Orbital View: Where’d You Go, Jefferson Grid?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

One of the best new Instagram accounts this year has gone fallow for two months. The most recent square-mile image has an ugly splendor:

Some horrible colors, Canada #canada #saskatchewan #instadaily #colorful

A photo posted by The Jefferson Grid (@the.jefferson.grid) on

The Jefferson Grid—the historical one, not the Instagram account inspired by it—got a mention a few months ago in an interview Ross had with Jedediah Purdy, author of a “dazzling new book, After Nature, [showing how] our relationship with the nonhuman world has proved flexible over time”:

Andersen: In the book, you identify four main ways that Americans have imagined nature. The first is providential, where nature is a wild place set apart by God, for human cultivation. The second is romantic, where nature is a place of aesthetic and spiritual inspiration, a “secular cathedral.” The third is utilitarian, where nature is a storehouse of resources, requiring expert management. And the fourth is ecological, where nature is the totality of many interdependent systems. You say that we can find these four kinds of imaginations in our law books, but also in our landscapes. Are there particular American landscapes where the imprints of these ideas can be seen most obviously?

Purdy: The farmland of the Midwest has that checkerboard pattern that everyone has seen from airplanes. (I don’t mean any disrespect to so-called flyover country: You can see it best from the sky!) That’s a transcription, in the form of land deeds, of a picture of an agrarian republic spreading west; it’s Jefferson’s grid, each farm plot with enough land, notionally, to support a family, each one nestled into a larger pattern, with checker squares reserved for schools, county seats, and so forth. It’s the providential landscape.

(See all Orbital Views here)