Of Cathedrals And Surveys

It sometimes seems as if surveyors, as a group, have the world’s largest inferiority complex. For people as opinionated as we are, this is remarkable. We perceive we command little respect from others in the real estate community and constantly hear of surveyors whining about this or that aspect of their practice.

Perhaps we too often focus on the immediate tasks at hand and lose sight of the larger picture. It is difficult to focus on the bigger picture when your client is demanding your plat by 3:00 pm today! Nevertheless, the real estate community, and in a larger sense, any democracy founded upon the private ownership of land, would be impotent without our contributions. Surveyors (as advisors, and not just as land measurers) constitute an indispensable part of the land disposition community. Our skills form a bond linking the past with the future, adding a dash of immortality to our wares.

Our Primary Mission

We sometimes forget that our primary mission is not to get plans or plats approved, but is either to retrace with fidelity the faded footsteps of surveyors past, or to create useful divisions of land for future surveyors to retrace. Our primary obligation is not to the present, but from the present. Whether we realize it or not, the timeless nature of our work is unlike that of any other profession. The architect’s work is of no use after the building is razed; the doctor’s work is but a curiosity after the patient is dead; the engineer’s work fades quickly after the improvements have been replaced; but the surveyor’s work endures long after he is forgotten. Others will follow in his footsteps. In this respect, today’s surveyors constitute only the immediate link in what is a great continuum of land experts.

Ours is a noble profession; one in which statesmen and philosophers alike have learned the value of precision. What other profession can claim the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Thoreau? Among our ranks are folks leaving lasting legacies. Financial rewards are fine, but not everything. If they were, everyone might just as well be insurance agents. (No offense is intended toward insurance agents, but after their career is over, have they left any mark on society?) Surveyors can look back over a career with the satisfaction of seeing mysteries explained and problems solved. Few understand the history of land as we do. Few can unravel the complexities produced by mixing law with mathematics as we can. Few have met the challenge of implementing new technologies as we have.

As the preface to his 1688 book, Geodasia: or the Art of Surveying and Measuring Land Made Easie, John Love wrote, "nor can we complain of any failure of Respect given to this Excellent Science, by our Modern Worthies, many Noblemen, Clergymen, and Gentlemen affecting the Study thereof: So that we may safely say, none but Unadvised Men ever did, or do now speak ill of it."

Others View Us Highly

So, why are we so hard on ourselves? Could it be that we perceive our contribution to society as a formality—as some sort of afterthought? Others involved in the land disposition process view our services with high regard. Why don’t we see them in the same light? All of us have encountered the work of surveyors who obviously have little pride in their work. Perhaps it is the inattention to detail, or possibly it is just the general appearance of the final product. What does this say about us to the public? Is it any wonder we meet resistance in charging a fair price for our work?

A profession that holds its head high and considers its work valuable is more apt to attract the best and the brightest of the next generation. Many despair that so few set out to become surveyors. Many believe that competence in emerging technologies such as GPS and GIS will garner the respect we otherwise lack. Perhaps. But surely those who alight upon our flower in search of a permanent career will not stay if it appears to them that we consider our work unimportant.

Relied Upon For Generations

In this profession, we have the nearly unique privilege of creating a product that will be relied upon for generations. This is a humbling thought. Our task, our calling, is to provide efficient, accurate positions and opinions capable of standing the test of time.

In the fourteenth century—the golden age of stone churches, a visitor came to one of the quarries where limestone was being prepared for shipment to the jobsite. As he wandered through the bustle of activity, curiosity got the better of him. He stopped by one stonemason laboring over a large stone and asked,

"What are you doing?"

"I’m squaring up this large block," came the reply.

A little farther along the visitor encountered another stonemason.

"What are you doing?"

"I’m earning enough today to feed my family for a whole week," the mason answered.

The visitor wandered a little farther down the path and stopped by a third stonemason.

"What are you doing?"

"I’m building a cathedral," the man replied.

As are we.

Copyright © 1996 By Joel M. Leininger, LS