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Winter 1996, Volume 13.1



John Hales

A Personal History of Surveying in Utah

John Hales (Ph.D., State U of New York at Binghamton) is Professor of English at California State University, Fresno. He has published on American landscape and literature in Early American Literature and Western Humanities Review.



Like many of us, I spent the decade of the 1970s confused about nature. Most of the time, I attempted to approach nature on what I believed to be nature's own terms. Because I was drawn to natural landscape as a source of spiritual comfort and recuperation, an alternative to the religion I was born and raised in, the religion I was slowly and painfully finding my way out of, I took pains to tread lightly. I practiced low-impact backpacking. I skied quietly into wilderness areas, trying my best to hear what the woods had to tell me. I read Walden beside mountain lakes. I climbed mountains using as few pitons as possible. When I became a high school teacher working in a program for troubled teenagers, I hauled them into the desert and encouraged them to meditate on the truths to be found in wilderness as a way to regenerate them spiritually with the ultimate goal of getting them graduated from high school.

When I wasn't experiencing nature first hand, I was reading about it. As an English major and, later, as a graduate student in American literature, I examined in more scholarly ways the complexity of the relationship that has evolved between human beings and the natural world, the part nature plays in defining those fundamental problems of meaning that have always troubled humanity. I studied the alienation from nature that seems to define the Judeo­Christian tradition, that seemed too often to define my own life—when I wasn't contemplating in literature themes of alienation from nature, I was studying a nature/culture conflict closer to home, the often confrontational relationship between my hormone-driven body and conscience-wracked spirit, the inheritance of my cultural tradition. It was a conflict I recognized often in literature, perhaps nowhere as clearly as that moment on the stark wilderness summit of Mt. Ktaadn when Henry David Thoreau, for perhaps the only time in his life, lost his emotional bearings: "I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become strange to me," Thoreau wrote, cracking up in ways I understood too well, wondering just whose side his body was really on and where he actually stood in the great scheme of things: "Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?"

Most of the year, then, I spent in ways Thoreau would have recognized: sometimes on the shores of Walden Pond, sometimes atop Ktaadn, alternately healing and agonizing. Summers, however, I approached nature in decidedly unnatural ways, worrying less about understanding nature than helping shape it into something abstract and alien. I worked each summer through most of the 1970s as a surveyor for the Utah office of the Cadastral Survey, a sub-bureau of the Bureau of Land Management, and pretty much did what my supervisors told me to do—in spite of the qualms I'd carefully nurtured in my more gentle experiences in nature—and painstakingly documented in the University of Utah library. I spent eight long summers helping Thomas Jefferson achieve his dream of an American landscape entirely and eternally subdivided into perfect square-mile sections, personally doing those observations, measurements and calculations that pay homage to our founding fathers' vision of a classically ordered and economically useful American landscape, committing crimes against the southern Utah landscape I've spent many years repenting for. I can't plead ignorance: even then, I understood that my work on a government survey crew was imperialistic, phallocentric, and linear beyond any right-brain redemption. My reading in French philosophy helped me understand that land surveying was existentially inauthentic, and my reading in Marxist theory made it impossible for me to deny that the rectangular survey did anything other than promote the agenda of the ruling class.

As a result of this basic conflict in my life, I was required to spend each fall, winter, and spring defending what I'd been doing each summer. At one point, a group of my friends arranged a kind of intervention, forcing me to face the essential hypocrisy of my life and demanding that I come to terms with my environmental incorrectness, an all-night confrontation that culminated with a woman shouting at me: "How dare you draw lines on nature!" Exhausted, I told her it was only a job, money for tuition and rent and auto repair, but even as I said the words, I knew I wasn't telling her the truth. The truth was that I loved my work, loved it in ways that involved need and dependence and even, as happens in the deepest loves, the possibility for both physical and spiritual transcendence.

