Just an idea
There are 63 states, provinces, & territories scattered across the 4,600,000,000 or so acres of our American estate, which is to say, north of the Rio Grande. (I have excluded the larger bodies of fresh water, but included adjoining islands. Greenland, however, I leave to the Danes.) These in turn are gathered under two federal governments, as the consequence of unfortunate misunderstandings, 2.37 centuries ago, which resulted in a breakaway federal government.
There are approximately 3,400 counties, county-like municipal aggregations, or census county equivalents, across this area. They are hard to count. The Yukon, for instance, is just one big, seriously underpopulated, “census division.” Delaware has only three counties, but these are divided into county-sized “hundreds.” And across the American West, county lines were drawn at a time when everywhere was like the Yukon, minus Whitehorse; for even the native Indians were not so numerous.
Gentle reader may have his own aesthetic preferences, but I flinch at provincial, state, & county lines that were drawn with a ruler; to say nothing of that long monotonous mark along the 49th parallel. The lot lines followed, as smaller polygons within these, & the human enterprise was thus shaped by the ruler, as opposed to hoof, hand & eye. One may fly over Saskatchewan, for instance, counting the quarter sections from the wingtip of the aeroplane against the second hand on a watch, to determine one’s ground speed. For that matter, one can do it in a bus. This will get me a beating from Kate McMillan, perhaps, but I think it is sinful to ignore the natural contours in the land, even where they are subtle. For did you know that even Saskatchewan contains irregularities? That rivers & creeks craze the flattest Prairie?
The roads followed, straight. Here in Upper Canada, in a human landscape constructed by hurried surveyors generations after the Thirteen Colonies had been sorted & countified, one cannot help but say Aves for the late road builders. They pushed the line roads through the most discouraging obstacles, as if to vindicate the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Then died before they could add a few diagonals, for fun. Even the Romans would alter the trajectory of a road, to avoid a cliff or a swamp. Not our guys.
Along the Atlantic, where settlement came earlier, & followed European models by habit, the counties are much smaller, & rather more “organic.” Within the first thirteen United States, Vermont, southern Quebec, & the Canadian Maritimes, the county units are almost invariably smaller than the old counties in England, or the shire equivalents under the Continent’s ancient regimes. I think the reason is that the European units evolved over centuries of human habitation. Whereas here, cutting through the great primaeval forests, distances seemed greater than they were. But also our first settlers, coming from lower strata in the European pecking order, were accustomed to greater coziness.
Jefferson wanted the surveyors to parcel the American West into townships six nautical miles square. (He miscalculated the nautical mile, incidentally.) Eight statute miles square (i.e. 64 square miles) seems to have been the ideal of the Loyalist surveyors taking possession of Upper Canada, pulling their mental strings through the wilderness of “killer trees” — & their killer roots, & the killer stones, that the pioneers then danced with.
Out on one branch of my family tree, I have “Late Loyalists” who spent 20 years manually clearing an acreage of wood to make farm near Zanesville, Ohio; only then to discover they had no freehold, just a lease. Simple people, & easy marks, they had not understood the fine print that progressive city folk like to insinuate into contracts. The bank having taken back the land they’d cleared, they started up again — near Sudbury, Ontario, on lots generously donated by Her Majesty. Readers who have never seen exposed igneous rock on Precambrian Shield will be unable to appreciate how optimistic they were. Or how thick.
Man being the measure of all things — hence the “fathom,” halved to the “yard”; the feet & inches, the pounds & ounces we find throughout pre-modern cultures, East & West — let us observe that the centre of a typical North American township is in reasonable walking distance from its boundary; that of a county within horse-riding distance, allowing plenty of time for business & return on the same day. So that, now we have discovered horses, I would say a county is probably small enough.
It has something like a natural size, usually in the doubling range of 16 to 32 miles square (256 to 1024 square miles) — bigger when there is wasteland to distribute, much much smaller in the case of tightly packed urban “boroughs.” The unit or its equivalent is traceable through many settled cultures, & probably for this reason: that it is big enough to fit dozens, even hundreds of parishes, yet, no part of it is unreachable from any other part, by pre-mechanical means. And therefore it can be fully imagined by its inhabitants, & identified with, at the autochthonic level, anchored deep below the winds of nationalist & chauvinist abstraction. It is “a country,” as our ancestors often called it.
I have been presenting all this in purely “secular” terms. A County is of course the domain of an Earl or Count; technically to be distinguished from the Duchy of a Duke, the Marquisate of a Marquis, &c — these latter of superior importance on account of their Lords, but still in the same range of sizes.
In the episcopal polity we have dioceses, subdivided into parishes. The dioceses & parishes of North America today are a fine mess, having been laid down usually before the natural patterns of settlement were established; & when rejigged, by bureaucratic committee. In later Mediaeval England, the dioceses & counties roughly corresponded, putting a magnificent Cathedral at the heart of each. There were 27 dioceses & thus 27 cathedrals (which is to overlook grand abbeys & other major churches) on the eve of the Reformation, by my count. In France there were 136, but France was four times the area, & back then, five times the population of little England. Looking over the rest of 15th-century Europe, we get some notion of natural scales, once society has settled. I think I can recommend the county/diocese as a “natural unit of governance”: the scale on which to build our new, Church-obedient, “nation states.”
