Having another geographer flying the glider meant we could focus on things which interested our geeky selves. Gray described the layout of Brookings city, and the planes. I tried to orientate myself; I could see a long line of wind turbines to the east. I wondered if they were just over the state line in Minnesota. To the west there were no other features to determine. South Dakota is known for the Black Hills and the famous carvings of US Presidents on a rock face, but they were nearly 350 miles to the west; well over the horizon even at this altitude. All I could discern were just fields.
But I noticed that within the regular grid iron pattern of fields and roads there were anomalies. The river channels and creeks that have existed for millennia across the whole of the Plains have no respect for human regularity. Either the rivers are still bending this way or the other, or where they have been covered of rerouted, the ghosts of former channels are still present in the shadows from the low fall sun, or changes in soil and vegetation colour in the fields.
The regularity of the fields is a common feature of so much of the US. While it is monotonous or boring, it is the legacy of an amazing principle that was put in motion as early as the 1780’s, a few years after the declaration of independence. The Public Land Survey System was a plan to subdivide the new territories west of the Appalachian Mountains for sale and planning purposes. The result was you see the squares of the fields and plots, and the roads which have to obey the lines drawn up which makes so much of the central part of the US have such a regular land pattern. If people wonder why the most advanced nation on the surface of the earth still insists on using the Imperial System of measurement, the PLSS is one of the largest reasons for this. Plots were marked off in miles, and the distances between road junctions are multiples of miles. Any use of kilometres would be nonsensical in this rigid framework.