This Monday, we’re going back to my post on the view of the stacks in honor of my story, “Far from Home,” which is up for Story of the Month at Bartleby Snopes. After you read about the stacks, go check out the story and vote for it here by scrolling down to the bottom of the screen.
Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them. . .a place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.
Inspired by this quote from Joan Didion sent to me by a friend, I’ve set out to write more intentionally about Madison as a scenic place. Scenic not in the sense of the most beautiful places or views, though of course, there will be some of that. But to write some about what Madison looks like, which is of course, connected to the kind of place Madison is. So far I’ve covered our streets and our windows. This week, it’s the stacks.
Living in the shadow of a coal-fired power plant is, as is true of many things in life, kind of complicated. Almost everyone who lives in this part of the Ohio River Valley will suffer from some kind of respiratory fall-out, whether it’s seasonal allergies, recurring sinus infections, or asthma. Not all of the blame can be laid at the foot of the power plants, but it doesn’t help the air quality much, either.Driving towards Madison from the south along 421, you can tell you’re getting close to town when you can see the smoke stacks from the power plant in the distance. The stacks from the Indiana-Kentucky Electric Corporation Clifty Creek Power Plant aren’t the only stacks that peek out from places along the Ohio River Valley. As you drive along 421, you can see several others in the distance. But whereas most of the stacks are twins or only children, ours come in three, a magical kind of number.
On the other hand, the power plant obviously provides people with some livelihoods–over 300 people work there. More jobs were created recently with the construction of the third stack, which is equipped with scrubbers to reduce sulfur dioxide, a contributor to acid rain. Better for acid rain, but burning coal for power still contributes to global climate change. Even as I write this post, the projected high is a balmy 67 degrees in December, suggesting that winter might be a thing of the past in southern Indiana. But this is not a post about the environmental, social or economic implications of the power plant; it’s about the beauty of the stacks.
Power plants are not usually singled out as objects of beauty. When artists come to Madison for the Great River Paint out plein air festival, most of them gravitate towards the natural beauty of the river, and not the little manmade city that is Clifty Power Plant. When some of them paint their views of the river valley, they might take artistic license and remove the stacks that are visible in the distance. In the photos Hanover College uses in its marketing material, the power plant stacks are photo shopped out, sending a clear message about what is scenic and what is not.
They are everywhere, but they never look quite the same. Seen from the right angle, all three of them line up and disappear into one, big stack. Sometimes they are lined up very symmetrically, with the two smaller stacks standing on either side of the large one in the middle. But the rest of the time they appear in a wide assortment of sequences and arrangements, and it is as if you are never seeing the same thing twice.
And then there’s the light. The concrete surface of the towers is like a blank canvas upon which all the wonders of the valley are projected. Sometimes, the shadow of one of the stacks falls against one of its sisters, and you get a long, narrow band of dark running up its length, as if there’s dark stack hidden inside suddenly being revealed. On some days, the shadows of clouds play across the stacks. You can often tell from which direction rain is falling by looking at the towers, as one side will be stained dark by the rain and one side untouched.
Then there are the lessons the stacks have to teach us about the quality of sunlight. On some days, they are rosy orange like a maraschino cherry dropped in orange juice. Then before a storm it’s a pea soup green against the smooth concrete. In the height of summer, the stacks seem to glow blinding white-hot. On some mornings, they’re a cheery yellow fit for the walls of a baby’s nursery. And then the next day, they go so dark and gray they almost disappear into the surrounding sky.
The power plant gives us other, much less pleasant views. In winter with the trees bare, the large retaining ponds behind the plant are revealed, spaces where the earth has been scraped clean. There is something unsettling about the way the power plant seems to creep ever outwards, eating up the land around it in its need for space to dispose of its byproducts. The beauty of the stacks is balanced by these other, more disturbing, views.At night, the stacks become almost invisible save for the blinking lights on top. But then all the buildings around them are lit up like a small city thriving just outside of downtown. Driving down the hill at night or approaching from the river, the lights of the power plant broadcast something formidable and important happening here. At night, the power plant reminds me of Geogia O’Keefe’s paintings of cityscapes at night–a bright and relentless energy glowing in the dark.
Perhaps its best to say that the stacks are both beautiful and terrible. It’s hard, driving by every day, not to think of them as what might be left behind when we are all gone. Maybe they are our pyramids, and future generations will puzzle over what they reveal about us. The stacks will certainly speak in part about a legacy of destruction and shortsightedness. They will speak to the importance of power in our lives, in all the varied meanings of that word. But I hope that they will know that these strange, tall towers growing along our river banks were also sometimes beautiful. And that sometimes, that mattered to us, too.