Working with donated equipment can sometimes be a challenge. Sometimes you're given a 60's vintage set of surveying equipment, for instance. These are the most basic tools of the trade: an auto level (tricked-out telescope); a tripod; a story pole (tricked-out ruler). Fortunately these objects, and their functions, haven't changed much since our first presidents were surveying their vast tracts of property before the Revolution. Then, as today, people need topographic charts of the "lay of the land," maps showing changes in elevation that inform the steepnesses of slopes, the direction of water runoff, and a good spot to place a building.
Last weekend my friend Rob, now and against all odds a civil engineer for the City of Fortuna, visited San Francisco to help me pick out a good auto level kit and show me how it worked. In a pinch, the gear and knowledge would be great in the field, and would make a design team, say, more flexible and capable of documenting a prospective project site. I'd previously learned surveying VERY briefly in an architecture studio (one of those days where all the students were standing in a field, holding pieces of rope and wondering why), but Rob, a self-professed survey nerd, got to the nitty gritty of the trade.
He started with a few warnings. First: wear a hat and expect the worst weather, surveyors work rain or shine. (Here I had us, achem, covered.) Second: beware of dogs, they hate surveyors. Something about carrying 9-foot sticks, Rob assurred me (here he also mentioned carrying a machete, to clear brush...and stay safe). Aside from these minor drawbacks, though, surveying is awesome. Being outside all day, seeing and studying different places, confronting peculiar site-specific challenges, and leaving your mark, well not so much ON the land as on the DOCUMENT of the land.
A proper land survey is a very powerful piece of information. On a two-dimensional map you have information on the thrid dimension (often enhanced by contours). It's rigorous work, to be sure, but a rather easy process. You'd have to diligently grid out your site (marking the grid points with spots of paint) and get ready to map the relative elevations of each point...well, I'll spare you the details (for those you can check out our lil forthcoming surveying overview). Suffice it to say with a bit of direction, a bit of patience and a few hours on hand, a rather official map can be generated of any site you'd wish to look at, provided there's ground. And all with tools that are as useful today as they were hundreds of years ago....
...Not to say that technology HASN'T totally dominated the traditional process of surveying. Rob tells of large, sensitive objects called Data Collectors that survey teams have to carry quite preciously to a site. From here, team members stand at their marks with a prism-topped rods that receive and reflect a laser to the Collector that automatically computes elevation values. Which to me sounds like sorcery. At any rate, these state-of-the-art units are extremely expensive and not prone to being knocked around in an airplane. So it looks as though our team or any surveyors we'd work with in Haiti will be looking at marks through the scope of a good ol' automatic level.