what endures

Bearing Tree Marker

I got an iphone because my friend bricked it and then bought a new one for himself and then unbricked this one and then gave it to me. It’s not a phone but it works well as a wifi appliance. There is something about new technology that is immediately enervating to me. I like gadgets, but it’s like having a giant marble coaster made of sugar. Sure it’s fun to run marbles through it, but you just keep waiting for it to rain.

Anyhow, what’s really neat to me is the idea of bearing trees. I went to the Michigan Museum of Surveying — “the only museum in North America dedicated solely to the surveying and mapping profession” — when I was giving a talk in Lansing and enjoyed a really information-filled hour alone in the little museum. I had already known some about bearing trees, mostly through the idea of witness trees — a somewhat more informal way to think about semi-permanent boundary markers. The idea is once you’ve established your little plot of land in European pre-settlement times, you have to find a way to indicate where the boundaries of your property are, or where the town is. So, you put notches in the big trees and note the notches in a book. Surveyors have used them for centuries and there were examples at the museum, carved sticks in boxes really, of very old boundary markers. One example is the boundary tree at Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace. Before it died in 1978 at 195, it was considered the “last living link” to Lincoln.

Sometimes when I go out walking in the woods I see big old-looking trees at the corners of fields and go peer at their bark to see if I can see any notches in them. I don’t really know what I’m looking for. I might enjoy myself less if I did since I can make up all sorts of fanciful stories about what I find. As fun and hackable and extensible and customizable as the iphone is, it really doesn’t do much for my imagination.

“It’s a good idea to walk your boundaries and check that you have posted signs at least the corner markers. If you are new to owning land, you have to think about land differently than you do in the city. I know in the city a few inches difference in a boundary is a big deal and grounds for a law suit, but not in the county. The general rule of thumb is that preexisting boundary markers like fence lines, old posted signs, old large boundary trees are accepted boundaries by usage. So save your money on getting a professional surveyor. If the boundaries of your land are clearly marked and there is no dispute, then leave it at that. Put up your posted signs along the current boundary at the currently accepted spacing in your area (not on every tree!!!!). Your neighbors know the boundaries. It is more important to get along with your neighbors than to get an “accurate” survey and squabble about a few feet.”

What do you think?


  1. Geoff is a land surveyor, and is also a tree nut, so I found this post fascinating. I can’t wait to tell him about that museum.

    When we are geocaching, we also spend a fair amount of time “benchmarking” – looking for survey marks. We find them everywhere, in all sorts of forms. It’s cool.

  2. I know in the city a few inches difference in a boundary is a big deal and grounds for a law suit

    Sadly, this is true.

    It is more important to get along with your neighbors than to get an “accurate” survey and squabble about a few feet.”

    I wish more neighbors realized this. Unfortunately, since their home and land is usually the only meaningfully valuable asset they own, they often can be extremely territorial about it.

  3. Where I grew up on the rocky glacial fill of Whidbey Island, much of the remaining undeveloped land is marked with large piles of stones left over when the fields were cleared for planting. Many of the stone piles became refuges for trees and are now difficult to spot, and have unintentionally created a different kind of boundary tree.

    Sadly, this quote about casual country boundaries is mistaken. Boundaries in the countryside are very much as contentious today as in the city, especially with development ubiquitously gobbling up the countryside. We now live in such a litigious society that a good survey is recommended on any substantial property acquisition for protection of the purchaser, as is a thorough title exam. Those quaint old boundary trees eventually die (or get chopped down), leaving behind cryptic boundaries, something many lenders are uncomfortable with when underwriting property acquisition mortgages. A safer bet is to use a property description based on survey markers and metes-and-bounds calls (which nowadays use GPS to pinpoint property corners), or lot-and-block descriptions inside platted land. Alas!