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Rants from the Hill: Towering Cell Phone Trees

Rants from the Hill is cross-posted from High Country News For a couple of years back in the 1970s, when I was a little kid, my family had an artificial Christmas tree that I thought was incredibly cool. It was fun to put together, with a central “trunk” that resembled an oversized broomstick, full of downward-angled holes into which the “branches” were fitted. The “needles” were shiny silver strands of industrial-strength tinsel, and the whole thing was so perfectly symmetrical and so ridiculously garish that it was only a sort of notional tree, one that was vaguely reminiscent of treeness while making no real attempt to resemble anything found in nature. I also talked my Mom into buying an electrical device that sat beneath the tree, slowly revolving an illuminated, multi-colored wheel, which projected up into the silvery branches light that was by turns yellow, green, blue and orange. It was the funkiest tree on our street – the disco ball of trees, the kind of Christmas tree Donna Summer or the Bee Gees probably had. I didn’t love it because it looked like a tree. I loved it because it didn’t. I was reminded of that old fake tree the other day, while driving down from the Sierra Nevada Range into the Great Basin Desert on my way home to the Ranting Hill, when I noticed next to the local volunteer fire station one of those cell phone towers that is disguised to look like a tree – in this case a vaguely ponderosa-ish pine. In this Halloween season, what strikes me as most odd about these cell towers costumed as trees is that they don’t really look much like trees, at least not to anybody who ever paid any attention to trees in the first place. Like my childhood Christmas tree, these copies somehow suggest a tree without actually resembling one. Unlike my childhood tree, though, they don’t seem to embrace their artificiality in a way that is celebratory. You get the sense they’re still under the illusion that they actually look like real trees, which is both cute and somehow a little sad. Maybe the artificial cell tree just needs to embrace its true identity as a tasteless fake and accessorize with a giant, ponderosa-sized color wheel.
A cell phone tower disguised as a tree. High Country News A cell phone tower disguised as a tree.

This question of what cell towers look like is more significant than you might think, simply by virtue of scale. There are almost 7 billion mobile phones in the world, 328 million of which are in the U.S., which means that we have more cell phones than people in America, even if you count the infants – which is probably wise, since babies will be using cell phones soon enough. This level of saturation necessitates a lot of towers: about 200,000 in this country alone, which adds up to a lot of ugly crap on hills and ridgelines. Because the range of a cell tower isn’t much above 20 miles even when those hills and ridges aren’t in the way – and because the number of towers is proportional to the number of users – we need to build more towers every day, and they are most effective when installed in places that are visually prominent. It makes sense, then, that we entrepreneurial Americans would find a way to make a virtue of necessity and sell not only cell towers but also ways of disguising them. The tower-as-tree innovation was the work of Tucson-based Larson Camouflage, which pioneered the “mono-pine” back in 1992 and proudly describes itself as “the leader in the concealment industry.” Larson has figured out how to turn cell towers into a wide range of cultural and architectural objects, including water towers, grain silos, gas station signs, streetlights, flagpoles and chimneys. My favorite of these obfuscations is the disguising of a cell tower as a church steeple – an appealing business proposition, since many local building codes permit churches an exception to maximum structure heights. It is even the case that some churches without steeples are now building them solely to accommodate cell towers. This can generate a handsome income in leasing fees, which average $45,000 per year but in some places run as high as a half million dollars. Get the rest of Michael’s Rants from the Hill at High Country News