The Grid, the Missouri, and Thinking Outside the Box

America is a country of boxes, squares, rectangles and grids.  Construction workers eat from lunch boxes.  Housewives place perishables in iceboxes.  Al Gore wanted to place the Social Security Trust Fund in a lock box.  Workmen put their wrenches and screwdrivers in toolboxes.  When we move to a new locale, we pack stuff in moving boxes.  Our sportscasters telecast ball games from a VIP box.  Many of us sped hours a day watching sitcoms on the idiot box.

Squares are also ubiquitous in the United States.  On weekends, we can view televised boxing matches taking place in a roped-off square.  Millions of Americans work inside square cubicles, which are located in larger square buildings.  Our neighborhoods are built in square blocks.  When we travel in urban areas, we measure distance in blocks.  We might dash off to the corner grocery “just down the block.”  Or we may go to the gym located “six blocks from our house.”

And what about rectangles?  My laptop computer is a beautiful silver rectangle.  My flat screen T.V. is also a rectangle.  Nearly every single home in America possesses desks, tables, stoves, sinks, windows, doors, picture frames, cabinets, refrigerators, beds, carpets, bookshelves, cabinets, and books that are either square or rectangular.  On a larger scale, the rectangle is visible across the landscape in billboards, football fields, basketball courts, air strips, malls, parking lots, swimming pools, dormitories, military barracks, and apartment complexes.

Finally, there is the continental-sized grid that overlays the American land mass. The grid extends from the Appalachian Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.  Beginning in the late 1700s, the U.S. government began imposing Thomas Jefferson’s Rectangular Survey System on the land.  That system divided the land area of the U.S. west of the Appalachian Mountains into a series of squares, including 36-square-mile townships, 1-square-mile sections, and 160-acre square quarter sections.

Nineteenth century European-American agricultural settlers purchased the square parcels of land, fenced the edges, built crude cabins inside their fenced perimeters, and then declared themselves a free people.

Overtime, the American people reinforced the grid by constructing an elaborate road network that adhered to its linear north-south, east-west lines.  Throughout the Trans-Appalachian West, interstate highways, state highways, county roads, and city streets strictly follow the grid’s parameters.

By the turn of the twentieth century, European-Americans refused to allow anything to exist outside the grid.  The federal government, with the approval of the majority of the European-American public, forced the nomadic Native American tribes of the West to abide by the grid and live on reservations.  Even wild lands had to be inside a box.  The founders of Yellowstone National Park created it with clearly defined boundaries in the shape of a square.

By the twenty-first century, Americans lived their lives inside multiple layers of boxes, squares, rectangles, and grids.  Ironically, they continued to insist that they were a free people.  Yet, they could not escape their geographical imprisonment even after death.  Upon dying, the majority of Americans are put inside a wooden or steel box, lowered into a concrete-lined rectangular hole, covered with a heavy concrete lid, and buried under several feet of earth.  The cemetery itself is likely in the shape of a square.

Because meandering, flooding, eroding rivers threatened the grid system, European-Americans tried to stabilize the banks of rivers, end their wandering ways, and halt their annual floods.  They tried to prevent rivers from disrupting the nation’s ordered land.  To keep the Missouri from eroding the grid, the Army built a navigation channel south of Sioux City, Iowa.  Military engineers hoped that thousands of pile dikes, revetments, and millions of tons of rock would keep the Missouri in place and protect the adjacent agricultural landscape.  But the Missouri repeatedly broke out of the rip rapped navigation channel in the 1940s and early 1950s and washed away the valley’s rectangular landscape.  The Army then forced the upper reaches of the Missouri River inside a series of gargantuan boxes, known as reservoirs.  The hope was that these large impoundments would forever keep the Missouri from undermining the Americanized landscape.

But in 2011, even the huge reservoirs could not contain the Missouri.  To the shock and horror of the Army officers tasked with overseeing the day-to-day management of the river, and the farmers who lived and worked within the linear landscape that is the Missouri Valley, the Missouri broke out of its cage.  The river flowed over the fences, the roads, the squared farm fields, and the orderly rows of recently planted corn that make up the valley lowlands.  South of Sioux City, Iowa, the once squared, ordered valley became wilder with its newly dug curving channels, deep holes, and endless miles of sand dunes.  In the wake of the flood, the Army and Missouri Valley farmers both sought to quickly rebuild the devastated grid.  Neither group wanted the Missouri to roam free.

What the flood of 2011 and its aftermath have illustrated is that neither the Army (particularly the conservative, hind-bound officers in the Kansas City District Office), nor lower Missouri Valley farmers, can envision a new landscape – one that incorporates a more dynamic, ever-changing Missouri River.  Instead, they can only see the land as a series of overlapping squares and rectangles. Unfortunately, those two groups – which are so influential in the management of the river – literally, cannot “think outside the box.”

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