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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ode to Powerlines

Air Date: Week of

(Photo: Brian Rosa)

Power lines give a pulse to the American landscape. So say cartographer Brian Rosa and photographer Adam Ryder who walked, camped, and lived in the shadow of Rhode Island’s power lines to try to understand how they impact the environment and people. Producer Ike Sriskandarajah uncovers how the ubiquitous pylons and lines capture the imagination. (6:15)


GELLERMAN: It’s an encore edition of Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. High-tension transmission lines carry the current that powers the country. Typically the giant towers and cables get no respect as we buzz by in our cars paying them no mind, but Living on Earth’s Ike Sriskandarajah found two live wires who love the lines, and has our story.

SRISKANDARAJAH: So these two guys – a cartographer ...

ROSA: My name is Brian Rosa.

SRISKANDARAJAH: ...and a photographer ...

RYDER: My name's Adam Ryder

SRISKANDARAJAH: ... have been fascinated by power lines from a very young age.

RYDER: I spent a long time in the car with my parents on really long car rides, and I was an only child, so I would be looking out the window a lot.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Looking out the window, Brian and Adam both noticed these gently undulating curvy lines.

“….back to my teenage years a little bit.” (Photo: Brian Rosa)

ROSA: I used to follow them with my finger kind of going up and down in almost sort of like a wavelength pattern when I was in the car.


SRISKANDARAJAH: There's something dreamy about the power lines and the land under them.

RYDER: Yeah, no absolutely, it's a really unique tract of land that doesn't have any development on it except for itself. So, it's kind of, in a way its really pristine and untouched and...virginal, and it’s kind of, kind of like, romantic and magical in that way.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Something inviting...

RYDER: It doesn't appear to be monitored and there's nobody out there so you can kind of imagine yourself or I would imagine myself like building a little house out there you know, living alone or something like that.

SRISKANDARAJAH: Well young Adam didn't end up moving there.

RYDER: [Laughs] I'd like to think he was that cool.

SRISKANDARAJAH: But this past year he and Brian got a grant from Rhode Island's Arts Council to investigate and photograph the high-tension lines that stretch over most of Rhode Island. So they drove out to a small town called Burrillville parked their car and started walking.

RYDER: When I got out of the car I tended to walk along the power lines in whatever direction was opposite of the way Adam was going.


SRISKANDARAJAH: And that's when Brian heard something strange.

(Photo: Adam Ryder)

ROSA: When we first started walking along the power lines I thought that there were a lot of cicadas -


ROSA: It didn't actually occur to me that there is this excess energy escaping from these power lines that are actually making a constant electronic hiss all the time


SRISKANDARAJAH: These seemingly empty swatches of land are filled with sound.

ROSA: They make a loud buzzing sound

SRISKANDARAJAH: Maybe you have noticed some sort of sound too as you are driving by pole after pole after pole.

RYDER: They definitely provide a rhythm if you are driving past them on the highway, like if you are a commuter going past all these poles and they are evenly spaced.


RYDER: Spaced.


RYDER: Spaced.


RYDER: Yeah- they kind of create a visual rhythm as they travel along the state.


SRISKANDARAJAH: Like a heartbeat. These pillars are more than just dead trees...they really have a life of their own. And as Brian and Adam continued to hike along the lines they saw that the land under and around the pylons is filled with a lot more than just sound.

ROSA: We were probably trespassing most of the time while we were there. There were a whole lot of other people doing that too - walking their dogs, riding their ATVs.

(Photo: Adam Ryder)

RYDER: We even found a stop sign on one of the power line poles and it was really crazy- I couldn't figure out why it was there or who it was meant to protect but it seemed to be put up for motocross people or something! It was totally funny!

SRISKANDARAJAH: With a bit of amateur archeology Brian turned up even more.

ROSA: Just seeing a fire pit that someone made and a few rocks with a wooden board across them where someone was sitting and people would just go have fires and sit around and drink and be delinquent and it kind of made me think back to my teenage years a little bit.

SRISKANDARAJAH: The power lines carve out a space for people to meet - but Brian and Adam say they connect us in another way.

ROSA: By following these power lines which seemed to cut through disparate areas that aren't necessarily connected when looking from above you actually see that there is a continuum of rural to suburban to urban back to suburban to industrial and that they are all part of a vast network.

(Photo: Brian Rosa)

RYDER: What's really - I think actually awesome, is the best word I can use to say it - what's really awesome about seeing kind of this parade of power lines through the landscape, especially in rural areas is that we're kind of seeing these, these tendrils connecting humanity as one large organism and it's a cool way of looking at us, you know what I mean?

SRISKANDARAJAH: These are the power lines that bind. For Living on Earth I'm Ike Sriskandarajah.

[MUSIC: The Arcade Fire “In The Backseat” from “Funeral” (Merge Records 2004)]



Power Line Project


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