Rants from the Hill: Towering Cell Phone Trees


“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

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.

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.

While I find it interesting to contemplate the cultural significance of the fact that some folks who look up to a church steeple in prayer are actually supplicating a microwave radiation emitting cell phone tower, I’m even more interested in the ambitious attempt to disguise towers as natural objects. In addition to the artificial pine-tower (which is available in an impressive variety of “branch density options”), Larson offers tower concealment in the form of several other “species,” including the palm (available with or without “decorative cut-frond pineapple”), cypress, elm, and even saguaro cactus, which features “scars, woodpecker holes and thousands of painted needles (to) enhance the realism.” According to the Larson website, “even the birds can’t tell the difference.” Just don’t tell that to the Gila woodpeckers, white-winged doves, and house finches that feed on the giant cactus’s pulp, or the two kinds of bats that pollinate its flowers, or the many other species which thrive on and around these remarkable cacti – that is, when they aren’t made of plastic. The same can be said of pine, cypress and elm, each of which is a vital host plant to myriad species.

Of course it is too easy to pick on these fakes as being profoundly unnatural interventions into the landscape. After all, the question is not whether a fake tree is better than a real tree but rather whether a fake tree is better than an exposed cell phone tower. But here too the question is more difficult than it appears. First of all, there’s the troubling fact that the structure, color, shape, and stiffness of these decoys usually gives them away, which makes the claim of “concealment” arguable. I also wonder about the longevity of these microwave “trees.” Not far from the fake ponderosa pine I noticed next to the fire station is a stand of actual ponderosas, most of which will live to be around 300 years old. What are the odds that the fake will still be in decent shape after three centuries, and what sprucing up (sorry for the pun) might it require in the meantime? In what landfill will we bury this giant plastic thing when its inorganic “life” has run its course? Then there’s the troubling fact that a decent fake tower tree runs a cool $150,000, which represents an exorbitant opportunity cost in a world where the same amount of dough will pay for the planting of 150,000 trees as part of a forest habitat rehabilitation project. And every one of those 150,000 trees will not only grow over time, enrich soils, reduce erosion, support other species, and sequester hundreds of metric tons of carbon, they’ll also bear an uncanny resemblance to trees. Even the birds will be able to tell the difference.

A cell phone tower disguised as a palm tree.

Of course this kind of self-righteous, tree-hugging bloviating still dodges the central issue, which is that cell phone towers are just plain ugly. So from my perch on the Ranting Hill I have a few alternatives to propose. The first is to leave the naked masts of the towers exposed, but add to them large signs that read “This Aesthetic Abomination is Made Necessary by Your Uncontrollable Desire to Play Angry Birds.” An alternative in the same spirit would be to make all the cell towers into fake trees, but add signs saying “This Ineffective Obfuscation Cost Three Times the U.S. Median Family Income” or, if that’s too wonky, “Sixteen Million American Children Live in Poverty But We Can Afford This Unconvincing Fake.” Or maybe every time we install a new cell tower we should just retrofit all the nearby real trees to look like cell towers, so the real cell tower will simply blend in.

But my best idea is that we just give up on the fake trees and make the cell towers look like other objects. Since technology and commerce are profoundly altering our local landscapes, I say it is about time we at least got a laugh out of it. Imagine seeing a 100-foot tall banana, fork, ground squirrel, geyser, thumb or baseball bat rising among the stately ponderosas. What if we gave my friend the artist a $50,000 grant to spend a year turning our local cell phone tower into whatever she could imagine? My guess is that we’d end up with a 100-foot-tall giraffe’s head –

probably wearing a Giants ball cap. It wouldn’t look like a ponderosa, of course, but neither does the fake ponderosa, and at least the giant giraffe would make my little daughters smile. And this $50,000 work of art would have the added advantage of being a reminder that we saved $100,000 that we could use for something really crazy, like planting real trees.

First image from Flickr user CathrynDC. Second image from Flickr user Chester Paul Sgroi.

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