I've spent many years trying to figure out why that was so: how could I trade my cross-country skis for an ax and a transit? How could I come to read the BLM's Manual of Surveying Instructions with the same kind of reverence with which I read Faulkner's Go Down Moses? At the time, I thought it had to do with balance: the sheer ambiguity of literary texts—and the never-ending slog through academic coursework—left me hungry for the comforting certitude of neat mathematical equations and ordered square-mile sections. When I finished reading Moby Dick, I was left with the discomfiting understanding that ultimate understanding was impossible. When I finished surveying a square-mile section, I understood that landscape could reflect mathematical perfection. At the end of each semester, the papers I submitted to my professors all said the same thing: the truth is pretty complicated, and there is no ultimate answer. At the end of each summer, the notes we submitted to the central office looked like something you could count on. Unlike the literature I read, our survey notes amounted to one long trigonometric equation, and it equated. I wasn't necessarily fooled by this appearance of certitude, but I was certainly comforted by it.

Perhaps I found comfort in surveying because, in spite of what I'd learned from Melville's Moby Dick and Einstein's Theory of Relativity, I still hadn't outgrown my childhood belief that science provided a point of certainty in an otherwise confused, uncertain and dangerous world. I grew up sceptical about religion and enthusiastic about science, both inclinations probably the result of the central tragedy in my family's life, my older brother's forty years of nearly total incapacity as the result of polio. It was difficult for me to trust in the moral coherence of a religious system that included something as devastating and obviously unfair as my brother's deeply compromised life, and I knew that I'd been spared a similar fate by the Salk vaccine, not a loving God. My childhood was measured in a series of increasingly powerful microscopes, my time spent practicing for the kind of discoveries described in my favorite book, The Microbe Hunters, which gradually replaced The Book of Mormon as the text that foretold most plausibly for me the world's millennial future. When as a surveyor I was finally allowed to step up to the transit and observe what the southern Utah landscape looked like magnified and isolated into discrete measurable images, I didn't squint—my eye opened wide in the way I'd practiced all my life, my hands fell naturally to the knobs of focus and adjustment, and I felt right at home.

In my desire to be a scientist, I was following in the footsteps of my physician father (my ultimate microscope, the one that finally allowed me to actually see into the nucleus of a cell, was the microscope my father had used in medical school) and in the footsteps of his father, a physicist who, for nearly fifty years at Brigham Young University, taught generations of young Mormons that what they may have been told back home was wrong: the earth was actually several billion years old, he told them; the universe began in a compression of matter and energy that erupted into the Big Bang, and the beauty and utility of the flora and fauna you see outside the lecture hall arrived courtesy of the processes of natural selection and evolution.

I admired him for his ability to look into the microscope and report honestly what he saw, and I especially admired him for his ability to accomplish what I'd failed at again and again: he was not only able to reconcile the world he studied with the world God had created, he was somehow able to reconcile the physical and the mystical, what he studied with his instruments and what he felt in his heart. In addition to teaching his students in the physics lab the facts of the material universe, he introduced them in the Provo Temple to the immaterial secrets of eternity. The same man who told me stories of instruments that had allowed him to actually see electrons tricked from their orbits to reveal themselves as flashes of light, also explained to me that the temple had allowed him to look into eternity: he'd seen the veil open, the curtain parted by some other worldly wind. He talked about spirits with the same reverence and straightforwardness he used when talking about planetary orbits. Whether he'd ever struggled with matters of faith—as I did, it seemed, every day of my life—he seemed to have resolved the split between reason and belief, if indeed he'd ever seen it as a split at all. I was alternately cynical and envious: although I sometimes wondered whether such belief was really possible, I never doubted that my grandfather's view of the world was genuine and deep. What I envied most was that my grandfather understood exactly who he was and what he was made of. At any given moment, he knew his exact location on earth, in the universe, and in eternity. Me, I was lost.


It is no coincidence that the surveying of Utah and the building of the Salt Lake Temple commenced on the same day. On the morning of 21 July, 1847, Orson Pratt, a young Mormon scientist and theologian charged with the task of locating in the Salt Lake Valley a suitable stopping place for the first party of Mormon immigrants, walked alone to a spot defined by the dividing forks of a creek that flowed from the nearby mountains, experienced what he later described as "peculiar feelings" indicating that this was the place which the Mormons had "so long sought," and marked the spot in his memory. Two weeks later, Brigham Young announced that the Mormons' newest temple would be built upon the spot Pratt had located, and explained his plans to lay out the new city in rectangular grids according to the specifications Joseph Smith had years ago revealed as the City of Zion.

