America’s Humble, Wooden Heart

In his story in the March/April 2013 issue of Orion, “The Centroid,” journalist Jeremy Miller rides through rural Missouri with a group of U.S. Census Bureau geographers and a 12-inch steel disc. The disc’s eventual home is 37° 31′ N, 92° 10′ W—otherwise known as the town of Plato, Missouri—otherwise known as the 2010 mean population center of the United States.

According to the Census Bureau, the mean population center is “the place where an imaginary, flat, weightless and rigid map of the United States would balance perfectly if all 308, 754, 538 residents counted in the 2010 Census were of identical weight.”

That’s a sort of hypothetical, mathematically defined point—but it’s also a real place, colored with meaning about how we settle and move across the landscape.

After Jeremy and the team of geographers plant the commemorative steel disc in an easy-to-find location in downtown Plato, they head to the “real” population center, which is located outside of town.

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.”

Traveling with Jeremy during much of his reporting was Michael Ratcliffe, a cultural and historical geographer with the Census department who, we were delighted to hear, is also a poet. He shared with us this poem, written with the “center tree” in mind, which may say more about the heart of America than any mathematical mean.


At the Center of the U.S. Population

The tree at the center of the U.S. population
is not a mighty oak
or other majestic tree.
It is a scraggly cedar,
sprouted from a seed
from the droppings from a bird.
It has claimed a space
in a small clearing in the woods
that almost seemed designed for it,
destined you might say,
if the bird or the seed
might have known that in 2010
that spot would be the center of the population.
How fitting that this cedar,
of such humble origins,
so unremarkable and unstatesmanlike,
should be found on a farm
near a small town called Plato.
Perhaps there is no better tree
for the center of the Republic.

Michael Ratcliffe, a geographer and a poet, led the Census Bureau team that identified and mapped the center of the population. His poetry has appeared most recently in the Loch Raven Review and Symmetry Pebbles.


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