Splintered Wood and Rusted Staples

Splintered Wood and Rusted Staples Hidden Language

Scott looks for a lost cat and wonders about the utility of utility poles.

SCOTT TYPES into a missing-cat poster template.

SCOTT IN FIELD: Okay. Lost Cat. Let’s see. Name: Boheme. 

SCOTT: Our indoor cat Boheme got out of the house and was gone for a day before we actually noticed she was missing.  
SCOTT IN FIELD: Sex: Female. Breed: Tabby. Is that a breed? Color: Gray and white. 

SCOTT: So, I sat down and filled out one of those missing-cat poster templates I found online.
SCOTT IN FIELD: Age: 6 years. Hair: Medium? Date Last seen: Tuesday, May 31. 
SCOTT: The template asked for the cat’s

SCOTT IN FIELD: Story? What does that mean? What’s her story? Umm . . . Boheme is a declawed indoor cat, who has never been outside, so she may be very skittish.

SCOTT: You’re listening to Hidden Language — a podcast about tuning into place, bodies, and time and discovering the unexpected ways their stories can be told. I’m Scott Lunsford.


JAY: And I’m Jay Varner. In this episode, Scott looks for a lost cat and wonders about the utility of utility poles.


MUSIC “At Dawn” begins. Scott WALKS outside.

SCOTT IN FIELD: Let’s take a walk. I gotta cross the street so I walk toward traffi

FOOTSTEPS are prominent along the side of the road.

SCOTT: We are on “the side ­of ­the ­road” — this strip of land that is one part grass of any neighbor’s yard and one part blacktop of the street. The side of the road is partly ours, partly the locality’s, partly the community of other neighbors who walk along this same path, sharing similar experiences, leaving traces of their own footprints, traces of their own desperations to find lost cats, traces of posters telling the stories of those cats. Of those hostages of a pandemic who have lost jobs and are looking for extra income. Of recently divorced couples. Of church leaders who divert their flocks away from the steeple during a pandemic: stay home, stay well, join us online this Sunday.

SCOTT IN FIELD: And in between the grass and the street, this liminal area of gravel, which adds to it its own sound. And today, it’s during a morning after the rain, still a little bit of rain here as well, and we can hear the mush of the rain inside the gravel.

SCOTT: Through our feet, we share an embodied relationship with the ground beneath. We can hear it, we can feel it. We feel the contours of tire tracks, of wet mud, of footprints that have come before us. This surface is inscribed by bodies and other things  . . .

TRUCKS roll through the mud and gravel amlong the road.

SCOTT: . . . over generations of old trucks leaving their muddy driveways and heading down the road after a good rain, . . .

JUMP ROPING in the street.

SCOTT: . . . of children jumping rope in the street, of residents going out to check their mail —

DAD V.O.: Hold on, stop. Can we cross?

CHILD V.O.: We can go, yes.

DAD V.O.: Can we? Okay.

SCOTT: . . . all everyday activities performed by communities that come together and reveal how interwoven this surface, their inscriptions, their histories really are. And as we walk, we encounter other inscriptions, inscriptions that introduce us to what’s ahead, . . .

SCOTT IN FIELD: . . . a railroad sign, freshly painted railroad marker on the road, . . . 

A CAR passes.

SCOTT IN FIELD: . . . two big Rs, cleaved by a large X. And over here to the left is the Victory Garage. This is where Bobby works. 

SCOTT: Bobby’s the mechanic down the street.

SCOTT IN FIELD: He has a sign on his place: “We will be closed for the next month or so due to health issues.” But he is okay. He is open, just hasn’t removed his sign yet.

SCOTT: And then there are signs that perhaps in a couple of words hint at a person’s past and of the person’s future — like signs advertising yard sales. All of these signs provide traces of communities of people having seen, having dwelt, having been, having known, having moved on. But as traces do, they help in ongoing ways of seeing, of dwelling, of knowing, of being, of moving on.


