Is geography destiny? Yes and no. There’s no doubt that topography has often circumscribed growth and halted movement; but over time what’s become increasingly important are the lines that we’ve willfully drawn across the land — the demarcations of political and cultural borders as well as the trajectories of exploration and settlement. A continental case in point is the colonization of America and the territorial expansion of the United States. The work of photographers Colin Stearns and Mark Ruwedel explores how profoundly these different types of lines — borders and trajectories — have influenced the character of the nation.
Stearns’s series, “The Line,” follows the Mason-Dixon Line, the once actual and now symbolic boundary between Union and Confederacy, North and South. Originally established, in the pre-revolutionary era, to settle a border dispute between the colonies of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, the line was charted by surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon; deploying precision instruments and using astral positioning and a sophisticated understanding of the earth’s magnetic field rather than the specifics of local topography, they draw an arrow-straight line across the land. The results of this super rational process appear strikingly — and fittingly — arbitrary in Stearns’s photos. His series of understated black-and-white images reveals unremarkable landscapes: trees on the side of a country road, a cluster of plain white buildings, a dirt path cutting through rolling hills. The Line, such as it is, is manifest only by an occasional small stone marker, a shift in an asphalt surface, a narrow clearing of tree cover, or nothing at all.
Its virtual invisibility belies the huge psychological power of the Mason-Dixon Line. Originally a reason-based resolution to a claims dispute, the Line soon marked increasingly fierce political and cultural divisions. Through the first half of the 19th century, the Line meant the difference between freedom and slavery for many African Americans. It marked a symbolic division between two radically different visions of America, a split that survived well past the Civil War and even today persists in ways both meaningful and trivial. Stearns, who grew up in the South and moved north to go to college, refers to the Mason-Dixon as a “cultural horizon line.” Crossing the Line felt, he says, like a transgression, a move from “pickup trucks and Baptist churches” to “station wagons and Unitarianism.” As the renewed fight over the Confederate flag following the recent shootings in South Carolina attests, the line also marks much deeper national scars. In one image we look across a roadway at a small, two-story house; a change in road surface from one jurisdiction to another creates a telltale line that points straight at the front door, the house perfectly bisected by this intangible but still powerful boundary.
Around the same time that the rift in the United States marked at the Mason-Dixon threatened to become permanent, another kind of line was being drawn across the continent. In July 1862, barely a year into the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Acts, authorizing the construction of a transcontinental railroad from Omaha to San Francisco Bay. Mark Ruwedel’s series, “Westward: The Course of Empire,” documents the remnants of the railroads and rights-of-way that enabled America to pursue its self-declared mission of Manifest Destiny. As with the Mason-Dixon survey, the laying of the rail lines was accomplished with state-of-the-art technology (not to mention tens of thousands of immigrant laborers). To some extent their course followed the easiest topographical routes, but above all the rails followed lines of efficiency — the straightest way from here to there —and if a mountain blocked the way then its side could be dynamited off or a tunnel blasted through its center.
The past is never dead. It’s not even past, William Faulkner famously said.
Ruwedel’s images of these vestiges of westward expansion capture a forward-focused and future-oriented worldview. The photos place us right in the middle of these old throughways. Our feet are planted in the foreground, but we are gazing at a distant vanishing point, at what’s just glimpsed around the bend, or into a tunnel’s dark unknown. One image alludes to a modern-day version of this restless adventuring, showing radio telescopes used to communicate with spacecraft and peer deep into the universe.
Most of the images in “Westward,” however, show few signs of recent human occupation or development. These were transportation corridors, created to convey goods and resources (sometimes people). Ruwedel’s images share an aesthetic with the 19th-century photographs taken at the time of the railroad construction; they invite us to imagine the West as unsettled now as it was back then. The earth-moving that created the railways — the cutting, grading, tunneling — has weathered to the point that the landscapes seem almost untouched. Even the more obvious intrusions seem quaint and minimal compared to contemporary infrastructures like the Interstates. And yet the intrusions, even the subtle ones, have left marks. In one photo of open grasslands, the old path of the railway is marked by a difference in vegetation.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner famously said. Stearns’s and Ruwedel’s photographs suggest that the abstractions drawn long ago in a surveyor’s notebook or an engineer’s plan continue to resonate in the shape of the nation, the lines they traced still marking America’s continuing promise and persistent inequities.