Hints of sublimity

I don't think of myself as a particularly patriotic person. Like most Americans, I guess, I sometimes feel a twinge of awe in the face of Old Glory waving in a wind. But I'm not one who tends to go all misty over the national anthem, or who breaks out in full-blown pride over a twenty-one-gun salute or chokes up over the pledge of allegiance. In a way, I admire those who do: their responses gauge a deep and probably honest feeling for something that lies beyond articulation. But I have always found it harder to decant my patriotism from the vials of symbolism than from the full flagon of history. The cobblestones of Boston, the printing press at Colonial Williamsburg, a state capitol building in the West - these, I confess, are the brooding-points upon which such nationalism as I possess is built.

Which is why, the other day, I was astonished to find myself captivated by a symbol neither historic nor overtly patriotic - yet one which, as I pondered it, came to take on a significance out of all proportion to its appearance. The experience happened, as these things do, in the midst of an otherwise unpropitious day. We had gone to southern Maine for a weekend of cross-country skiing. As March would have it, however, the weather went all spongy, and what began as a Saturday morning drizzle turned, by the time we stepped into our bindings, to a steady rain. But there was still plenty of snow; and the feel of doing something so wholly silly as skiing in the rain added an extra tang to the exhilaration of facing down the inclement weather on its own turf.

So we set off through some sheep pastures and across a marsh, wending our sodden way to a trail that followed an electrical transmission line toward Canada. The afternoon had settled down around us when we reached the line. And as we turned to join the trail, there it was. Half hidden in the mist, its spires and cables looking like something hatched in the imagination of Jules Verne, was a power substation - a massive array of transformers, insulators, and steel girders, surrounded by a chain link fence and alive with a mysterious hum. Inside the fence, the snow had fallen indiscriminately over pylons and pathways. The gates were closed. There were no footprints. It was uninhabited.

It took us a while to pass it. And as we went it seemed, in its faint hum, to be trying to articulate something of itself to our fogged understandings. We had not meant to encounter its message, after all. We were merely sliding one foot ahead of another and thinking of little beyond the beauty of the evergreens and the prospect of hot chocolate. Yet suddenly, I found, I was conscious not only of my own time and place but of eras and distances far beyond my afternoon. I thought of lines lacing across America, intertwined so that a pulse in Maine could flash a spark in Oregon. I tried to recall what I knew of the 1930s and the Rural Electrification Act, promising power to farmers and the common man wherever they chose to live. And I remembered Hart Crane's brooding image of progress in his poem ''The Bridge'':

The last bear, shot drinking in the Dakotas

Loped under wires that span the mountain stream.

Keen instruments, strung to a vast precision

Bind town to town and dream to ticking dream.

And I recalled, too, Crane's admiration for those who, living far from a time-mad modern society, ''count / the river's minute by the far brook's year.''

For it was an intrusion into nature, this great monument to the dynamo, that much seemed obvious. And yet that view seemed unsatisfactory, too easily taken, a cliche. I found, instead, that my response was less one of annoyance than of awe. Part of it, no doubt, was simply the admiration of ingenuity - the respect for the engineering that could connect together all those disparate pieces. Part of it, too, was a sense of its curious beauty - a series of bold lines and geometric shapes that shifted as we passed by, the kind of statement one finds in a Charles Sheeler painting.

But what ultimately fascinated me was its isolation. In some countries, I thought, that installation would have been tended at the very least by a man with a truck - and in others by guards with machine guns. It was, after all, a vital link in the nation's power grid. Yet there it sat, unwatched and probably unvisited for weeks on end. It was not only a celebration of power. It was a kind of monument of faith, founded on the trust that no one would wish to bother it.

And in that way, as we left it behind, it seemed to be telling of its own kind of patriotism. It spoke, that afternoon, of a kind of innocence and simplicity that trusted in the willingness of its neighbors to let it do its work undisturbed. It hummed with a respect for individuality--its own, and that of the community in which it had been placed. And it celebrated a freedom that, in the end, seemed far beyond flags and anthems--a promise to work on untroubled , in a land whose history had honored that promise.

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