This essay is part of the forum “Investigating Infrastructures”

Recent events, both across North America and globally, reveal underlying assumptions and political intentions that manifest in the specific geometries of border infrastructure. Too often, borders are materially demarcated and symbolically constructed as lines. While the work of border studies over the past two decades has troubled and redefined the social and spatial interpretations of state boundaries (Newman, 2006; Newman and Paasi, 1998; Houtum, 2005), continued claims to indigenous sovereignty, the ongoing global refugee crisis, and the border wall proposal in the United States all continue to re-inscribe the significance of critical directions for border inquiry. Although these manifestations of contemporary politics have stretched the border into three-dimensional space and have increasingly fortified it against targeted flows, the underlying imagined geometry remains unchanged. Proposals for increased physical border defense are based on an assumption that the border is a line that can be extruded into vertical planes to form fences, walls, and barricades.

Through this piece, I build on both a foundation of landscape ecology and the extensive scholarship of border studies to contextualize the border as an edge of more extensive patterns and conditions of territorialization and land control. Tracing the relationship between landscape, mobility, and the border as an infrastructure of the state, I consider the geometries of both interrupted and intersected lines alongside thickened and variegated zones as alternative spatial understandings of boundaries and edges. Turning to the underlying construction of linear borders, I specifically examine the survey stake as an arrayed geometry of infrastructural points, established by the state to assert power extensively across territory. In the terms of architectural geometry, these relationships form field conditions, where the fluid parameters between points define a surface, or a way of existing relationally on a surface. More than simply redrawing the border, understanding this relational geometry of survey stake infrastructure allows us to consider contested terrain that is witness to many layers of social, political, and ecological relationships. Identifying the persistence and strength of these relationships opens possibilities for destabilizing the role of the border as a hegemonic infrastructure that reinforces the power of the state.

The interdisciplinary scholarship on borders has developed a characterization of state boundaries as socially constructed both conceptually and spatially, suggesting that the border can no longer be considered simply a fixed line in space. Bringing together the political, cultural, and personal dimensions of these spaces, borders have increasingly been theorized as processes and experiences that consolidate and respond to state and non-state power (Johnson, Jones, and Paasi et al., 2011). The flows that move across borders challenge their role as rigid and encircling containment infrastructure. From particulate dust, to migratory birds, to predators in pursuit of prey, to humans with cigarettes, borders are crossed, inundated, ignored, contested, obliterated, and interrupted. This is not to suggest borders are insignificant. As Audra Simpson (2014) demonstrates, the experiences of the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke moving across the settler colonial demarcations of Canada and the United States are constructed reciprocally and iteratively with the infrastructure and associated security personnel of the border, which seek to interrupt the Nations that extend across and beyond them.

Although calling attention to the transgressive flows that cross borders can underscore the injustice, irrelevance, or inconsistencies of state infrastructures of control, this characterization often further reinforces an understanding of the border as a definitive line in space where a possibility exists to move from one side to the other. Instead, I consider the contributions of landscape ecology, which has worked to transform the conventionally thought lines and edges of ecosystems into zones with complex variation throughout. Within this conceptualization, the edge of a river is understood as a riparian zone, the estuary is drawn as a gradient instead of a precise seam between river and sea (Mathur and da Cunha, 2009), and the shoreline becomes a variegated inundation zone that defies insurance demarcation. Significantly within these characterizations, the edge itself is interrogated for its qualities and biodiversity as it transitions between landscape ecologies, interacting across ecosystem typologies (Foreman, 2014). The shifting understanding and representation of these ecological spaces provides a further opportunity to reconsider how the borders of states could be drawn and conceptualized. Instead of a precise infrastructural entity, borderlands can be further thickened and reconsidered as significant spaces for uneven human and non-human interaction. Fundamentally, an understanding of the richness of ecological interactions along an edge condition indicates the complex relationships that extend across land and apart from state construction of territory.

Further considering calls to examine alternative relational topologies of bordering spaces (Parker and Vaughan-Williams, 2009), I turn to the geometry of the point—specifically an array of points—to understand the infrastructural matrix that undergirds and maintains the projected lines of borders. On the land that comprises the settler-colonial state of Canada, the Surveys of Dominion Lands provide insights into material dimension of staking territorial claims for empire. Writing on the significance of the grid to the colonial project, Nicholas Blomley (2003: 127) suggests that through the survey, “space is marked and divided into places where people are put.”