Having been the first to locate the center of Zion, Orson Pratt now took responsibility for determining its exact location. Marking the spot with a surveyor's stake, he proceeded to discover its position in the known universe by observing the sun and moon through his sextant, reading the angles and recording the precise times, and completing the necessary computations. Turning to more earthly concerns, Pratt then calculated the latitude and longitude of the point and determined the future measurement of Zion by designating the stake as the beginning point from which the rectangular subdivision of all lands claimed by the new Mormon empire would commence.

The surveying of land in Utah would continue over the next hundred years to be characterized by the complicated blending of the mystical and the utilitarian, the theological and the scientific, and the sacred and the profane that describes its beginnings. In addition to providing the means by which the political boundaries of Zion might be measured and established, the point Orson Pratt located in time and space served as a point from which metaphysical boundaries as well would be investigated and determined—a reference point for exploring the degree to which the spiritual and the material merged and separated in the complex theology Joseph Smith had revealed but, some might say, had done little to illuminate. During the years the Mormons extended the survey of their empire outward from the point Pratt had established at the corner of the temple lot, they also worked within those boundaries to construct the temple itself, a building they believed enclosed the specific boundary between the City of God and the City of Man. The work of these Mormon surveyors, architects and theologians would eventually result in a remarkable circumstance: rather than denote the expected boundary between sacred and secular space, the straight lines Pratt surveyed around Temple Square in 1847 have over the years achieved the somewhat ironic effect of blurring the distinction, serving less as a wall than a bridge between the sacred and profane.

Jefferson's Land Ordinance of 1785 required each territory to establish principal baselines and meridians, lines surveyed with great care that radiated north, south, east and west from precisely located points of intersection from which all land surveys in the territory would commence. Although the initial settlement of Utah took place during a time the legal ownership of Deseret was up for grabs, the Mormons understood that their lands would eventually be subject to federal survey practices and land laws, and they made sure their own practices were consistent with Washington's by tying their surveys to the lines radiating outward from Temple Square. When surveyors from the federal government arrived in Utah Territory in 1855, they designated Pratt's point at the southeast corner of Temple Square as the official point of departure for territorial surveys, and installed the sandstone obelisk there that still marks the spot. The original lines Pratt and other Mormon surveyors had run north, south, east and west from this corner were designated the Great Salt Lake Baseline and Meridian, and became the Government Land Office's device for unifying land descriptions in the territory.

Having contributed what he could toward determining the internal arrangement and external boundaries of the geographical Zion, in 1869 Pratt moved his base of operations within the walls of Temple Square, where he spent long nights through the next decade viewing the sky from a small observatory built a stone's throw away from the steadily rising walls of the temple. Equipped with a good 3 inch telescope he had purchased on a mission to England a few years earlier, and with a state of the art chronometer provided by the U.S. Coastal and Geodetic Survey, the observatory ostensibly served to provide an astronomical check on local time. The site was chosen for its proximity to the intersection of the Great Salt Lake Baseline and Meridian and for the relative protection the Temple Square walls afforded from the noise and activity of Salt Lake City's downtown. As a professor of mathematics, astronomy and "moral science" at Salt Lake's fledgling University of Deseret, Pratt was a good choice for the position of astronomer.

It is clear, however, that the long nights Orson Pratt spent in what became known locally as Orson's observatory were primarily devoted to searching for solutions to fundamental problems of earthly existence through the application of science, in addressing those questions central to the western philosophical tradition—for example, what is the relationship between the material world and eternal truth? And those questions peculiar to Mormonism—for example, what does the universe have to say in support of Joseph Smith's contention that intelligent matter pervades the universe? In Pratt's hands, the modest observatory, already occupying sacred Temple Square space, became itself a kind of sacred structure that spoke for a tie between the Utah landscape that Pratt had helped fit into an intelligible, ordering grid, and the bodies, orbits, and motions of the cosmos, those worlds whose connections with our own required recognition, definition, and celebration. After completing the observations and computations required by the Geodetic Survey contract, Pratt turned to observing, recording, and computing the motions of the planets themselves, describing their relation to the dependable position of the North Star, calculating, with as much mathematical accuracy as possible, the place Temple Square occupied amid all this space and motion, assembling the numbers that defined Temple Square's place in the universe and in eternity.

