Notes from His Decrepitude—An Aging Land Surveyor Shares Some Parting Thoughts on the Profession

A 1.194Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

I come from a family of Land Surveyors. My father, William R. Haynes, was a Licensed Land Surveyor in private practice in Orange County, California. He was the founder of the business that later came to be called Hall and Foreman. His father before him, Walter R. Haynes, worked as a draftsman in the surveying and engineering department of the Northern Pacific Railway, based at Helena, Montana.

As a child, instead of the usual toys, my father gave me two triangles and a pencil, showing me how to make parallel lines on paper, or how to make various parabolic lines with a French curve. The sound of an old fashioned hand-crank Monroe calculator grinding out latitudes and departures late into the night was often my lullaby, as his first office in our house also served as my bedroom.

While other boys went to summer camp, I was dispatched to work with the old-timers on the survey party, which is what we called the survey crew in those days. Smart alecks would drive by our traffic signs and yell out, "Hey, where’s the party?" When I was only thirteen years old, the party chief let me drive the survey truck, teaching me how to navigate the clutch and manual transmission. I still recall my confusion when I had to give line to the guys chaining up ahead through the inverted-image Wild theodolite. But that came later: At first it was turning angles with an old K&E transit, reading the vernier with a double magnifying glass.

Yes, we knew trigonometry, but it was performed with trig tables and longhand calculations in the field. Grades were calc’d with a slide-rule. Cuts and fills were done mentally, and it was the chainman’s job to check every one. From time to time the party chief would deliberately make a mistake in order to see if his assistant was on the ball, or only pretending to check. You had to be able to add and subtract fast–all in your head–or risk being ridiculed by the guys who had been at it for years. It was an old-fashioned form of apprenticeship, but it made a kid grow up and be responsible a lot earlier than would otherwise have happened.

These were the days before filing Record of Survey maps was common. Yes, the law was on the books, but we interpreted it in a more practical way. We filed them when we encountered a serious discrepancy, but not for the routine monumentation of a tract that fit well with its adjoiners. That later practice only came in during the seventies. Before that, guys used to hide their control. Established surveyors were often territorial, having invested much time in re-establishing the old block corners. They preferred that surveyors from out of town couldn’t just jump on the work that they had already done without first surveying the entire block like they had. One old timer down in Corona del Mar would offset his nail-and-shiners odd distances, like 2.33 feet, from the true block corners. You never knew what offset he had used, so you had to go through the same laborious process that he had done earlier. That way you couldn’t undercut his price.

That system is different from what we do today, but in some ways, it was fairer. By spreading the cost of initially breaking down the block (or section) among several property owners, the first survey on the block could be charged out at a more reasonable rate. As more jobs were done in the same block, the surveyor could recoup his original investment in setting up the block corners. Now days, the first survey performed on a block (or section) that has not been resurveyed in recent times, costs the property owner a fortune. Later surveys are much more reasonable in price, since the hard work has already been done. But for the old system to work, you had to get the later jobs–not lose them to interlopers from somewhere else.

The beauty of the surveying profession, as I came to see it, was that an enterprising young man or woman could work hard and study hard and finally enter a technical profession even though he or she lacked the time or money to attend college. It was the one accessible professional discipline that was available to people of modest means, or who already had families to support. I’ve never agreed with those who want to "advance the profession" by making it only accessible to two types of people: either those who come from wealthy families, or those individuals who are willing to assume massive debt in order to get through college. Most, if not all, of the truly excellent surveyors that I have known in my lifetime never spent much time in a classroom.

Realistically, a local Land Surveyor needs to know the legalities of boundary establishment, writing legal descriptions, accurate topographic work, and methodical construction stake-out. Fancy geodetic control networks can be done by a specialist with extra training. A local surveyor doesn’t need to be up-to-date in chemistry, physics, calculus, or any other such studies that are now involved in getting a college degree in surveying. That just serves to deny entry to otherwise very capable and responsible young people. If he can master spherical trigonometry, he’s smart enough to be a Land Surveyor, in my humble opinion.

But what, exactly, is the defining characteristic of a Land Surveyor? I’ve thought about it off and on over the years, and have come up with a theory. A surveyor is a translator from the world of abstractions to the world of hard physical reality, and also the other way around. Engineers and architects need the physical world to be presented to them in abstract terms: a topographic map or a boundary defined by bearings and distances, for example. Construction workers, on the other hand, need physical stakes to measure from. The surveyor is the one who can mediate between those two worlds, translating abstract construction plans into tangible reality, or transforming the natural slopes of a hillside into abstract contour lines.

Considering this theory in a larger context, it’s no wonder that some of this country’s most important political and literary figures had been surveyors earlier in their lives. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Thoreau, and others, each had that special ability to think both abstractly and concretely, whether it be in the technical sphere, the political sphere, or the philosophical sphere. It’s a gift of perspective on life that is fairly unique, as I see it. Those are the qualities that make for success in the profession, not the ability to pay for and sit through years of a college education.

Nor does it truly serve the public interest to have the local Land Surveyor forced to be over-educated. Sure, some urban developers can afford to pay top dollar for a boundary survey, but the average rural land owner who just needs to put up a fence should be able to get clarity on his property line without paying an arm and a leg. Somebody has to pay for those years in college, and those costs will be spread out in the surveyor’s fees. If you required every barber to get a college education, the price of a haircut would be a lot higher than it is, and it’s already too high.

No; the old apprenticeship method of learning to be a Land Surveyor was better for everyone. A hard-working, intelligent young person of modest means could advance himself into a descent profession, the public could get a good survey for a fair price, and everybody stayed out of debt. Today the money-lenders have taken over all levels of government and they want to convert every human being into a debtslave. Student loans are non-dischargeable. The ugly statistics indicate that over 50% of college graduates are either working a job that does not require a college education, or are unemployed-
-and this is not expected to improve anytime soon. The present debasing of the US currency does not bode well for a return to boom times.

The self-reliant, resourceful, savvy individual who is capable of learning what he needs to know without incurring mountains of debt is eminently worthy to be a Licensed Land Surveyor. The freedom and dignity of the profession, the practical wisdom required for its execution, and the well-earned status in the community that results from years of fair application of its principles are the hallmarks of the traditional Land Surveyor. May those essential qualities never perish from this Earth.

Gregory R. Haynes started out in the business working for his father’s Land Surveying and Engineering firm, W.R. Haynes and Company. After becoming licensed himself, he operated his own firm in Sonoma County, California, for nearly twenty years. In later life, he branched out into the field of alternative education. Currently he works as a writer in various media.

A 1.194Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE