The Tree
Dike Blair

The more that scientists discover genes that influence behavior, the more they find that they work through nurture; and the more we find that animals learn, the more we discover that learning works through genes.

Mark Ridley, Nature Via Nurture

Some stretches of New Jersey's route 17 are typical suburban sprawl. Driving through the competing commercial signage causes my eyes to ricochet around in their sockets like air-blown lottery balls. Other stretches are bracketed by woods and sound-baffling walls-attempts to protect the more prosperous suburbs from the cacophony of the highway. It is along such a gauntleted alley, near the town of Saddle River, that a single tree always interrupts the flow of my peripheral vision; it literally turns my head. The tree is too straight, angular, and brittle-it looks a little like a 3-D rendering of a recursive bronchi tree fractal. It possesses an odd beauty.

In fact, this tree is a wireless communication tower, a "monopole" owned by Crown Castle International Corporation, which operates over 13,000 such sites internationally. Generally these monopoles are not camouflaged as trees, but when they are, they are dubbed Minimum Visual Impact Structures (MVISs). In this case, Saddle River requested that the tower be an MVIS and Crown Castle complied, even though the cost of constructing an MVIS is two-to-four times as expensive as a non-MVIS pole. Crown Castle purchased this particular MVIS from Valmont Microflect, a company specializing in the construction of utility poles. Valmont, in turn, worked with the Arizona-based Larson Company, which specializes in pole camouflage. They provided the branches and simulated bark. The tree's steel trunk reaches 130 feet and its antenna branches are metal-reinforced fiberglass. According to Valmont this MVIS is considered a Ponderosa Pine, but it can also be construed as a Southern or California Pine. In other words, it's a generic pine tree. In other climatic regions such poles are disguised as palms or cacti.

Various corporations rent roost-rights in the tree's branches. Verizon was Crown Castle's original client, although branches are now also leased to Voicestream, Nextel, and Sprint. As wireless communication booms, and as mounting millions of us use cell phones, I'm sure we'll be needing forests of such branches to accommodate our chirping.

What I find aesthetically stimulating about this tree is its wrongness and its modesty. The increasing verisimilitude of the fake trees placed in entertainment venues is initially stunning, then somewhat depressing. Paradoxically, the pleasure I receive from the artifice of artificiality is receding as the simulacrum gets closer to looking like the real thing. Without doubt this tree's descendants will soon look more convincingly real, but the engineers of these trees will always strive toward invisibility-toward matching reality-rather than following the artist's "Look how close I can come" demiurge. For now, the awkwardness of this tree has a surreal presence and an odd integrity. I wonder if forests of such trees wouldn't retain an elusive and compelling beauty, simply because they wish not to be seen.