The following is an excerpt of Power-Lined: Electricity, Landscape, and the American Mind (July 2019) by Daniel L. Wuebben who is assistant professor in the Goodrich Scholarship Program at the University of Nebraska Omaha.
Play. When I was five years old, I began to play an imaginary video game called “power lines.” I played power lines as the family station wagon glided along the tree-lined, four-lane avenues of Omaha, Nebraska, and as it zipped down bucolic two-lane highways. The game’s invisible avatar, my “guy,” had short black hair, blue jeans, sturdy legs, and lightning-fast steps. The wagon’s movement initiated the action: I locked eyes on the line, mentally pressed play, and guy materialized. Guy made simple, acrobatic maneuvers. He could “run” on top of the lines, “jump” sideways between parallel lines, and “super jump!” over the tops of wooden poles, steel tubes, or lattice towers. In those early years the make-believe game was likely inspired by the undulating actions of digital avatars in real video games like Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, and Contra. I did not memorize levels nor commit controller buttons to muscle memory, but hours of watching my friends play these games sank the digital rhythms into my brain. Similar patterns were then projected onto the lines in the landscape.
Playing my self-invented power lines game satisfied some nebulous desire for order. The spindly lines and jumping courses could be traced, plotted, and rearranged like the green, pink, and yellow ceramic tiles on the bathroom floor or the wooden beams on the church ceiling. Other shapes and movements focused my attention and brightened my eyes—the leather basketball’s spinning ribs splashing through a white nylon net is also fixed in my memory. Yet I found myself routinely hypnotized, staring through the window, fixated on the lines that seemed to gallop above the traffic. Looking back, my experience with these real lines resembled an ether-induced vision reported by a Dr. Shoemaker of Philadelphia and repeated by William James: “There was no conception as to what being it was that was regarding the two lines, or that there existed any such thing as such a being; the lines and waves were all.”1 For miles, it seemed, I disappeared; the power lines were all. Sometimes guy followed me, as if the original game was reengineered everywhere we happened to travel. Into my teens I habitually followed the syncopated swoops across the Great Plains. In these agricultural regions power lines, water towers, and grain silos often visually dominate rolling farmlands and pastures. In my twenties I toured the continent by car, bus, and motorcycle. Romance and randomness inspired most of these road trips, and my mental maneuverings of the black-haired guy faded. Nevertheless, power lines frequently drew my attention roadside. In Utah I registered the sinewy sines and cosines shimmering through the salt flats; I popped the throttle in Montana, and, with a faint beat pounding inside my helmet, I marched in step with anthropomorphic, transformers-like towers; as the Greyhound crossed Kentucky, I let my sight get stitched by the electric looms hanging over the rectangular horse fences; on the Jersey Turnpike I felt lost amid endless electric spools and faceless faux totem poles lined up near the Thomas Edison Service Plaza. The travel modes, backdrops, and systems of imagery constantly changed—the optical attraction to those rippling forms on the fringes remained.
My youthful play of the power lines game came flooding back in the autumn of 2006. I was sitting in the Main Reading Room of the New York Public Library reading Jonathan Edward’s “Spider Letter.” In 1723, at the age of twenty, Edwards composed a scientific account of how spiders loosened draglines from their bodies and used them to float across the canopy of Connecticut. Edwards’s letter includes hand-drawn diagrams detailing the spiders’ ingenious combination of silk threads, gentle breeze, leverage, and buoyancy. Recently, scientists found that spiders can detect and respond to electric fields in the atmosphere and that they use electrostatic forces to help them fly, or “balloon,” over significant distances. Edwards was excited by flying behaviors he carefully observed and documented, but he was unaware of their actual electric potential. For him the magnificent “spiders that make those curious, network, polygonal webs” further proved the wisdom of the Creator’s design. While sunlight from Bryant Park poured through arched windows into the Reading Room, I read about a teenage Puritan adjusting his eyes to sunbeams reflecting spider silk in the forest.
