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Bleed Space

by David Ker Thomson

I walk the line.

—Johnny Cash

Cedarville, Ontario.

Back to Grey County of the heart.  I filed from here in May last year, describing a crawl through a rare old cedar copse destined to disappear before the new transmission lines coming down from the continent’s largest nuclear power plant on their way to the Toronto area.

This year I’m on two feet alongside my native informant, Otto.  Twin towers have fulfilled the prophecy and 9-11’d the copse, and even the cedar bones are gone for timber.  Three phalanxes of towers have marched into position over the decades.  The old towers stand in formation like creatures in The War of the Worlds, and the newer ones slumber on the field awaiting final installation.  I hope to give you the plain facts on two towers in the third set.

Otto tells me that the power company pays $90,000 for the 9.6-acre rhombus-shaped section of permanent access the two poles require.  It’s a one-time deal, not a rental.  Otto owns from the road back three quarters of a mile to the South Saugeen River, which borders the property.  In the last round of installations, back in ’73, Otto got $12,000.  There is an even earlier set of poles, dating back sixty or seventy years, Otto figures, so I gather that there was a conventional power plant up north there before the nuclear station.

There are six quad bundles for twenty-four wires in the last set, and this will probably be replicated in the new.  The wires are live and uninsulated, although they hang from insulators on the poles.  The slashed area for the new poles is generous—fifteen meters beyond what you’d imagine would be necessary to give the poles plenty of swinging room as they go up.

I’m doing pretty well writing down the facts, which I’ll bundle and send south along some electrical lines to the hard-hitting, fact-based muckraking journal I write for, but the ruined landscape running to infinity in both directions invites comparisons, demands the connection of dots, casts me back into the brooding I’m trying to escape.  Transverse trajectories, whimsical diagonal slashes, the lovely but cadmium-tainted farm fields, the tower and the glory, and I’ve lost my facts.  I’m off at an angle.  Like the tithe of power bled out by the wires, I seep.  The whole world’s a bleed space.  The ruin of love is like the ruin of the world.  You do everything you can to shore up, but you can’t fix it.

For some reason, or for every reason, I am thinking about true love.  You promise yourself the same thing at the beginning of true love as at the end, though the first is in joy and the second in sorrow.  And the promise is this:  I will never love another.

Car wheels on a gravel road, some words from a Lucinda Williams song, segue me back, however awkwardly, to Otto and gravel.  There is a new gravel road for the fresh poles.  They truck in the gravel, Otto tells me, then after installation they truck it all out and will do the maintenance from choppers.  How much power does that expend, putting in a road and taking it out again?

The line runs from Bruce Nuclear station (now owned by a British company) to Milton substation.  The power company keeps whatever timber they glean from the property.  Otto is at a time in his life when the cash is necessary just to keep the farm, and he acknowledges that it’s a good sum.  Still, it rankles that the Bruce station is owned by a foreign company.  “The Hydro is expropriating me to give a private company money,” Otto says with a little shake of his head.  “Hydro owns the transmission lines, but the government is in effect giving the private British company the right to cross my land.  Of course I believe in the public good, but somehow this doesn’t seem quite right.”

Otto uses the word “Hydro” for the public power company, a word that carries its own history.  It’s short for “Hydro-electric.”  The original power here, and even more so in Quebec, was from water falling over damns.  Now it comes from boiling water with nuclear power to make steam, so in a way it’s still hydraulic.  But even when it describes a coal plant, people in these parts will use the word Hydro.  Hydro’s everywhere.  The many-headed Hydro.

The boys play on the horizontal towers, which are secured only with some lumber chocks.  “Get under those when they roll,” I say, “and you’re dead.”  But still it seems less dangerous than driving a car on the roads in these parts, and I don’t forbid them.

Everything’s a grid.  The power lines cut diagonally across the property allocations that were run in the Victorian era hereabouts, which was then The Queen’s Bush.  It was all cedar bush, Otto tells me.  Some Irish guys would come along and put a blaze on a tree to remember what they’d surveyed.  They’d go get drunk at some pub to the rear, then the next day set out again, divvying up the land.  Otto’s farm is near Side Road Seven.  A concession is 660 acres or so.  Thank God for fucken facts, I think.  Gets your mind off things.  Around here a mile and a half by a mile is one concession, five farms or so between side roads.  “This concession has an extra two farms in it.  It’s at a bit of an angle because an engineer was drunk a hundred sixty years ago.”

In the distance, red-and-white flags celebrating a tree that holds the sap that makes the national confection fly from poles that together with silos and towers are the vertical part of this landscape.  It’s national geographic.  Lines upon lines.

Seven to ten percent of power is lost in the transmission lines themselves.  The lines crackle and hum as we pass beneath them, their resistance converting the distant power to heat and sending it up into the sky.  I remember my dad telling us to close the front door when we were kids.  “What are you trying to do, heat the great outdoors?”

I try to avoid reading things so that I can get my information more directly from people and from the land (feel free to go for a walk right now).  But I get into a National Geographic Daily News article when I am checking on the percentage of power lost in the lines.