Parishes corresponded to villages, with their surrounding fields & commons; or to neighbourhoods within the towns: the scale at which everyone once knew everyone else by name. The idea of a parish would be very hard to improve upon, as the basic unit of self-government below the county & above the family level; which indeed it was in that older & more civilized Christendom. It is the only scale at which direct democracy is even possible; for as the Greeks knew, beyond a certain maximum number, integral social relations break down. Five thousand inhabitants was their ideal for a completely autonomous city state; but as Christians discovered, this is too large. Think dozens to hundreds for a parish, or one thousand at the outside urban extreme. Think what will fit into a single parish church.
The natural size of a parish I learnt from walking around England, & across Europe (often along the footpaths & rights-of-way, that descend from the Middle Ages, & are likely as not to take you from one parish church directly to another). The parish will be one, two, three miles across; four or five in a remote area. In a city, of course, densely populated, it will be much smaller: a couple of dozen parishes or “wards” within a single square mile, inside the boundaries of old city walls. Modern cities are contorted by car-borne urban sprawl, apartment & office towers. But nobody really likes these things, which all depend on central planning, & are unsustainable without complex infrastructure; in time they will all go away. And meanwhile, they can be stripped for useful materials: huge inventories of steel & glass, re-usable brick & so forth.
France had some 60,000 parishes, as I mentioned in an earlier post (average population around 400) — & thus 60,000 parish churches — up to the time of the French Revolution. No two of these parishes were governed quite the same; each had its unique customs & traditions. Overnight, during the French Revolution, the timeless boundaries were amended (so many went back to the Romans), in order to create 36,000 new de-Christianized “communes” — identically governed by dictation from Paris. That evil continues to the present day, in the heritage of French secularity — founded, unambiguously, on slaughter.
England still has more than 11,000 parishes, little reduced from the Catholic era, but rendered likewise powerless under the heel of the Nanny State, & its procrustean bureaucracies. These, in turn, continue to be legitimated through a schedule of “general elections,” in which people vote for disembodied heads that they have seen talking on their televisions.
In North America, our bureaucracies are constantly at play with the municipal units. Occasionally one is subdivided, for unusual reasons, but mergers into “regions” are the norm. This is done to guarantee that the citizen remains deferent to the state. Constant disruption prevents him from creating anything resembling a settled local community in which he might have a voice, or join in the recovery of civil society. “Crowd control” it is called at major public venues; but the principle of treating humans as herd animals in a stockyard — of assigning numbers to them, & calling them up by number to be audited by the tax officials & so forth — has been at the root of all progressive thinking & legislation. It was hatched by the butchers of the Directoire.
Our task, as I understand it, is to reverse this process: to make our world human again, in the least violent way possible. I specify this last on arbitrary, Christian principles. Were I a pagan I might give different advice. Verily, it would be prudent to make sure that our allies have been Christianized before putting them into action, & those of splenic temperament pacified through their Rosaries, & frequent attendance at Mass. For as I have found, it is a challenge to maintain the necessary serenity, while contending with devils in human flesh, & the machinery of their Progress.
It strikes me that a way backward might begin with a map. Or rather, more than a map: a kind of Doomsday Survey of the whole American estate. We could, for instance, gradually assemble the materials, geographical & historical, from every location, with which to comprehend the entire landscape; & from which to produce what might even be considered an “ecologically sensitive” redivision into natural counties & parishes, attractively & imaginatively named. We might even use such tools as the Internet & GPS, so long as they remain up & working, to help us in envisioning & re-envisioning what America might be, were she humane. It could be made into a large cooperative project, on the analogy of Wikipedia, once the principles of the thing were laid down.
What I have in mind is a set of general indications, of the sort any geographer should understand: drawing boundaries by the lie of the land, following the natural contours along the high ground to distinguish riparian districts, while bearing constantly in mind the pattern of existing settlement, & where possible distributing arable land with something resembling equity between the counties within any geographical region. And for each new, or redrawn old county & its parishes, an archive could be assembled, of what is known about its past, its genealogies, its roads & buildings, its natural history, its drainage & soils; even such information as can be found about what lies under hideous sprawl, with hints on how it could be scraped, cleansed, & restored to farmland.
Large parts of the continent remain almost uninhabited, because almost uninhabitable, & could be apportioned in “districts” of fairly large size, governed from any existing frontier population centre. Should population grow, such districts would later be subdivided, with new counties hived off from them. Meanwhile, in the absence of the Nanny State (having crashed under the weight of its own extravagance & tyranny), our aboriginal peoples & those of adventurous spirit would be welcome to roam, entirely at their own risk, away from the pressures of settled life.
I am suggesting all this as a project, only; as a place to start. I could go into much greater detail, but won’t for today. Nothing too terribly ambitious: just a voluntary, cooperative project, by which we might gain a better understanding of how things are & came to be, & what would be better. A “virtual” world, to be sure, but founded upon an actual landscape, & posited directly against what is now there. And again, it would (provided of course it had been printed out in enough copies) be of practical use when the existing economy collapses, the infrastructure goes down, Nanny State has little left to parasite upon, & her agents become fairly easy to defend ourselves against. For county by county & parish by parish it would be full of instructions on what to do next, & how to do it, as a means of survival. It would amount to a vade mecum for a functional Mediaeval civilization, to be built on the ruins of “Canada,” & “USA,” with the greatest possible life-saving speed.
And it would illustrate the principle of subsidiarity. For all the powers of Washington & Ottawa & the other capitals would be transferred immediately to the parishes. All they could not handle, referred upward to the county level by their actual request. Any question requiring adjudication between parish & parish, likewise raised to the county level. And as for the universal issues of criminal law, & common defence — well, those could be referred upward, too, to what we might call the “Holy American Empire.”