SCOTT: There’s an anthropologist named Tim Ingold who has a fabulous book called Lines: A Brief History. In it, he digs into the idea of traces; these are physical traces, calling them “any enduring mark left in or on a solid surface by a continuous movement.” He writes about two kinds of traces: one is additive and the either is reductive. 

A PERMANENT MARKER scribbles on paper.

SCOTT: Think about the ink of a permanent marker on a piece of paper. That’s an additive trace because it forms an extra layer on top of the paper, on top of the surface. On the other hand, a reductive trace takes away material from a surface; so . . .

CAR TIRES roll along. 

SCOTT: . . . a tire track would be redcutive because the track it makes, the trace it makes, takes away dirt or mud as it drives along. There are other traces that come to us through other ways, of course, through our senses, like taste and smell, for example. 

A KNIFE clinks against a PLATE.

SCOTT: So, we have that aftertaste from something we might’ve eaten. 

COFFEE brews.

SCOTT: We smell the trace of coffee in the air as it brews in the morning. There’s another social scientist, a  cultural geographer named Jon Anderson, who says that being in tune with certain traces allows us to be able “to think on them, reflect on them, and perhaps — in our more sentimental moments — reminisce about them” as we find that “they may leave indelible marks on our memory or mind.” And so we become in tune with the traces of histories, of stories that construct a notion of place, which Anderson defines as “ongoing compositions of traces.” Traces, then, can be the ways that communities compose their lives, through walking, through stopping to talk to each other, to find an appropriate place to staple that poster looking for the lost cat. We might say that they are ongoing compositions, leaving traces for others to make sense of.

A CAR passes.

SCOTT: Let’s go back to the street. 

WALKING again.

SCOTT IN FIELD: And so one of the things I want to consider today is this. Is this thing here. . . .


SCOTT IN FIELD: . . . The utility pole. The utility pole that holds up the lines throughout the neighborhood. Phone service, what have you. But also the keepers of signs that tell us about yard sales, directions to birthday parties, that leads us to a greenhouse. 

SCOTT: Part of the ongoing compositions that communities write along the side of the road rely on the vertical surfaces of posts. So, I have this odd fascination with getting close to such things, with a camera to capture an image of the wood of a utility pole, split and splintered; all of the remnants of posters advertising past yard sales: old duct tape that has lost its stick on one side but forever holds to its host on the other; there are rusted nails, rusted staples. Looking up and down the street, we see the poles marching along the grid of the town, or slicing through a field, or one, standing there, waiting for someone to make it useful again, to extend its utility beyond its intent to provide power and communication to the neighborhood. 

MUSIC “May” begins.

SCOTT: And perhaps because someone else saw that it was okay to post a sign on this pole, that maybe they have permission to do so too. And then another comes along and does the same. Besides simply supporting power lines above, the utility pole, and other such posts, supports other lines of power, as they display traces of hope. They become vernacular, pedestrian surfaces for all kinds of signs along the easements of our streets because that’s where others walk and dwell and inhabit and hope. The space encourages us to create and follow traces that establish agency in public ways but sometimes for very private matters: So we might see a of someone hoping, willing to work day or night, babysitting your child; or perhaps someone is willing to work at everything, do your yard work, fix your gutters, haul your trash away, hoping; perhaps a divorce leads a couple to sift through what they don’t want, leaving one or the other perhaps to sell it in order to get on with their lives. So they post a sign: Yard Sale, Saturday, seven to . . . whenever.

WALKING again. CARS pass along the way.

SCOTT IN FIELD: There’s a stop sign up ahead, with a pink yard sale sign on it. Let’s go take a look at it. This has been here before, been here a long time. It’s wet. “Yard sale Saturday.” But who knows what Saturday. Last Saturday? Held together by duct tape, which has now been twisted by the elements. Other remnants of torn duct tape as well. And across the street is another pink sign laying on the ground, wet from the rain. I’ll peel it open, and it says: “Yard sale. Saturday.” It had been taped to a fiber optic cable post. The tape is still there but the sign has fallen to the ground. Right above it is an old gas sign, rusted, paint peeling from the post and evidence of old duct tape on it as well.

