I’ve been re-reading one of my all time favourite books, Mason and Dixon by Thomas Pynchon, which fictionalises the friendship between the astronomer and the surveyor as they observe the transit of Venus from the Cape of Good Hope and Saint Helena, and later survey the boundary lines around the colonies of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. It’s set in the mid-1700s, in the early days of the modern world, as the Royal Society raced the Jesuits in the measurement of longitude, nabobs plundered the east, and the new world moved ahead, carried on the back of slaves and leaving First Nations decimated and dispossessed in their wake.

Mason and Dixon’s surveying task comes from a place of administrative arbitrariness: colonial land grant charters that describe the boundaries in words, words describing lines on a map. Despite the arbitrariness it was built on, the execution of the survey is systematic, using reasoned scientific methods. A hybrid of subjectivity and objectivity, the former providing the foundation. Of course, regardless of its nature, the line itself was and continues to be of cultural and political importance, originally in settling a border dispute between the colonies and later becoming an informal border defining the free and slave states, an issue which led to civil war.

Pynchon tells the story at ground level – literally – as Mason and Dixon place stones to mark the line. Despite the scientific nature of their task, they’re amongst their own personalities, those of their party, their bad habits, grief, regrets and ambitions. The charter they are working to, in converting words, to stones, to lines on a map is contradictory, so they must bring their own judgement and interpretation to the task, not to mention human error.

Pynchon’s characters of Mason and Dixon are certainly aware of the colonial powers at play and that they’re a part of. Mason slowly lets go of his naïve belief that it is his achievements as an astronomer and not his relationships (or lack thereof) to powerful people that will help him climb the ranks of the Royal Society. Dixon, a Quaker, is uncomfortable around slavery but aside from his behaviour, treating people as people, he doesn’t take action against it. They’re contracted to and dependent on powerful institutions, and they play the roles they have been given.

The book reminds me of an excellent paper by Libby Porter from 2018 entitled From an urban country to urban Country: confronting the cult of denial in Australian cities. As Porter points out, the surveying of town grids by men like Light in Adelaide or Hoddle in Melbourne is lauded in the professions as heroic, encapsulating the principles of good town planning. Settlement is framed as a point in time, rather than an ongoing process, and work by the professions after that point is remembered in professional terms, never as acts of theft and violence.

Settler colonies rely on the replacement of existing societies in space; they don’t colonise from afar. Settlers can’t settle without surveyors, because lots must be defined before they can become property subject to laws and regulations that enable ownership and legitimise dispossession. In the case of Melbourne (or Naarm), it took only two years from Batman’s infamous treaty with the local First Nations to the first sale of lots (or crown grants) within the Hoddle grid in 1837.

Curiously, crown grants in Victoria prior to 1891 included, via common law, the air above (“to heaven”) and the earth below (“to hell”), and indeed land titles that became freehold before then still include a tapering column to the centre of the earth (the Land Act 1891 limited future crown grants to a depth as defined via Order in Council, presently about 15 metres, so as to protect the mineral wealth of the state). That tapering column to hell and its expanding heavenward counterpart very quickly take us into the esoteric as-above-so-below territory of astrology, the Tarot, sacred geometry and other decidedly un-objective pursuits. Pynchon repeatedly notes the close adjacency of science and esotericism, like astronomers giving astrological readings for money, or the story of an autonomous love-struck mechanical duck. It’s a reminder that we’re never really that far removed from what we have been in the past.

It feels to me that surveying occupies a fascinating space, a straightforward practice of drawing lines in space, with the politics of land and property tapering away below, and esoteric and ultimately philosophical matters expanding above, like some kind of weird Latourian sandwich. It’s why I love this book.