In his desire to locate the Mormon church in its cosmic frame, Pratt was joined by the architects and builders of the Salt Lake Temple in ways we'll probably never fully understand. Work had proceeded slowly from that day in 1847 when Brigham Young pointed to the spot the temple would occupy; when Pratt's observatory was built 22 years later, the walls of the temple had risen less than five feet above their foundation. However, by the time the temple was completed in 1892, its architecture had come to communicate a concern very similar to Pratt's with the truths represented by the objects and equations that defined the physical universe.

Central to Mormon belief is the understanding that the temple's innermost rooms function as a kind of door to the Kingdom of God; as my grandfather explained to me, the veil separating this world and the next is something more than merely symbolic in the ritual and architecture of the temple's interior. It means something, therefore, that the granite walls that enclose this gateway to the spirit world are decorated with images of the material universe. The temple rests on foundation buttresses into which are carved representations of the earth, and the second story is marked by decorations that dramatize from column to column the phases of the moon.

These columns are capped by elaborately carved depictions of the sun. Other architectural details include dozens of stars, some carved into keystones over window arches, others decorating a tier on the central east tower, and perhaps most dramatic of all, carved in bas-relief on the central tower of the west facade, can be seen an array of stars in the shape of the Big Dipper, situated on one axis as the constellation appears in the sky, the stars at the far edge of the dipper lining up exactly with the actual North Star.

The architects and church leaders who planned the temple chose with some care specific architectural features and decorative images in order to represent their understanding of the way the organization of the material universe speaks to the organization of spiritual truth. If this was their purpose, then it is reasonable to assume that Orson took part in the conversation. His life had been devoted to bringing his understanding of the material universe to discussions of religious practice, trying to find scientific models for illuminating Joseph Smith's sometimes obscure pronouncements. Smith described a cosmos in which the material had always defined the spiritual, and vice versa: intelligence, he explained, is both eternal and material. The physical universe is not merely emblematic of eternal truths; according to Joseph Smith, the universe embodies eternal truth. Smith described the preexistence as a cloud of free-floating but nevertheless physical bits of intelligence; he described the hereafter as an infinite number of inhabited worlds, each presided over by a god who had earned his divinity by triumphing on mortal planes such as earth's. It makes perfect sense, therefore, to house the gateway to the spirit world in a building constructed according to the architecture of the universe. Orson Pratt spent his life searching the physical world for evidence of the divine, and published book after book explaining the structure of the universe as a way of understanding the logic of God's mind. Among the church leaders close to Brigham Young, he was certainly the most qualified to advise Young in matters of sacred astronomy.

When he wasn't advising the Prophet on matters of science and theology—advice Brigham Young alternately found enlightening and annoying—Orson Pratt could be found in his Temple Square observatory, working toward the fulfillment of his life's work: locating with perfect accuracy the exact location of Zion in the material and spiritual universe. This was, of course, merely a continuation of what he'd been doing all along. With his sextant and book of mathematical tables, Pratt had navigated the Mormon's difficult journey west, locating with whatever accuracy was possible their stopping places along the way. Less than a week after entering the Salt Lake Valley, he had determined the position of Temple Square with a series of solar and lunar observations, and a few years later, Pratt took his more sophisticated theodolite to the boundaries of the territory, and by sighting on the North Star, located with even more accuracy the northern and eastern extent of Zion.

From his observatory on Temple Square, however, Pratt was able to complete his most definitive observations and calculations, sighting on the North Star night after night, assembling columns of angles and bearings that might yield the numbers that defined Temple Square's place in the universe and in eternity. There is some significance in the fact that Pratt's observatory stood on Temple Square for nearly a quarter of a century as the temple rose beside it, and was then quietly dismantled upon the temple's completion. Both the observatory and the temple itself can best be understood as Mormon echoes of Stonehenge and the pyramids of Yucatan and the Nile Valley, structures that attempt to locate themselves in physical space as a way of determining their location in the eternal, presided over by priests—individuals, I imagine, very much like my grandfather—who perceive no conflict between science and religion, who understand that astronomy and theology are precisely the same thing. As the more elaborately designed temple structure rose to the north of Pratt's observatory, it may well have eclipsed his view of the North Star, rendering further sightings both impossible and unnecessary. The Big Dipper, carved in granite on the temple's west tower, similarly located Zion in relation to the universe, but from a base more firmly anchored than Pratt's observatory in the architectural and ceremonial rituals of Mormonism, obviating Pratt's need to personally connect Zion with the most dependable of stars.