As its name suggests, National Geographic’s brief is to enlist the land in the nationalist project, which has always been subjugation, extraction, and profit combined with a sentimental pastoral aesthetic and a bit of flag waving.  Maybe that’s a lot to lay on a few Amazonian lip disks and some ancient pottery shards, but stick with me.  Hasn’t Nat Geo always brought to the Oxbridge sentimental aesthetic an instinct for the salvage picto-ethnography of filming disappearing nature, from tribal tits to pert peaks and threatened landscapes?  The flagship magazine, at least, has always been somewhere close to the intersection of the topics salvage and savage.  I don’t remember the writing much with Nat Geo.  I’ve just usually stuck to the pictures, the way with The New Yorker you’re just supposed to look at the cartoons.

Anyone up for a bit of close reading from a guy who doesn’t read much?  Check out the final paragraph of a National Geographic Daily News article in which the writer proudly sponsored by Shell apparently thinks that siting a solar mega-array near power transmission lines is equivalent to getting by “without moving power at all.”  The paragraph can be found here:

Another option, of course, is to try to get by without moving power at all. The Los Angeles power department, having abandoned its cross-desert transmission plan, is looking at constructing a huge 80-square-mile (207-square-kilometer) solar array in the dry bed of Owens Lake—the body of water drained early last century by the city aqueduct. Among the advantages city officials cite: It is close to existing power transmission.

In other words, transmitting power is not transmitting power (“without moving power” and “power transmission”).  Nat Geo writers usually try a little harder to pretend to like nature, but the Shell carapace apparently covers a multitude of sins (plus who needs to capitalize “power company” when you’re getting paid by Shell, eh?), so notice the added benefit of corporate “alternative” power here—the dry bed of Lake Owen from an earlier man-made disaster.  It’s all good.  When it rains it pours, as my dear mother used to say.  With National Geographic writers, who needs politicians?

On the other hand, if I’m so smart, how come Shell isn’t paying me?  The paragraph gets funnier with every re-read, and I’m grateful for the distraction.  That “of course” in the first line.  Of course what?  Of course plenty of nowtopians have been getting by without corporate power since the dawn of freakin’ time?  No, not that ‘of course’.  It’s the ‘of course’ of corporations who “get by.”  Is this the ‘get by’ of my brother Clive, resident of Brownsville, Texas, and Poorest Man in America?  Or is this the sneaky ‘get by’ of corporations so dependent on lacky corporate writers and the stupidity of readers that they can get by—get away—with a massive and massively inefficient transmission of power as if “without moving power at all” end effing quote?  And this is me in my deepest melancholic mood when I am most sympathetic to the foibles of others.  Watch out if I ever get happy.  Then I’ll have words about Owens River Gorge, where we used to climb cliff faces made available by Los Angeles’ massive water theft in—of—the river.

But the anger can’t hold me.  The bleed space is everywhere and has become the color of the world.  My ancient parents come by from Tennessee as I’m amassing my facts on power poles here in Toronto.  Several years ago their 1978 Chevy Caprice Classic passed a million miles.  Chassis of cars and parents are strong but between the car body and the human bodies the air of superannuation is of sci-fi proportions.  They tell me stories of the old west, of the trailer I grew up in.  My mother vomiting her way across the mountains with loneliness, sheets on the clothesline breaking in the cold, violent bloody near-death reproductive forces visiting her tiny frame, my giant dad blasting holes everywhere, leaving little caves thirty feet under that can implode and suck down a cow, and later blowing up nuclear bombs with underqualified air force pilots in charge, holes everywhere, and one day coming down into the incessant winds of Crow’s Nest Pass with its ring of dolomite cliffs, my dad ticking off the names of the rocks and telling the story of the miners there under-mining and the dolomite falling and the men coming up after work and looking around and my dad’s saying “it’s all gone, the wives, and the children, and the town, all gone under hundreds of feet of mountain,” and so on, no break in the tale of sorrow, the weirding way of summoning the past.  “And we only wanted to find them some oil, to make their lives bearable,” says my mother, the old prospector’s wife, “but the holes were dry,” my dad says.  And in the present my nearly-ninety mother covers the house in the blood of Jesus, that must include the insulated solar belvedere like a glass fang seven feet high I’ve just finished on the roof, and after the blood invocation they drive north to their moldy shack without running water or electricity or telephone seven miles from shore on a reef in the biggest freshwater reef system in the world, downwind of the nuclear plant.  They’ll peer out at the stunning beauty from rotten rhomboid window frames rife with pine bugs and at night the home galaxy will hoola-hoop the shack and the international space station will zing past like a star in lateral fall and some green aurora curtains will shimmer and bring the scene to a close.  Selah.

The Jesus’d-upped windows here are edged in crimson as though the world were a single organism viewed from the inside.  I will never love another.

And so it goes.  How do you end a tale like this?  Holes to infinity, march of progress, love and dolomite and vomiting, and meanwhile the boys are coming on apace, growing up, and their own filial dramas are accumulating kinetic energy, and the women who will break their hearts are innocent children somewhere just living lives that are introductory clauses that soon will pile up against some comma, and then what?

I’ll have to be shoving off.  Got to get out into that world there for a bit, light out for the territories, find a bit of money.  I noticed recently that my annual salary is the same as that of an Aviation Ordnance Airman (female) in the U.S. military.  Apparently it hasn’t been enough.  I might not be reporting in as frequently as has been my wont, and after all you won’t be needing every jot and tittle in the narrative of my keening.

They have all gone away; there is nothing more to say.

David Ker Thomson lives in The Greatest Lake Bioregion.  This is the second panel in the Grey County of the Heart diptych.  The first can be found here.  dave.thomson@utoronto.ca

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