Some of my most vivid memories from childhood are of industrial landscapes, or landscapes with industrial features in them. I remember long stretches of two lane highways alongside railroad tracks, and, between them, lines of telegraph poles carrying long swags of humming cables. There was a naval air base in what was then the agricultural back country of Orange County. There, rising above cultivated fields, were huge hangars, then used for blimps, though they were so vast that I think they must have been built for the much larger dirigibles. These vast structures could be seen for miles across the flatlands.
I also recall a tire factory south of downtown Los Angeles. The building was several stories high, and several hundred feet long. The walls were much more than half window, and the huge bays were filled with dozens of individual panes of glass. Over the life of the building, many panes of glass had been replaced, and there was a great variety among them. Some were frosted, some were clear, some were reinforced with wire and others were not, and there were subtle differences in shade among them, as well. Some had a bluish cast, some faintly gold, some rather grey. It was like a big, accidental Mondrian, set amid the bungalows and palm trees of its otherwise mundane neighborhood.
Smokestacks loom in my memory, as well. We used to go, once a month, to pay the rent on our house. The landlord lived in a house at Seal Beach, Directly across the street was a power plant, set beside the estuary of the San Gabriel River. Most of the plant's equipment was concealed from the residential neighborhood by concrete walls, though it was possible to get a glimpse, through the chain-link gate, of the spidery agglomeration of metal and ceramic that, somehow, produced electricity. But the thing I remember most is the smokestack. I would sit on the front porch of the landlord's house, looking up at that tall column piercing the blue realm of the seagulls and casting its shadow across the street, and I would listen to the sound of the breakers from the beach, a few blocks away, mingling with the steady hum which came from behind the mysterious grey walls of the power plant. The plant, like most in Southern California, was powered by natural gas, so I never saw actual smoke rising from the stack. There were only thin wisps of spent steam, and the slight shimmer of escaping heat in the air.
There were other power plants with tall smokestacks, as well. One in Redondo Beach could be seen from the hills above it, making it look oddly toy-like. A few miles up the coast, in El Segundo, another was sited next to the main sewage treatment plant, which also had tall smokestacks. Many years after our monthly visits to Seal Beach, I went to school at Pasadena City College, which had its own power plant, and a smokestack which was the tallest structure in that end of town. I had many chances to look at that smokestack, in all kinds of weather, and all times of day. I saw its grey shaft looming out of grey fog, and darkened further by rain under grey clouds. I saw it rising starkly against sunrises and sunsets. I passed through its shade on sweltering days in June and September. I glimpsed it dimly at night, when the lights of cars turning through the parking lot would sweep across it. sometimes I would sit on the balcony of the student center, gazing across the low buildings to the south, focused on the soaring tower as though it were an austere, modernist Mandala. I enjoyed that smokestack.
There are many other industrial artifacts which I remember. There was a small mill on Slauson Avenue which recycled metal, and sometimes, passing by at night, I would catch a glimpse of a pour, with red and yellow sparks flying about. There were the miles of industrial buildings and warehouses along Alameda Street, and the railroad tracks in the street itself, where slow trains shared the lanes with cars and trucks. And then there were the railroad yards which spread their dark webs of tracks across the flatlands between Alameda Street and the Los Angeles River. Then, further out, in Carson and Torrance and Santa Fe Springs, there were the oil refineries, with acres of tanks and masses of pipes and catwalks everywhere, and the small figures of men could be seen scurrying along them and climbing up and down ladders, and, at night, they were lit by thousands of little bare-bulbed work lights, so that they looked like great, inexplicable jumbles of carnival rides.
But the things I remember most are the utility poles and the smokestacks. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that they are both tall, slender objects. I could make the obvious observation that they are phallic symbols, but I don't think that really applies to the utility poles, at least. They are capped by their cross beams, and tied down by their cables. There is something very domestic about a utility pole. They are like abstractions of the trees they once were. They are planted in the earth, drilled by ticks and worms and woodpeckers, and pocked by the cleats of linemen with clanking tool belts. Every boy, including me, has tried to climb one at least once, and has come away with Mom-annoying stains and smelling of creosote. They are seldom taller than trees, and are often largely concealed behind them. The utility pole, intrusive though it may sometimes be, is a modest thing.
But the smokestack is not modest. Its size is its essence. Again, the obvious observation is that it represents the aggressive nature of industrialism, the male penetration of virginal nature. In truth, of course, the smokestack is tall because it was intended to carry pollutants high enough to be dispersed by the winds, away from the human habitations on the ground. They are the earliest form of environmental controls. In any case, I have never thought of them as aggressive. Though they are weighted to the ground, they have always seemed to me to create a sense of lightness, as though they were merely tethered to the earth. Like Egyptian obelisks and the spires of certain gothic cathedrals, their mass is modified by their slenderness, so that they seem more buoyant than earthbound, and they thrust less than they hover. I think that this is what brings me a feeling of calm and repose whenever I see one. In the form of the smokestack, yin and yang come into balance, and compression and tension are resolved, aesthetically, into one.
Yet, I still have that sense of irritation when I see certain mixtures of natural forms with industrial forms. I'd rather see my trees without utility cables slung through them. But I don't mind seeing a smokestack through a screen of leaves, or rising up from a clump of trees. I suppose it is just nature's forms are fully realized, but those of industry are yet raw and incomplete. Nature can complement our works, but not all of our works complement nature.
Still, the birds don't seem to mind. Last evening, as some of them sat watching the sunset from the utility cables in front of my house, others found sunny niches in the higher branches of the pine trees. Both groups seemed simply to be happy to have a warm place to perch in the brisk evening air. Maybe birds are not troubled by thoughts of aesthetics. When the sun set, they all flew off, one by one, to wherever they go at night. Some, no doubt, to nest in trees or bushes. Others, perhaps, to nest under the eaves of barns or at the base of chimneys, those small smokestacks which rise from our domestic rooftops. Nature's creatures, I suppose, will always find a place.