Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign
August 5, 2011
So goes the song from the Five Man Electrical Band from 1971. Tesla revived the song in 1990, and it seems to me to be as relevant today as it was in 1971 and 1990. Signs. They’re everywhere. We read them all the time. Signs prompted this blog, itself another “sign.”
Signs serve a practical purpose. They help us get to where we want to go, whether in a car or at the doctor’s office or at the brew pub. When I walk into Yorkholo, the local brewpub, I read the chalkboard: Bungy Blonde, Panama Red, Summer Love, Coal Miner IPA. I place my order and get my beer. (I’m partial to IPAs, though Summer Love is hard to pass up.) The sign announcing the beer selection saves me time, saves the wait staff time, and keeps things moving along. Signs protect (“Deer Crossing,” “Yield,” “Don’t Walk”), and they inform (“Mansfield Growers Market Today 3-6 pm,” “Oswald Cycle Works,” “Mansfield Borough”). Those uses are good, and necessary.
Obviously, the Pipeline Road signs serve a practical purpose as well, namely, telling gas workers where they need to go to access what site. The signs might serve other purposes, like to guide emergency responders. What interests me about the signs is their meaning beyond the practical. For starters, the signs suggest that the industry doesn’t need to learn the names of roads around here (though the workers drive around enough to know them all). Calling Orebed Road “Pipeline Rd. 7” suggests that the industry doesn’t care to learn the lay of the land, even though the industry is changing it as I write this. Such names also make it easier to think about Tioga and the surrounding counties as a resource rather than a place inhabited by people with stories.
Orebed Road (Ore Bed !?) and the county it snakes through have a history, a part of which involves extractive industries. First, there came logging, then tanneries, then coal mining. Some of that history is still with us, in the form of abandoned towns like Landrus and acid mine drainage-polluted rivers like the Tioga. The county’s history also involves many other things besides extracting resources: births, deaths, marriages, feuds, abundance, floods, droughts, farming, hunting, manufacturing, etc. By re-naming the roads using the language of the gas industry, those social and cultural histories are pushed into the background. The signs focus only on the pursuit of gas.
It’s similar to the signal we’d send if we started to call the “Whitney House” we bought last fall the “Guignard House.” Nobody would know what house we were talking about, and when they figured it out, they would probably think we were being presumptuous. Built in 1865, there’s a history in this house that we can’t ignore, and it causes us to think about all the changes we make. It’s our house, but it’s also a house that holds stories from long ago, as do many of the old houses around here. And we are as much caretakers of the stories as we are of the house and the land.
Another meaning that comes from the Pipeline Road signs stems from the authority assumed when one names something. Lilace and I named our kids (we conceived them, literally and metaphorically, after all), an act that gives us authority over them (or so we try to tell them). Humans name all kinds of things. Linnaean classification sets the standard for naming, enabling us to systematically name plants and animals. In turn the act of naming, whether scientific (“homo sapiens”) or proper (“James”) or colloquial (“dude”), asserts authority over the thing being named. Naming helps us to understand what something is and how we relate to it. My kids call me “Daddy,” a name that gives them authority over me (more than I want, sometimes), and it means that I have responsibility for them. My fellow cyclists sometimes call me “Tanker,” because a friend noticed, after a Wednesday night bike ride that I had to skip, the pitchers of beer didn’t disappear as fast. “We need the Tanker,” he delared. “Tanker” fits me, too—I’m slow, and I hold a lot of beer. But those names don’t apply to all fathers or cyclists. Nor are multiple names necessarily a bad thing. My nicknames are acquired through familiarity, and one doesn’t take the place of another. And my friends don’t call me “Tanker” all the time, only when the context applies.
In re-naming the roads, the gas industry is stamping, consciously or not, their authority on the county. Of course, the gas industry is not exactly re-naming the roads, but adding a name to the existing ones. But instead of showing familiarity with local knowledge of this place the way that “Tanker” suggests knowledge of my talent for drinking beer, the Pipeline Road signs imply that those roads are only about extracting the gas. There’s little in the names that indicate familiarity with the place, except for the obvious—natural gas is under here. It’s similar to the way Alaska’s Denali (“the high one”) was renamed Mt. McKinley for a president that never went there, and Nepal’s Jomolungma (“Holy Mother”) became Mt. Everest for British Surveyor Sir George Everest, already dead. It’s like me calling my daughter “Child #2” instead of her name. She becomes known for two qualities, her age and birth order, instead of being known for a name that gives her room to be a complex person.
I don’t think the gas industry re-named the roads with the intent of appearing to ignore the place’s history. They are trying to get a job done, and I’m sure that for many the Pipeline Road signs are a sign (!) of progress. Like Lilace said in her earlier post, the signs are relatively small, the size of campaign signs. One of my cycling buddies said he never noticed them until I mentioned them during one of our bike rides, and now he sees them everywhere. And they are everywhere, like campaign signs during election season, though they represent a different kind of campaign.
You remember the refrain from “Signs,” right? “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign / Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind / Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” While my mind ain’t broke, the scenery sure is changin’ with the influx of the gas industry. The signs are everywhere.
I’m still learning how to read them.