They’re putting in new power poles along the county highway near our dirt road in Balsam Township. The old poles, faded grey, lean askew like the bright orange temporary fence that tries and fails to prevent people taking a short cut to the portable toilets at a tractor show.
The new poles lay alongside the old ones. Striking umber, the treated wood sports wide support beams for the lines. The old ones just pinned the lines to the top of the post like string on a child’s art project. It’s hard to imagine those lines were ever straight.
You can already see how much taller the new poles will be than their predecessors. In one section, the old and new poles stand alongside each other like tuxedoed vaudeville performers and their prop canes. Straighter than a chorus line at one of your finer Broadway productions.
Crews have been clearing the way for these new poles since snowmelt. Harvesters cut a good length of right-of-way into the woods, felling many pesky trees that vexed the old poles.
It’s funny how electricity — something so basic to modern life — comes down to trees. Dead trees carry the power lines. Live trees endeavor to swat them down when the wind blows hard. It’s unlikely the trees know what they’re doing, but it feels like nature herself sure does. This thousand-year friction between civilization and the natural order grinds on.
For years of country living, I’ve watched the annual shaving of the trees. Contractors hired by the power company trim back the boughs of trees near the power lines. Even one pesky branch could knock out power in a storm sending hundreds or even thousands back to the 19th Century, sans polio. Sometimes trees just lean on the power lines, blinking power on and off until your refrigerator cries real tears.
The annual preventative trim resulted in trees that, for all intent and purposes, looked like they had mullets. Party in the back, human progress in the front. Fortunately trees are incapable of shame, just like people with mullets.
Well, the mullet trees are gone now, just like the kids from your high school. The new poles stand sentry, equal to the tallest red pine. Up with the hawks. Way too high for the little birds.
Given how long this has gone on, and the number of poles involved, I imagine this costs Lake Country Power a pretty penny. I don’t know how often power poles are replaced, either, but I’d venture it’s as little as possible.
Thus, I might be watching the last time I see new power poles out here. Who knows what the future will bring? Power delivered through waves from space, or perhaps a slim battery and solar array on my roof. And anyway, these poles might outlive me anyway. They’re thicker than the old ones, but not as thick as me.
It’s a good reminder that history doesn’t expand outward, like the Old West. It builds upward from where we stand. Under the roads you find old roads. Under the mine dumps you find old land. Under the people you find ancestors.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 16, 2017 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.