On behalf of Zion, Pratt derived an equation that unified all things earthly and spiritual, connecting with the assurance of mathematical certainty heaven and earth, human and divine, this world and all possible worlds. Perhaps more impressively, he managed to transform the entirety of Zion into a religious structure. Even today, it is difficult to describe Utah in the terms one conventionally employs to describe the arrangement of public space, as secular architecture and geography that exist in relation to the sacred space of Temple Square. The way in which Zion was surveyed, located in space through Pratt's astronomical observations, and centered around the astronomical language of temple architecture, has transformed the state of Utah into an extension of Temple Square, a colossal and intricate composition of religious architecture that attempts simultaneously to explain, interpret, pay homage to, and ultimately connect with the divine.


Perhaps only surveyors can fully appreciate Orson Pratt's most enduring legacy: the degree to which surveying in Utah still requires allegiance to Mormon theology is proof that Pratt accomplished his goal of arranging Utah around a profoundly spiritual center. Even today, all land in Utah, public, private and parochial, is described and recorded in terms of its proximity to Temple Square. The small ranching town of Boulder, Utah, for example, occupies land that is legally described as Section 26 of Township 33 South Range 4 East, which, decoded according to the conventions of the Cadastral Survey, indicates a location 196 miles south and 22 miles east of the spot marked by the sandstone obelisk at the southeast corner of Temple Square, that 10­acre block in Salt Lake City in which Mormonism's most sacred ceremonies are performed.

This means, among other things, that BLM surveyors must routinely perform a ceremony at Temple Square that can only be described as religious. Perhaps only a few surveyors are actually required to attend this worship service in person, but all government surveyors must initiate their surveys from the point marked by the obelisk and, by extension, work to complete the complex theological project Orson Pratt initiated.

BLM surveyors setting out to survey or, more likely today, to resurvey a township in Utah begin by establishing the location of their starting point, generally a section corner over which they have set up their transit. They begin their calculation with the set of coordinates that describe what is presumably known: the location of the point in reference to Temple Square. They then check the accuracy of these numbers by determining the position of the point in the universe. They sight their transit on the North Star, the same star Pratt located with his telescope from his Temple Square observatory, the star architecturally and spiritually located by the Big Dipper on the temple's west facade. The surveyors record the numbers their instruments reveal, enter them into their equation, and reconcile the differences between the numbers that describe the position of the point on earth and the numbers that describe the position of the point in the universe.

This equation can best be understood as a kind of triangle that, in Utah, holds precisely the kind of religious significance Pratt intended. The base of the triangle is the line that has been calculated between the point the surveyor has occupied with his transit and the point marked by the sandstone obelisk at the corner of Temple Square. One side of the triangle—side A—is defined by the surveyor's line, his sighting of the North Star from the point his transit occupies in southern Utah. The other side of the triangle—side B—is defined by the line that rises from the Temple Square obelisk to the North Star, the line calculated with such accuracy by Pratt and eternally fixed by the Big Dipper constellation inscribed in temple architecture.

Like Pratt, this lowly (and, for all we know, staunchly Presbyterian) surveyor has, whether he has chosen to or not, located himself in Utah, on the Earth, in the known universe, and in eternity according to the conventions of Pratt's interpretation of Mormon theology. To say that he knows where he is amounts to a colossal understatement. Whether this is of help to him in finding the answer to Thoreau's second question—who he is—depends, of course, on the belief system of the particular surveyor: religion, after all, is defined by personal motivation at least as much as it is defined by theological principles.

For most of the 1970s, that surveyor was me. I'm still trying to understand what my personal motivations were, the reasons for my attachment to surveying in spite of the fact that it conflicted with most of my other beliefs about nature, why I looked forward to it each spring, and why I missed it so much when I moved to the northeast to complete graduate school—ironically, to a university not far from the spot in the Susquehanna River where Joseph Smith claimed to have been baptized by visitors from the spirit world. As I've said, I was comforted by the illusion of certainty, the reassurance of science. I've also come to understand that many of the seemingly incomprehensible things I did during my twenties were actually the result of my trying to figure out where I stood in relation to the culture, the beliefs, and the landscape in which I was raised. I was trying to understand the nature of my connection with my family, those who had raised me and continued to love me regardless of the clumsy way I was leaving the faith that continued in many comforting ways to define our relationship. Surveying provided a way for me to connect who I'd been with who I was becoming; it allowed me to understand the many ways in which I remained connected to the Salt Lake Temple at the same time it allowed me to measure precisely the distance I'd traveled away from it.