Pause. I leaned back in the wooden chair, looked up, and watched an invisible thread swing from a chandelier’s exposed bulb to a golden plaster rosette on the edge of the painted blue sky. Suddenly, I could see the three silver wires above Blondo Street. Nearly seventy-feet in the air, the wires attached to the wooden pole in a “wishbone” arrangement of angled crossbeams (fig 1). I then recalled the feeling of running and jumping lines dilating and constricting above the station wagon window. Edwards, a young boy who watched spiders fly through the forest and grew up to deliver Early America’s most famous fire-and-brimstone sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” had jostled from memory the imaginary video game I played in Nebraska in the 1980s.
New game. After ruminating on my boyhood play with power lines, I composed an essay connecting Edwards’s flying spiders to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “great principle of Undulation in nature” and his vision of the world as “the flux of matter over the wires of thought.” To the original link from Edwards to Emerson, I added analysis of two fictional portrayals of undulating lines. In James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) Stephen Dedalus stares out a train window in Ireland and begins to form a prayer. The prayer begins as “a trail of foolish words which he made fit the insistent rhythm of the train.” The mix of words and train rhythm is then mapped onto the passing landscape as “silently, at intervals of four seconds, the telegraph poles held the galloping notes of the music between punctual bars.” Similarly, in Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “A Matter of Chance,” first published in Russian in 1924, the movement of the wires outside the Berlin-Paris express train reflects a hopeless dining car attendant’s mood swings. First, the “even row of telegraph wires could be seen swooping upward,” then “a telegraph pole, black against the sunset, flew past, interrupting the smooth assent of the wires.” Outside the window the wires, expectedly, “dropped as a flag drops when the wind stops blowing. Then furtively they began rising again.” The cadence of the rising and falling lines posted alongside train tracks, I argued, had been reflected in, and possibly an inspiration for, these authors’ development of the narrative mode named stream of consciousness. The clean, repetitious undulations in the landscape provided a counterbalance to the narrator’s more jumbled, sometimes chaotic thoughts. The perceptions of telegraph lines modeled a somewhat accidental and yet easily identifiable feeling of order. Stephen and the suicidal attendant each desperately sought to latch onto such feelings and the accompanying forms. The loose connections between Edwards and three literary giants—Emerson, Joyce, and Nabokov—marked the beginning of a new game. A series of conceptual jumps and archival sidetracks related to telegraph lines began to dominate my research, writing, and figurative power lines play.
In the years following that Reading Room realization, I began to explore telegraph lines as material and metaphorical conductors of nineteenth-century landscapes. Drawing from a range of relatively static texts and images, I argued that the electric telegraph, and its lines, occupied the razor’s edge between science and spirituality, technology and progress. My subjects felt simultaneously unified and polarized: electricity and landscape, power and lines, function and form. With these groupings as my guidelines, I made gentle swoops from the first system (electricity, power, and function) to the other (landscape, lines, and form). I learned that telegraph lines initiated the basic patterns by which electric networks permeated American culture and that their presence in the material landscape also challenged the values that Emerson and others of the American Renaissance attributed to the raw, sudden, electrifying experience of nature. The project showed the diverse iconography of American landscape intersecting with the material and cultural changes wrought by telegraph lines.
Over time I expanded my study beyond the framing of electric landscapes performed in nineteenth-century essays, novels, newspapers, poems, and paintings. On the one side my new research engaged a broader range of “electric” texts, including classic films, utility advertising campaigns, industrial design projects, and made-for- television movies. On the other side it acknowledged that each overhead line represents technological choices and social impacts. Overhead lines, from our high-voltage transmission towers to the nineteenth-century telegraphs, are socially constructed artifacts. To the layperson they look similar, but they can serve distinct cultural functions and accrue separate meanings. For almost two hundred years landscapes lined with overhead wires have acted as fulcrums for the forces of art, culture, technology, and environment.