Two hundred years ago this year, President Thomas Jefferson initiated a project that’s still informing us: mapping the coasts of the United States.
Like other well informed people of his time, Jefferson recognized that good geographic information was essential to commerce, safety and general well-being, and so he established the Survey of the Coast. Over the next century or so, men with transits, telescopes, mirrors and other paraphernalia hiked to the coast’s high points and set a variety of permanent markers to “anchor” maps and charts. Those benchmarks and their modern-day successors do that job to this day, demonstrating that gathering information about the natural world has always been a useful function of government. In a sense, benchmarks are a metaphor for the “grounded” life — an existence in which one derives meaning by being connected to something solid, be it a community, a resource, an island, a group of friends, a family. Any federal program that does all that — even symbolically — deserves recognition on its 200th birthday.