Celebrating Infrastructure

When cycling in forested New England countryside I sometimes wondered about the man-made forest built along the roadside — telephone poles, power lines, transformers — and thought someone should write a book about the industrial landscape. It turns out that someone did. Brian Hayes spent many years traveling around America, researching and photographing the infrastructure that sustains our civilization. The book he produced, Infrastructure: A Field Guide to the Industrial Landscape (2005, 2nd ed. 2014), is everything I imagined it would be.

(I found the book by way of a comment that Brian Hayes left here on this blog. “Couldn’t be that Brian Hayes,” I thought. But his signature led me to his blog and thence to Infrastructure‘s home on the web. I’m passing it along here in part to remind myself that my favorite books often aren’t new or well publicized. I find them serendipitously after they’ve been around for a while.)

My father and his twin brother were students of nature in a way I’ve never been. Their knowledge of plants and animals was encyclopedic and ever-expanding. But for most of us, the natural landscape is not an expanse of unnamed and unknown objects. We recognize egrets, crows, hummingbirds, oaks, pines, and maples. The same isn’t true of the industrial landscape. More often than not, driving along some industrial corridor, we’re likely to ask the question Brian Hayes’ daughter asked him: “What’s that thing?” Infrastructure answers those questions for her, and for us.

Chapters on mining, waterworks, farming, energy production and distribution, transportation, shipping, and waste management follow a plan that “traces the flow of materials, information, and energy” throughout the web of industrial networks. We learn how industrial processes work, and how to identify the structures that house and implement them. Not all of us encounter quarries, mills, dams, refineries, or power plants on a daily basis. But water towers, roads, bridges, power lines, and data cables are as much a part of our landscape as what nature put there.

Hayes invites us to know more about the names, appearances, and workings of the industrial landscape. He also challenges us to reconsider how we feel about that landscape.

I stood by the side of a highway near Gallup, New Mexico, looking on a classic vista of the American West: red sandstone buttes, rising from a valley floor. … In front of the cliffs, and towering over them, were several cylindrical spires that I recognized as petroleum fractionating columns; off to one side was a grove of gleaming white spherical tanks. … I suspect that most viewers of this scene would consider the industrial hardware to be an intrusion, a distraction, perhaps even a desecration of the landscape.

Guilty as charged. But I’m provoked by this book to reconsider. Celebrate infrastructure, don’t hide it, Stewart Brand tweeted today. “It is civilization’s metabolism and should be its pride..

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