Surveyors everywhere need to keep their eyes open. In the office or in the field, our job involves a great deal of information acquisition and analysis. If you don’t see it, you can’t benefit from that information. In addition to providing data and observation for our plans, surveyors can be considered the eyes and ears of civil engineering.

For instance, can LiDAR tell you that there is a lid of some sort under the brush? Can aerial photographs show the plastic “BURIED CABLE – DO NOT DIG” placard? Will either mention the existence of drums, failing walls, sink holes, small fences, the encroaching gardens of neighbors, a failing septic system, ruins, apparent wetlands and such?

Land surveyors are tasked with gathering all types of information about a site that others will not see or know of so that the office design staff can decide how a tract can be developed to its full potential.

After the engineers complete designs and hand us plans to implement in the field, they need the field staff to give everything a final check. Some engineers might resent you checking their work. But, the world on paper or on the monitor in CAD does not supersede the world outside the office door. If you stake out a proposed feature that cannot work in the field, it will not work, no matter how much the engineer regrets missing a key piece of information.

In movies set in the old west, pioneers were often depicted sitting around an evening campfire and listening for sounds of danger outside the camp. Today, in parts of Africa on safari expeditions, people still listen for danger in the dark. The rest of the engineering team needs surveyors to keep watch and listen to keep them safe from contractors, design flaws and the unexpected.

As I was walking back towards the instrument today, as usual I had my eyes to the ground. I had calculated the previous day’s work in the evening and was ready to set out to look for more corners. I never expected a surveyor would have set a point where I found it. But I discovered the spike by simply keeping my eyes open. It was a large spike and probably plucked from a railroad bed by a field person. I am guessing it is on the property line which is in a small private road. Later, I will download the location and bring it into the CAD drawing and verify its location.

Walking to my robot and thinking of being always observant, my mind was drawn back to my youthful days of surveying when there were three people on a crew. It consisted of my boss (the owner), a licensed land surveyor and engineer, myself the transit man, and Lou the rodman. The two of us had been recently hired following a bust in the housing industry.

A designer in the office told me that Lou and I had almost identical resumes and I was hired because of my straight appearance, whereas Lou was hired later. He was 21, tall, had a bushy reddish brown afro and a big “ZZ Top” style beard. He was a hippy and liked to smoke pot and party. His was a resume that would have required that he would have had to start working at age 3. You probably have met those sorts of employees. If you added up all the stories of job experience, they would be very old. Somehow, those people don’t respect the intelligence of others when they assume people are believing their baloney.

While staking a house, I found $10. It being 1974, that was a sweet find. I suppose if measured in today’s buying power, I would have to find $50 to be as excited. Was I ever happy! My boss asked, “Are you going to give a tithe to the church?” to which I said, “Of course.” In hindsight, I think my boss felt sorry for me. I had a wife and child and lived a happy frugal life. He dropped the 10 spot to help me out.

Lou took notice of my luck and started to keep his eyes on the ground hoping for good fortune as well. From across a house site that had been freshly stripped of topsoil, I watched Lou walk over and pick up a large brown grocers paper bag. The top was folded closed and he happily opened it up and stuck his head inside, then pulled back quickly and dropped it where it had been and walked away briskly.

I asked, “Hey, what was in the bag?”

He answered, “A dead cat!”

When I train a new field person, I talk them through the day and explain as much as I can without slowing down too much. The general public does not realize how every day they see our glyphs and secret symbols everywhere. It varies from state to state and country to country, but we surveyors leave tracks on every project, if a person knows what to look for.

Typically, I have a tax map or deed plot and will show it to a newbie, and tape or pace the distances to potential corners. I learned that when I show a MAG nail to a trainee to specifically point it out and say, “Remember this point. We will probably be back here and locate this later.” It has been my observation, that if I don’t say that, they will say, “What are you talking about? What Nail? Where?” As I am showing it to them, I will probably be putting a circle of paint or crayon around it so I can find it later myself too.

On old country roads where traffic is not expected, I might drop a loop of flagging on the pavement where the nail exists so I can set up my traverse and see all the points found. One day while working a large 300-acre tract, I was yelling for the rodman to go and give us a shot on a PK nail. I kept waving him back until he was very close to the spot at which I could see my flagging laying on the pavement. He was looking around all over and appeared lost. After I walked the distance to where he was standing, I pointed and said, “It’s right there!” His response was, “I would appreciate it if you did not use that orange flagging, I’m color blind.” Boy did I feel bad for all my angst. Over the years I have worked with at least three people who had color blindness, so I’ve made efforts to help them see things easier. One was female, which is rare. White and black striped flagging works well, but also any stripped flagging or polka dot pattern would be better than solid color flagging. White paint is as good as pink. They will also learn how to spot a pin in the grass or near a fence post. With the right accommodations, they are just as proficient as anyone else, despite their color blindness.

Some of the marks we see when we keep our eyes on the ground are drill holes, nails of all sorts, utility line markup paint, chisel marks, spikes, bolts, pipes, pins, monuments, valves, manholes, lids, vaults, outlet boxes and end walls obscured by thick brush to name a few. There are also features interspersed through woods such as road traces, mines, well caps (sometimes open topped for which we need to alert the office staff that a dangerous condition exists) old fence lines, tree lines, stone walls and tree blazes.

I doubt that we are very near to the time when an office person will see these through the lens of a drone. This is not to say that technology will not be taking over some of the work we surveyors now perform, but it will be decades, I hope, before we are replaced by a program crunching photos and processed clouds of data. Our careful observation and documentation of field conditions will continue to prove our value for years to come.