One day a couple of years ago in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, a “domestic” bison decided it was time to head south. News reports tracked his progress. Yesterday he was seen in an irrigation ditch, today he was in someone’s vegetable garden, and so on. Fences were a minor annoyance. When he did not find holes, he made them. Part Houdini, part linebacker, he let us pretend for a few days that our spaces were still wide open.

If one bison could do it, why nota million? Why not one of those legendary herds that took days to pass a given point—grazing, wallowing, breeding their way across a boundless grassland? Someone finally caught the Bitterroot Bison before he reached the Divide, but is was fun while it lasted.

This winter, the state of Montana issued permits to hunt bison that strayed into Montana from Yellowstone National Park. State officials feared that the bison might carry bovine brucellosis, a virulent disease that causes cattle to abort. That Montana has been officially free from brucellosis for years is an important economic fact for cattlemen. Something had to be done. Not incidentally, the decision was applauded by hunters. The hunt was controversial wildlife management, but surefire box office. One December evening our television sets showed us a single bison entering stage right, pausing, staggering, falling dead. He had been picked off at 30 yards by a scope-sighted hunter.

Wearing camouflage fatigues in the midst of reporters, officials and protesters, this prime-time stalker seemed overdressed. He might have sensed some absurdity himself. He told the cameras that since the hunt was legal, it must be sport But for deep absurdity, consider the bison’s point of view. He didn’t even know he had crossed a boundary. Bison, like children and other natural creatures, do not bother with straight lines. They follow their interests along stream banks, around hills, from water to food to shade. That was how this Yellowstone bison was fooled. He did not have to swim any river or cross any ridge. He simply moseyed through the trees and across an open meadow. One minute he was in wilderness, the next—bam!—civilization. The absurdity that the bison did not understand, the absurdity that required his death, is the absurdity of laying straight lines on nature.

Yellowstone Park is square. It is square for the same reason that everything else surveyed in the Rockies is square. Our towns are laid out in square blocks, with a grid pattern of streets. Our sections are squares, one mile on a side. Our townships are squares, six sections on a side. Our states are rectangular, except for the squiggle that follows the Continental Divide to separate Idaho and Montana. Even the northern border of the United States, after looping lyrically along eastern rivers and lakes, leaves Lake of the Woods, Minnesota, to race straight as a falling rock across swamps, plains and mountains to the Pacific.

On a map, straight lines look logical. They imply rationality and human control. The more wild the reality, the more important the reassurance of straight lines. It’s easy to understand why 19th-century bureaucrats and politicians, more than a thousand miles from the scene, favoured them.

Back East, surveyors had used a system of land description based on metes and bounds, in which boundaries are often described in reference to actual landmarks. The western system of sections and parts of sections is by contrast perfectly abstract Instead of depicting an actual landscape on a map, the western surveyor’s job was to take lines already drawn on a map and lay them on the land.

This abstract, cookie-cutter space conformed to the mind of 19th-century America. Once it had been ruled into interchangeable squares, the vast western space could be controlled from Washington and New York. It could be, and often was, bought and sold before the actual boundaries were even laid out. It was ready for the homestead acts. It was ready to expand, township by identical township, into an empire.

Besides the abstraction of space, the other step necessary for conquering the West was the abstraction of time. Instead of measuring time by the position of the sun, phase of the moon, or season, the settlers used clocks and calendars. Precise, uniform measures of time and space allowed the coordination of complex activities separated by great distances. Above all, they allowed the development of the railroads.

And strung across the lines were the railroad towns. They were mass-produced to house the hardworking souls who bought railroad land to live on while they built the town in which they remained to create railroad markets. In Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, some railroad towns were virtual replicas of midwestern towns already built on the same line. For them, the grid pattern was as efficient as the corporate blueprints are to McDonald’s.

Western towns were laid out for pure future, no past. To build a new community in the wilderness was an act of will among strangers. It was an act of will that could not afford to wait for organic growth. Boston had grown from within. Its meandering maze of streets was a fossil record of cow trails and colonial footpaths. Boston streets follow the ungeometric logic of real human community. But in the western towns that were to be the settlers’ new homes, history began at zero. The newcomers might build a courthouse, school and church before anyone was buried in the cemetery.

When you look at those old posters depicting the street plans of western towns, you can almost believe that you are looking at an established community. The town may be young, but it already has achieved it most important historical mission, imposing manmade order on the wilderness. With so much accomplished already, this is a town with a future. A good place to bring up kids.

Usually those towns arrayed themselves along a straight and endless main street It led from the prairie, through town and back into the prairie. In town, it was the corridor of power and when your eyes followed it out of town, you could see the horizon. You saw the town’s future prospects were infinite. A good town to grow with. And in Casper, Billings and Boise, the growth is still sprawling outward.

Such towns were built on the graves of the bison herd and the Indians who relied on the bison for food, shelter and clothing. In 1840, a few palisaded forts dotted an immense wilderness. Their anxious inhabitants walled out the wild. But by 1890, the towns declared victory. Without boundaries, they faded complacently into the surrounding landscape. And by the turn of the century, farms and ranches were subduing that landscape, too, with straight fence lines and the patterned order of cultivated fields.

That was why people started talking about national parks. It was time, some said, to wall the wild in, to protect it from the incursions of civilization. That way, the busy townspeople could be aware of wilderness, visit it, even revere it, without letting it interfere with business. So they put the bison in square parle and the Indians on square reservations.

But it did not end there. Bison carry brucellosis out of one park. Grizzlies lumber out another and eat calves. Indian tribes claim water rights. At the same time, pollsters consistently find that our townspeople want more parks, more pristine water and air, more wilderness. The borders do not hold.

A hundred years ago, we would have known what to do about those stray bison. We would have rubbed out the whole herd in a weekend. Now we hesitate, uncertain. Blame nostalgia for some of the hesitation, wisdom for the rest We have learned some humility. And we feel something missing from the compartmentalized spaces in which we have caged ourselves.

A fully civilized life includes more than law and order. It includes mystery, energy, diversity, surprise and beauty—the qualities that make natural space nourishing and occasionally dangerous. The rigid fragmentation of western space has walled us away from essential parts of our own being.

John Roush is president of the Wilderness Society. This essay is reprinted from the book Northern Lights: A Selection of New Writing from the American West, edited by Deborah Clow and Donald Snow (Random House).