Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign

August 5, 2011

by Jimmy

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.

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4 Responses to “Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign”

  1. Karen said

    Just wanted to let you know that I’m enjoying your blog.

    • We’re glad you are! Jimmy will be happy to hear he has his first “like”–and I’m glad to see the button is working now. There is a learning curve to the tech side of this. 🙂

  2. Danielle said

    I could be way off topic here, but your post got me thinking about placed-based literacy, and while the gas companies aren’t exactly writing textbooks or the next great american classic, their signs are a sort of “literature.” But before I go on, let me just say that none of this may make sense, in which case, promptly disregard and continue on as though nothing was commented on. That being said, here we go:

    The rhetorical power of signs is extremely interesting, they have the power to persuade, dissuade, and generally inform their audience to eat, drink, go, avoid, or think carefully on, the things they are promoting or informing aforesaid audience about. They are, as my students will learn in just a few short weeks, really nothing more then artfully (albeit very short) written pieces of literature. Sure, they don’t come in leather-bound and gold embossed wrappings, but they are still literature. Or, if you will, texts. In a way, the literature (or texts) of the gas company that is, and has been, cropping up around Potter, Tioga, and Bradford county is evolving, enveloping, and developing the pre-existing literature of the place it’s coming into contact with. It’s re-framing the context and purpose of the surrounding space to fit its own needs without allowing for the incorporation of already existing literature. In short, they become the dominant authority, and the outcome is thus: a separation of environments–the history of a well-worn countryside civilization with that of culture and progress.

    While the re-naming of the roads may not be a conscious thing, it is a symbol of how space and place can become so totally disrupted, that what one was is no longer what is. The evolution of literature is eventual, true, after all, literature changes over time and space, but when the complete extinction of one in favor of another comes about, it fractures the existing textual environment. The gas companies see the environment as just a resource, the historical and cultural space it is invading holds no value, intrinsic or otherwise. It’s the gas they want and the gas they will have, and in order to succesfully accomplish their goal, the rhetoric of the place is forced to change.

    Being aware of the changing face of the place’s texts is important, after all, the language is changing the way the environment operates, but the past cannot be forgotten just as the present cannot become the dominant force. The literature of the place is still relatively multifaceted right now, but my question is whether or not it will remain that way. Like the academy, it has the potential of becoming dangerously one-sided.

    • Danielle,

      Thanks for your post. I like the idea of signs as “literature,” and your post suggests some interesting and relevant ideas about how our understanding of a place is formed by the different “stories” that get told about a place. Lilace and I told ourselves a story about this place before we moved here (the whole “quiet rural life” narrative), which is now changing, at least partly, into an industrial story. What I find most compelling about all these stories is the way they become layered onto the place and shape our understanding of it. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that.

      I’m not sure the gas industry narrative can ever completely replace the other stories told about this place, but it certainly is disruptive. There’s much more of value here than just gas, and I think a lot of people recognize that.

      You’ve given me a lot to think about. Good stuff!

      Jimmy

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