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“Lines” — An Essay by Clark Porter

Clark Porter manages his family’s farm near Reinbeck. He is a former teacher and non-profit administrator. A Practical Farmers member since 2012, Clark is an advocate for healthy soil and clean water.

He and his wife, Sharon, a Spanish teacher, have two grown sons. In his spare time, Clark enjoys kayaking, hiking and camping throughout Iowa and Minnesota, and writing about his reflections on farming and being a part of Iowa’s working landscape.

On a cold evening late last October, I found myself on a quest through soupy darkness, across bean stubble, waterways and fresh tile trenches. I had a measuring wheel in front of me while my father followed me on our ATV. In a cloud of bean straw dust and hazy yellow light, I attempted to sight combine tracks at my side and walk a straight line towards a distant waterway. Once there, we would plant a flag marking the corner of a future oat field.

My father and I were like mariners from the Age of Exploration. Absent a GPS device and using the best methods we had, we left the known world of our western fence line and set out against the elements on a futile journey to create a straight line. The farther our little exploration party ventured towards the dark, distant shore of the waterway, the more difficult it was to be sure we were indeed traveling in a straight course. We persisted on faith alone; it was clear we had lost our reason.

Our faith in straight lines is a curious cultural phenomenon. If there is one thing that is distinct about our part of the world, it is straight lines. A crisscross patchwork of roads and fence lines stretches into the distance. County lines are straight, city limits are straight, feedlots look like platted neighborhoods — and even farm driveways bisect yards and shrubbery with precision. Indeed, everything about our manmade environment is straight – yet nothing in nature follows a straight line.

In part, we owe this obsession with straight lines to Thomas Jefferson, who advocated for surveying frontier lands into perfect squares. This practice was passed into law by Congress in 1785. The dimension of the squares (640 acres) came from a quirky Welsh 17th-century mathematician named Edmund Gunter who had a passion for measuring and designing instruments. He invented an ingenious surveying chain that divided into equally sized links.

There were older methods of surveying, ones that merely counted paces and referenced landmarks. However, it was the square, orderly patchwork of sections and townships that, for better or worse, easily allowed land to be bought and sold once it was stolen from the original inhabitants.

Early surveyors endured all types of hardships as they attempted to chart straight lines through inhospitable swamps, trackless prairies and misty forests. While there was (and still is) a commercial motivation behind measuring land, it seems like there is some deeper need to impose orderly squares on the rebellious, convoluted canvas of nature.

On the night I stumbled across the bean field ahead of the ATV, I was determined to plan my future oat field. I should have done this some other time, but that wasn’t the point. I had been thinking about the oat field all day and when I had a chance to get into the field, I wasn’t going to allow the darkness to obstruct my plans.

Frontiers exist at the edge of the known universe, out there in the dark. In spite of what is unknown, we impose our schemes on the land, on the sea, on tomorrow. Our plans are in straight lines, but Nature and fate prefer crooked ones. We persist anyway, measuring, charting, planting flags in dark waterways, and dreaming of tomorrow.

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