I understand now that surveying also allowed me to begin finding personal answers to more elemental problems of human existence, to address the questions raised in the literature I'd read—Thoreau's interconnected questions "Where am I? Who am I?"—and similar questions that presented themselves on each trip into the mountains and deserts of Utah, problems that bounced back and forth between exterior and interior landscapes, between the material and the spiritual, between hope and truth. My work as a surveyor provided me with a set of rituals with which to measure, comprehend, and celebrate my place in the world, a kind of worship through which I could connect my own confused self with the undeniable facts of the universe, the planets and stars that seemed in my worst moments to look down on me like some kind of uninvited stranger.

A typical day involved activities that were laden with meaning. I'd begin by looking over the handwritten notes of the surveyor who had preceded me a hundred years before. I'd compare his textual topography with the landscape I saw before me, and I'd turn the bearings and measure the distances he'd recorded, figures that then and now told me exactly where I was in relation to Temple Square, the distances and angles that defined side A and side B. We'd run the line, measuring horizontal distances and vertical angles, and after a search that felt as much like archeology as anything else, we'd discover some obscure markings on a cedar tree that pointed us to some even more obscure chiseled notches on a rock that would eventually prove to be a hundred-year-old section corner.

We'd supplement this artifact by inscribing numbers on a new marker, a brass cap atop a galvanized iron post—the only material we'd use that wasn't native—stand it alongside the original stone marker we'd located, and build a mound of rocks around the whole thing. We'd blaze some new trees—I confess that I loved the task of carefully carving the required letters and numbers in the fresh blaze of a cedar tree, marking the spot for later generations of surveyors, and if there happened to be a vertical rock surface nearby, we'd chisel figures into the stone, a brief message prescribed by the canonical Manual of Surveying Instruction, and record another bearing and distance in the notes we were taking. As crew chief (a kind of mid­level priest in the Cadastral Survey hierarchy), I was required to make sure that the point we'd located and reestablished was properly ritualized with the construction of stone monuments, the marking of rocks and trees, and the careful entry of the necessary words and numbers into the hardbound notebook I carried, entries that eventually would become field notes on file for the use of future surveyors.

Then, in order to validate the accuracy of the original bearing and distance—the earthly position of the point we'd established—we'd recheck our position in the universe first by sighting on the sun, then use the figures we'd gained with the sun shot to find the North Star, observable as a tiny white speck against the blue background I'd see through the transit at midday. (I know it's an illusion, but in the daytime, through the transit, the star seems like an actual object, a body with surface area and sphericity, not the dimensionless pinprick in the cover of darkness you see at night.) With the front chainman calling out the exact time and recording the angles I'd read, I'd position the transit's crosshairs right alongside the North Star, read the horizontal and vertical angles, and call them out. I'd wait a few minutes, observe to my satisfaction that the Earth had revolved and rotated enough to put the North Star a small distance away from where it had been, and then I'd readjust the transit, note the exact time, call out a second set of angles, and sit down to calculate where we were in the cosmos.

At that moment, I'd feel connected in ways I hadn't felt before or since. I understood then just what it meant to stand on a small spinning planet moving through the universe; I knew where I was in the state of Utah, the distance I'd traversed from Temple Square, the direction I was headed on earth. I'd calculated my own movement against the dependable reference of a star a thousand light years away, and I'd discovered that my movements were measurable, even in the unimaginable scale of the Milky Way, and therefore possibly significant. I'd completed a set of calculations that told me exactly where I was, and I'd marked that spot with a mound of stone, an inscription on a living tree, and a chiseled design on a rock that would be there centuries from now. I knew where I was, and I had a momentary sense that it was therefore possible to know who I was. I'd gotten a glimpse of what my grandfather and Orson Pratt saw every day of their lives. I'd made contact.


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