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This measuring of land to produce a totalizing knowledge of its topography and extents relied on both the projection of a grid, but also on the placement of survey stakes to affix empire into place. As seen in figure 1, at its foundation, the colonial project of the survey involved the calculated placement of these material stakes, arrayed in a grid to extensively cover and claim land. The engravings on these stakes from the 1918 Survey of Dominion Lands assert a dominance of the crown as sovereign and an authority of territorial supremacy to be planted in soft ground (figure 2) or in rock (figure 3). While these stakes and their markings function and both material and symbolic infrastructure of hegemonic land control, an examination of the evolution of these stakes reveals the active construction of setter colonial regimes of property delineation and legal systems.

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Tracing the development of stake infrastructure though the Survey of Dominion Lands manuals between 1871 and 1981, gives insight into the gradual reification of state power. Through this visual analysis, I suggest that the contingent and varied strategies outlined for surveyors to lay extensive and methodical claims to land belie an anxiety of the state to control uneven terrain already thick with social meaning and ecological relations. As seen in figure 4, early staking strategies initially relied on the use of wooden stakes and the placement of upright stones collected from the site to delineate townships and sections, developing into more elaborate systems of witness mounds that would surround significant corner markers (figure 5). Beyond their initial construction from found materials, these early strategies also struggle to respond to the ecological field conditions they attempt to control. Manuals outline the need for longer stakes in shallow or seasonal water that is encountered by the surveyor (figure 6), while the axe-marked Bearing Tree was developed to identify the corners of the grid in forested conditions (figure 7). These early infrastructural points that were the basis of later crown-adorned metal stakes suggest that the construction of empire and its borders had to contend and adapt to localized conditions. More than simply evidence of the difficulties of projecting an even grid onto complex topography, analyzing these early strategies for Dominion surveying make visible the active construction of the gridded field condition that has always been contested by alternative fields of ecological and social relationality.

Despite the extent of the survey, and its prolonged influence on the settlement of land in North America, the grid is only one way that territory has been produced in this context. In writing on the construction of field conditions, Stan Allen claims, “all grids are fields, but not all fields are grids” (Allen, 1998: 7). The conceptualization of borders as fundamentally interpolated from the geometry of a field condition allows for an emphasis on alternative configurations of relationality that extend across and construct territory in their own way. The complex relationality of ecological features and processes provides an insight into different field conditions that connect territory through the flow of water, the migration of species, or shifting gradients of salinity, instead of the regularized infrastructure of the grid. Moreover, sovereign Indigenous nations challenge and contest state-asserted borders and patterns of settlement through territorial claims and continued relations separate from and often in opposition of colonial border demarcation. The grid of points that forms the underlay for the colonial occupation of North America is obscured, weakened, and supplanted by the thickening of these alternative relationships between people, the land, and one another. These field conditions trouble the assertion of the border, drawing attention to the forces multitude of forces that territorialize, appropriate, claim, or reclaim land.

Challenging the conception of the border as a linear figure reminds us to resist the simplification of borders. This resistance has a dual agenda: countering both the belief that borders are insignificant because they are trespassed by free-flowing materials and agents, while simultaneously questioning the construction of the border as an indefinite or singular assertion in space. Instead, the multiplicity and complexity of relational fields across contested land form territorial configurations that are contingent, subjective, and thick with cultural and political intention. Attending to the development of underlying infrastructure of the survey makes visible the geometry upon which the borders of the contemporary state rely, while revealing the strategic labor required for their inscription across territory. By challenging the relationality that has been established between survey stakes and the construction of the state, counter-relations between significant symbolic and material points across land can begin to reconstruct resilient social and ecological topologies.



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Zannah Mae Matson is a PhD student in Human Geography at the University of Toronto, where her research focuses on the construction of territory through highway infrastructure development and counterinsurgency doctrine in Colombia. She has worked in professional practice, design exhibition, and academic contexts, and holds a Masters of Landscape Architecture from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.