming back trees in surveying heard the party chief using rough language while instructing the young man not to do anything but stand at the backsight point and wait to see me raise my arm and ask for a backsight. “Don’t go anywhere; don’t do anything else; and don’t cut anything at all with that machete.” He was asking a lot, especially when it came to handing a freshly graduated 18-year-old his first machete.

After some yelling to get his attention, the new guy would give backsights. He had a steady hand, so the angles turned up nicely. Focusing on my duties, I paid no attention to the rod man except for the specific times I needed to get his attention.

For some reason, the chief walked back to where the novice was standing and saw that in his boredom,  he had used the machete to shave a large patch of bark off the tree. I think the party chief jumped off the ground and began a muted tirade so as not to attract attention. I was, of course, laughing on the inside. That was an integral part of the transit man’s job in those days.


After cooling down a bit, the chief looked around and grabbed a handful of moist earth, smearing it over the exposed white wood. The dirt left a darker color than the rest of the bark, so it looked as if it had been that way for some time. “I saw a guy do this before to cover up a mark just like this,” I remember the party chief telling me. It looked good.

Since then, I have used this technique to avoid upsetting people in situations where I really did need to shave a tree to open a line-of-sight. At one time or another, most of us have had to notch a tree so we could see that the line was correct. Although there are many ways to go around a tree, sometimes straight through is the best option.

During the 1980s, an older party chief did not have a crew for the day and was assigned to mine. While staking a rear lot line in a new development, the line-of-sight went directly through a 3-inch maple. Had it been a 1-inch sapling, I would have cut it asunder without hesitation. A 2-inch maple would have given me pause. As I stood there looking at the 3-inch tree, the older chief yelled, “Just cut that thing down! You leave that tree and go around it and surveyors for years to come will all be going around it. Get rid of it now and you help everyone and nobody will ever miss it.”


Trimming away twigs and foliage in surveyingI turned to look back at him and knew he was right. It was a new development, the rear of the new parcel was wooded and there might not even be a buyer for the house we were working behind for some time. The lot was a mess and there was no grass planted. If this lot had a new homeowner, I never would have put a blade to that maple. I like trees, but I’m no tree hugger, and any surveyor staking that back lot line will do so now with greater ease because I listened to my elder. That party chief, my senior by 30 years, must have enjoyed being able to pass on some wisdom and perhaps took pleasure in watching me cut that tree down.

Back in the 70s, while surveying a portion of the boundary of Beaver Lake in Arkansas, we were instructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on exactly how the Corps wanted the boundary line blazed. A tree directly on-line would receive two blazes. A tree near the line would be marked with one blaze facing the boundary line. At corner points, a brass disk was to be set in concrete and the trees surrounding the point blazed with three marks facing the corner. It was comical when I heard that a belt maker in a local craft shop was selling buckles made out of those brass discs.  On every buckle, you could read the warning about being fined for removing that brass marker.

These days, I perform a lot of work on properties with manicured lawns and expensive plantings, often the work of skilled landscape designers. I carry plenty of sharp cutting tools, gas-powered and long-bladed machetes. While working on these expensive lots, I hesitate to fire up what sounds like a chainsaw because it draws a lot of attention, so I buy good quality hand pruners. I can use those clippers to cut up to 2-inch thick branches and get some measure of satisfaction. It is also possible to remove just enough brush to see through to get the shot. I feel better when I can say, “I’m just using hand clippers.” It eases the pain of the homeowner.

 Be it blazes, stumps, cut branches or trimmed bushes, I look for the tell-tale markings of another surveyor cutting the trail before me. After measuring or pacing a rough distance to a point which may be near a corner, I stand there and look around: An old tree line through the woods, the drop-off line of a formerly plowed field which has grown over with saplings, the remnants of a road trace. I take a minute to observe the places at which the vegetation has been cut rather than broken off, and the traces of sun-bleached flags where only the knot and thin twig wrapping remain. A picture will form, painted a long time ago, following in the footsteps of another surveyor. Once I find the corner, trim a few more twigs and tie fresh flagging, I sometimes ponder the picture one of you might appreciate someday.