“But what if you just don’t want to be counted?” Pinkston
asks. “Lots of folks around here get scared about the idea of a
‘head count.’ And they do whatever they can not to be found.”
Ratcli=e says that no matter how carefully the census is
undertaken, there will always be uncertainties. He points out
that the census is a “snapshot” in time, and that statistical es-
timates are used to help appraise the accuracy of the count.
The bureau calculates a high, low, and middle figure based on
di=erent growth scenarios, he says. He explains that the count is
then compared to these various statistical figures. “This year, it
turned out that the number we got was very close to that middle
figure,” says Ratcli=e. “That tells us that we were very accurate
with our count.” With that, Pinkston seems satisfied.
But of course not everyone gets counted. While some citizens
inevitably slip through the cracks, the centroid’s most serious
limitation lies in its narrow definition of citizenship and legal residency and, by extension, its mathematical exclusion of anyone,
past or present, who does not fit these narrow strictures. Between
1790 and 1850, not a single American Indian was tallied in the
decennial census. Also uncounted were the tens of thousands of
slaves who escaped the bondage of the plantation for northeastern
cities before emancipation. Today there are an estimated 11 million undocumented (which is to say, uncounted) immigrants scattered across the country. Any talk of the centroid or its “advance”
must be considered in light of these unaccounted-for populations.
When we finish lunch and emerge into the bright Missouri
sun, Bob Biram has a smile on his face. He’s managed to make
contact and is confident that the family will be happy to have the
monument placed on their land. With the location nearly settled,
we load up in the fleet of white Suburbans and trek to the “real”
population center, which lies in the woods a few miles to the north.
We cross the edge of the cow pasture, ditch the vehicles, and
head into the trees. The stream, Rock Creek, is only a few hundred feet ahead and a few inches deep. We wade across quickly,
passing through a second dry streambed and into a thicket of
blackberry bushes and small pines. After a few minutes, Doyle
calls out for us to go slowly, then to stop. According to his GPS,
we’ve arrived. Before us, in a small clearing, stands a thin, ragged
hardwood sapling. As Doyle reaches to touch one of its leafless
limbs, the group falls silent.
“This is it,” he says solemnly. “The center tree.”
Ratcli=e and Darrell Pratte, the director of the Missouri Land
Survey Program, quickly gather a few pale chunks of limestone
and construct a small cairn at the tree’s base. Here at the quan-
titative axis mundi, the nation’s population whirls around us like
a great spiral galaxy or a hurricane about its eye. For a moment
there is calm, quiet. The only sounds are wind in the treetops
and water coursing lightly over stone.
And then someone laughs and the air of contemplation has
passed. The center is restless, indefinable. It was no more “here”
than where we’d been standing a few moments earlier, in the
town of Plato. The census tells us the nation adds 227,000 people per month, a new Reno every thirty days. At that rate, another
fifty-two people had entered the population in the few minutes
we’d been standing under the scrawny tree at the nation’s momentary fulcrum.
The center was certainly not far away. Perhaps it was lingering in the next valley over, or languishing momentarily along the
banks of Rock Creek. Maybe it was circling back in an eddy along
the asphalt river of Highway 32. Maybe — but there was no point
in thinking it would stop for us. A
Listen to an interview with Jeremy Miller about the centroid at
When I Don’t Know What
Kind of Bird I Am
i’m surprised the mild wind that brought me here
could turn so quickly spooky. kicked-up, horse-like.
or, when standing still & i sense myself askew,
at a slight angle to the universe, confused
re: the who & what & how. how to openopenopen.
how to harvest flax without degrading the hills.
The violet and low-rolling hills.
it would help to have a basic understanding
of thermodynamics to better parse, for example,
the ins and outs of heat exchange. as in, it’s a cold day
in march, you put your hand in my pocket.
it would help if you’d talk a little Brontë, a little austen
to me while we stroll across the softening fields
to the lambing shed where we’ll kneel down
in our muddy boots and count the curly heads.