One evening, in the vast ocean of darkness surrounding the writer Dan O’Brien’s ranch near the Black Hills of South Dakota, a light flickered and came to life.
It was far away, a speck of luminance straddling the horizon, distance causing it to waver and jitter and flare, and with each guttering he thought it might extinguish, and each time it danced back to life as if sensing his hopes, as if to spite him. For a long time he stood outside studying it, working it like he would something stuck in his teeth, a wedge of gristle or chile seed, his eyes probing the speck, trying if possible through sheer dint of force to loosen it, to dislodge it from its confines, to make it go away. And it would not.
Maybe it’s a campfire, he thought. Maybe it will be gone tomorrow.
The next evening as the sun slipped its moorings and sank below the horizon pulling night in its wake, O’Brien walked onto his front porch and watched with a mixture of trepidation and dread as the eastern sky deepened to purple and the first stars poked through, mere pinpricks against a twilit backdrop, starting high toward the zenith and cascading lower, a starfall whose descent left one ember gleaming faintly on the far ridge-line, light-years closer to a solitude he’d taken for granted.
At the time I read this we were living in Denver, where the midnight sky was bleached by the incandent glare of the city and night itself seemed a relative term, one affiliated more with the steady progression of numbers on the face of a clock than any reality. The thought of being disgruntled over a solitary light miles away seemed hopelessly trite, a writer’s construct or a self-serving cadge for sympathy from an audience that had all but forgotten what an unbroken field of stars looked like. I remember how when the comet Halle-Bopp showed up, those wishing to see it were advised to get as far away as possible from the metropolis. And how far might that be? A two-hour drive onto the eastern plains would be just about right, astronomers said.
Now, after living here in Kansas for almost nine years, perched on the edge of a town that seems determined to slowly but inexorably swamp us like a high tide, swallowing us up or leaving us stranded like some two-acre beaconless promontory, I’m able to fully sympathize with O’Brien’s consternation, and on many fronts: Houses where fields used to be, the destruction of an old barn clapped together with railroad ties and the bone piles of packrats (and where the phoebe nested), the thorough erasure of clusters of wildflowers and meadows with waist-high grass where I would walk on damp spring mornings in search of migrating warblers and vireos. All gone. And not just gone, not just displaced by houses and driveways and cars and people, but a constriction of space, horizons boxed in and tightening like a noose.
When I complained of this to a friend, a native no less, she chided me for not moving to the country. If only it were that simple, I thought, or that affordable. Relocating is regrettably not an option, and anyway I’ve grown to love this little patch of prairie, despite its faults. And so those of us who crave elbow-room learn to make do, we go on, we’re not like Daniel Boone who when seeing smoke rising from a new neighbor’s chimney pulled up stakes and departed for a farther frontier, finding the place “too crowded,” as he put it. After a while that distant glow on the edge of the earth becomes almost familiar, a landmark of sorts, the sting lessened, even if a certain whiff of disgust lingers to taint the sight.
The world is changing, though, and not in some metaphorical sense. My friend, who several years ago managed her own escape from town to country, can feel its effects even as we can, separated by a scant dozen or so miles on a grid dating back to Thomas Jefferson, and now snared in a larger grid whose tall, slender spires symbolize the new monolithic altars to the gods of wireless communication.
How long ago it first intruded upon my consciousness I could not say; a few months, six at most. “The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, and mine sweep the southern ridgeline whenever I set foot outdoors or sit at the dining room table, an act as natural as breathing and perhaps as important, if not crucial, to my sense of place. Through attrition our horizons in each cardinal direction have been altered, two homes to the west, one to the east, the promise of another to the north, with only the south remaining unchanged. Its grassy crest is swept with cloud shadows, furzed with encroaching cedars, tracked by the slumberous peregrinations of cows and host to the amorous courtship rites of wild turkeys, as well as generating thermals to hoist migrant raptors and passerines into the wild blue. And now, desecrating this pristine vista is a cell tower, hundreds of feet tall, with its damnable, detestable, blinding strobes sizzling every two seconds, shredding the night in steady, rhythmic pulses that stab the brain like a hangover.
This isn’t one of those towers crowned with stately crimson beacons thrumming the night like heartbeats, their slow steady cadence almost soporific. No, this monstrosity has a bank of high-watt beams that arc like camera flashes, slamming the retina with intense bursts of radiance, bathing our house and windows in light, throwing shadows on the fields, lightning without the thunder.
Besides the obvious light pollution and disruption to a night we had thought sacred, there are other, less-known problems with towers: the wholesale decimation of migrating birds, drawn to the blinking lights and eviscerated on the guy wires or towers themselves. One tower in western Kansas killed between 5,000 and 10,000 Lapland longspurs in a single foggy night. A 30-year study of a tower in Florida showed a mortality rate of 1,600 birds a year. And with the demand for wireless technology and digital TV, towers are proliferating at an unprecedented rate.
Daniel Boone would light out for the territories. Here in rural America, there is nowhere to run.