Custodians of Civilization

“As humans, we are historically biased against maintenance, and yet that is exactly what infrastructure needs,” according to UCLA archaeologist Monica L. Smith, who made the point in a lecture to the Long Now Foundation about the celebrated White Horse of Uffington, a chalk drawing carved into the upper slopes of England’s White Horse Hill, which has been in existence for more than 3,000 years. A 360-foot long, stylized drawing of a horse might not seem like “infrastructure”, exactly, but it’s notable that this large public installation would have disappeared in less than 20 years without ritual cleaning—basically, tedious weeding and tamping by hand—performed annually by Uffington villagers, without interruption, even as several civilizations rose and fell around them, even as multiple battles and two World Wars swept through.

Regarding more conventional and modern infrastructure, Smith made note of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, saying, “Somewhere between five to ten thousand gallons of paint a year, and thirty painters, are dedicated to keeping the Golden Gate Bridge golden.” And for a yet more relevant and extremely particular example of outstanding infrastructure maintenance, made possible in part by an extraordinarily well designed and engineered bulkhead provided by Petersen Products (a longtime client in my infrastructure marketing content business) consider the massive maintenance project, completed in 2021, of the Lower Rocky River Pump Station (LRRPS), which is owned and operated by the Water and Sewer Authority of Cabarrus County (WSACC). From the bid document:

The construction will consist of addition of two wet-pit submersible non-clog centrifugal pumps (Influent Pump No. 1 and No. 6) in allocated spaces, replacement of the four existing wet-pit submersible non-clog centrifugal pumps (Influent Pump No. 2, 3, 4, and 5) with new pumps, associated piping and appurtenances, installation of a new bladder surge tank, variable frequency drives (VFDs) for Influent Pumps No. 1 and No. 6, replacement of HVAC equipment in the Electrical Building, and replacement of 11 air/vacuum valves (CARVs) along the Lower Rocky River Force Main.

It may not sound exciting, but the pump station project is a good example of the kind of tedious, necessary, dirty, non-glorious maintenance work that actually sustains civilizations—in this case North Carolina’s Cabarrus County—by keeping the shit rolling downhill while political administrations rise and fall, and regional populations wax and wane. The Lower Rocky River Pump Station may not last for 3,000 years, but ideally it will remain in service for so long as the county needs it, perhaps centuries. And if you think it about it, the difficult maintenance engineering and contracting that makes that possible is actually… pretty exciting.

On this point of non-glorious (almost janitorial) infrastructure maintenance work, Stewart Brand—editor of Whole Earth Catalog, founder of the Long Now Foundation, and entirely admirable public intellectual for getting on 60 years—wrote in his seminal How Buildings Learn (Viking Press, 1994) that:

“Against the flow of constant entropy, maintenance people must swim always upstream, progress against the current like a watchful trout. The only satisfaction they can get from their work is to do it well. The measure of success in their labors is that the result is invisible, unnoticed. Thanks to them, everything is the same as it ever was.”

The glory of maintenance work, in other words, is that there is no glory—if it’s done properly and on time, no one even notices.

Land surveyors, of course, spend much of our lives doing this kind of invisible, supremely necessary, maintenance work. But are we janitors or custodians?

Custodians, Not Janitors

Nothing against janitors, it’s a high calling. The word itself derives from Janus, the Roman god of doors, entrances, and gates, and has been used since at least 1708 to denote the caretaking of a building. But to describe the work of land surveyors, ‘custodian’ is by far the better word, deriving from the Latin custōdia (“a keeping, watch, guard, prison”), from custōs (“a keeper, watchman, guard”). In a word, custodian suggests ownership or, more strongly, taking responsibility for the life of a thing.

And land surveyors do, indeed, take responsibility for the ‘life’ of boundaries and thus of civilizations, for civilizations consist of people and infrastructure organized around a common ideal. And for people and infrastructure to be organized, space must be organized, that is, boundaries must be organized, just as the cells that comprise living beings must each have their boundaries and borders maintained and enforced. And when boundaries fail, life departs.

Maintenance of boundaries is actually more fundamental to civilization than common ideals. One way this is shown is by the early creation, in 1215, of the Magna Carta, which was largely concerned with property law. Since 1215, the UK as an entity has suffered through several revolutions of common ideal—from absolute monarchy to parliamentary monarchy to Cromwell’s brief dictatorship, and now to constitutional monarchy and representative democracy. And yet the basic principles of property law and boundary and ownership established in the Magna Carta persisted during, and supported all, these varying systems of governance and even expanded to support the governance of, basically, all of civilization as we know it.

You’d think it would be glamorous work but it’s not; the cadastral land surveyor’s attempts to define the beginnings and ends of invisible lines consists largely of tedious bushwhacking, digging, and pounding when in the field, and the painstaking drafting of accurate maps and dry legal descriptions when in the office. It’s a lot like the annual weeding and scraping and tamping that has kept the huge and glorious White Horse of Uffington crisply defined for lo! these three millennia. Unsung, unheralded, sometimes unpaid, and often unnoticed, our noble trade and we ourselves are almost never accorded the glory that is our due.

And when you think about it, that’s actually… pretty glorious.

Angus Stocking is a former licensed land surveyor who has been writing about infrastructure since 2002.