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saturday, july 11, 2009
Learning to see wooden poles

When I’m not in a rush to get somewhere, I look up at the tops of telephone poles. I don’t know anything about electricity, but I find myself reading glossaries of linemen’s slang and technical definitions, learning how to refer to the grey buckets that transform electricity for home use (cans, bugs, distribution transformers) and how to identify several other pole features, especially different varieties of shiny ceramic insulators.

Utility pole in Isla Vista Utility pole in Los Angeles

To get from place to place I always walk or look out a car/bus/train window; I don’t know how to drive and don’t feel safe on a bicycle around cars. So I walk a lot, and usually I have something to think about while I’m walking — but if I don’t, and if the sky isn’t too bright, I peer nearsightedly at glossy cylinders tied to wires.

Utility pole in Goleta

I got interested in utility poles in late 2006 after picking a yellowing antiques magazine off a stack in my grandma’s overstuffed house — it had an article about collecting glass insulators, and I was puzzled. I looked at the pictures but couldn’t figure out what these things were. Their collectors didn’t explain; they talked about cataloging varieties and identifying falsely-tinted specimens.

A person's collection of insulators

Later I read more about insulators online, and the fervor of collectors’ websites overwhelmed me a little, but I learned that insulators are devices that sit near the tops of poles to support live wires. Most glass ones have been retired and replaced by ceramic ones, so glass insulators are a beloved collector’s item: produced in a limited quantity, portable, and pretty.

A pole with glass insulators

In December I visited my boyfriend’s uncle’s ranch, which grows junk: rusty vehicles, cow bones, fallen streetlights, and, among the weeds, a pile of ceramic insulators. I took photos up close, admiring the glazed bells. I could have asked to grab a set, but where would I keep such a heavy thing? The pile waits there for me to visit again.

Insulators at the ranch

I like functional and authentic technical equipment, the more elaborate and less appreciated the better. I get excited about trains and oil wells too, but I don’t see them on my walk to class every day — and they have an amount of built-in spectacle already. Reading about insulators led to noticing a whole ecology of lightning arresters, guy lines, strain insulators, and more.

Part of the Iron Zoo

Some of my friends and I have similar childhood memories: we read Richard Scarry books, where friendly drawings with animal-people explain how an entire town functions, from the paper mill to how the roads are laid; we watched the segment of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that explained a crayon factory; and we built flocks of LEGO houses and cars.

Utility poles on Treasure Island

Those friends are now computer programmers, while I didn’t understand math past the first semester of Algebra II and never took a physics class. I don’t understand electricity at all, but you don’t have to be a zoology student to spot birds. (My friend working on a master’s degree in bird research makes time to practice medieval-style archery.) I’ve stopped for minutes to stare at a lineman up in a bucket, grasping a line with a pole.

More utility poles in Los Angeles

One time I considered waiting until the linemen came down and then politely asking them about what they were fixing, maybe even asking where I could find old broken insulators. But I didn’t think they’d welcome my strange questions, and I knew I had to start walking again — quickly, so I wouldn’t be late for class.

Update: There’s some discussion at Snarkmarket.

comments (2)

Being suddenly steeped in someone else's culture is one of life's best recurring experiences. Every time, it's your choice to decide whether the people and their interests are overly intense and ill-justified, or whether there's something they see that you don't that you can take away. The choice always says more about yourself than about them.

I read french for four years and passed with a good grade, and now, besides a handful of phrases and some forty word vocabulary, it's all gone. (Some in our class hosted exchange students for a two week period and spoke french the entire time and then flew down to do the same thing; I never got to that level at all.) I read electricity very intensely for one and a half years as part of taking the computer major that didn't involve a lot of beakers, and I can barely remember Ohm's law (V = IR).

I knew what I wanted right from the beginning and I probably would have learned the necessary skills anyway, but the education I got helps me decode the rest of life; putting insulators and lightning arresters and the people who are fascinated by them into context.
Jesper on 7/11/2009 04:45:16

I like your writing - it's has a light touch on the world.
barrie hesketh on 4/7/2010 08:58:22

comments are off. for new comments, my email address is brittag@gmail.com.

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I’m Britta Gustafson.


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