I have long believed that surveying is truly the oldest profession, eons ahead of whatever is in second place. No other human activity is as fundamental to our civilization as staking a claim to a piece of land we want to call our own, where we draw the line, where an uninvited stranger is a trespasser who enters at his own risk. Long before there were such things as measurements or even numbers, boundaries were drawn, agreed upon, marked and maintained, and, when the situation required, fought over and defended. Whatever was done in the process of making that line known to our fellow man, no matter how primitive and temporary, was an activity I call surveying. To bolster my argument I will tell you about a survey that probably predates the arrival of mankind on earth.
Farley Mowat is a Canadian naturalist turned writer. His many books on nature and wildlife breathe a deep-seated love for wild creatures, a love that is enhanced by a gift for observation. And Mowat writes about his animals with respect for their way of life and with humor.
In the late 1940s, the Canadian government sent him into the frozen vastness of the Keewatin District of northern Canada to study the behavior of wolves in the wild. Mowat did not know it when he took the assignment, but Canis Lupus was going to teach him something about surveying. In his book Never Cry Wolf, Mowat tells us about an experience that demonstrates how ancient and deep rooted our concept of boundaries really is.
He had pitched his tiny tent near the den of a family of wolves, rarely leaving the sleeping bag from which he observed the activities of the inhabitants through his telescope. A well trod path led from the den to the family hunting grounds that were miles away. Any wolf coming down that trail had to pass within 10 yards of Mowat’s tent. Taking great care to conceal his presence in order not to unduly disturb the animals, Mowat was very much surprised by their reaction; the wolves completely ignored him, treating him as if it was beneath their dignity to acknowledge his existence.
In time, Mowat noticed that the wolves roamed over a large but exclusive hunting territory that had certain well marked limits. Once a week, more or less, the members of the wolf family walked the boundary to freshen up the markers. The job was accomplished in wolf fashion, a hind leg raised high, carefully and with studied economy dispensing the liquid marker onto stones and patches of vegetation. The territory was quite large, encompassing over a 100 square miles; nevertheless the wolves never failed to maintain the line. No strange wolf ever crossed that boundary to trespass and the ownership was never a subject of dispute.
Mowat had plenty of unused time and few distractions, which allowed him to reflect upon the nature of things. He began to wonder what might happen if he were to stake out a territory of his own. As he warmed up to the idea, he determined to conduct a test. One night, as soon as the wolves had departed for their distant hunting grounds, he walked the perimeter of a three-acre tract centered around his tent. He stopped every 15 feet or so, and made his mark on rocks and small clumps of vegetation, artfully wetting only on the side facing the tent. It turned out to be a rather difficult and time-consuming task. Again and again, Mowat had to take time out, returning to the tent to gulp copious quantities of tea to recharge the reservoir. At long last he closed the traverse and was able to sit down to resume his nightly watch. He was astonished by what was about to take place.
In laying out his tract, Mowat had included about a 100 yards of the wolves’ path. As the night faded into dawn, the clan’s leading male returned from his hunting trip, tired, his eyes half closed, anxious to get home and curl up in the warmth of the den. As he reached the point where Mowat’s boundary crossed his trail, the wolf stopped dead in his tracks, almost as if he had collided with an invisible object. His languid bearing evaporated in an instant and his eyes opened wide as he sniffed the survey mark. As Mowat watched in amazement and wonder, the wolf carefully proceeded to retrace Farley’s boundary, seeking out and stopping at each and every marker, and putting his mark on the opposite side of it. And, "…he did it all on one tank of fuel."
From that day on Mowat’s tract was inviolate. Never again would a wolf cross the line or use that portion of trail that passed over Mowat’s property. Also, the new boundary was immediately included in the weekly maintenance program, a job which Mowat emulated with considerable difficulty on his own side of the line. Surveying is the oldest profession. True, man has improved a little on the methods because scent boundaries are not very permanent and were never intended for modern human olfactory organs. But our wolves’ survey served its purpose, and while it may not have endured longer than the life of the inhabitants it was not any worse than some of the surveys this writer has had the misfortune of having to retrace. And when it comes to a sense of responsibility to maintain a line that has been laboriously established and to respect the other fellows property rights, we humans have much to learn from the wolves of Keewatin.