SCOTT: We move closer to see the presence of older staples and nails that trace the presence of others who have come before us. They are the traces of rusted and splintered tactics: the nails and staples holding the remnants of posters, ads, and flyers stripped away, and left there by generations of people needing to take similar actions. A palimpsest whose ruin documents a narrative of collective others who need to work extra jobs, or need to support each other, or need to find that lost cat.

WALKING again. 

SCOTT: Just as I add my own footprints to the mud along a rural street. Just as I help wear grooves into the road, I am adding my own story to these surfaces. My nails and staples would append a narrative that someone later on might add to. My own narrative, though, is annotated by fulfilling my own hope: finding that damn housecat, Boheme, who somehow got brave enough to sneak out. And I wonder what travels she has had. Is she out for a prowl or is she just moving from one point to the other to figure out how to get back into the house? I do not question my purpose in setting out to find my cat. But I do question how I’m going to do this. 

PRINTER spits out posters.

SCOTT: I print out a dozen or so copies of the  missing cat poster and consider the surfaces I may encounter in order to determine what accoutrement I need to affix my posters: there are telephone poles, street and highway signs, bulletin boards in the post office and the co­-op, and a large window at the entrance of the supermarket. I am ready to conquer my modest neighborhood: posters in hand, thumb tacks, staple gun, and tape in my pockets.

SCOTT walks to the first utility pole and staples a POSTER into it.

SCOTT IN FIELD: I’m walking a few steps to the first utility pole that’s on the corner of my street and my driveway. I’m spreading a flyer onto the pole and staple it in. Okay, and there’s another pole across the street, in a neighbor’s yard. 

HE walks through GRAVEL and across the STREET.

SCOTT IN FIELD: So, I’m gonna go over there and grab that one. 

HE stops. 

SCOTT IN FIELD: Uh, but, yeah, I don’t know. Can I put this here? Can I . . . Wait, there’s a car. 

A CAR passes.

SCOTT IN FIELD: Can I  . . . Is it even her pole? Is that one behind me, the one I just put a flyer on, is that my pole, in my yard? I mean, really, who owns these things? [PAUSE. A LAUGH.] I’m still standing here, looking at this pole. I feel welcome to simply walk into my neighbor’s yard to knock on the door and chat. But, now, I feel strange, I feel kind of unwelcomed to enter her yard and post a flyer. She has cats. She has a dog. And chickens. And ducks. I mean, she understands. Do I just ask her if I can put this here? Does that mean, then, I’d have to ask everyone up and down my street if I can post a flyer? Let’s keep going. Another pole right over here across the street again — in another neighbor’s yard. I don’t know them as well. [LAUGH.] So, I’m just gonna keep walking. . . . 

SCOTT: And I keep walking farther down the street, passing more utility poles, passing more neighbors I decreasingly can call neighbors, because my familiarity with them dwindles as I move down the street. I no longer question whether or not I post flyers on anyone else’s posts but mine. I am intimidated to walk a foot into someone else’s property to post a flyer of a missing cat.

MUSIC “Serpentine” begins.

SCOTT: I have no problem, however, stepping onto another person’s property to examine the thing that I am afraid to post upon. I have no problem getting close enough to look at the detail of bits of paper and tape left from someone who apparently has no problem in posting their own stuff in other people’s spaces. This stuff that eventually becomes the ghosts of history, this mesh of people’s lives — whatever they were, whatever they were trying to do — unintentionally archived on the post. I am very much in tune with things that are uncertain, with the seemingly purposeless purposes archived here in the streets. And I know that I will perhaps never get to the purposes fellow posters have had, all the stories that were once grounded into the splintered wood. All I have are the staples. I hope that the reasons for their own stories, for their own staples, had been achieved: getting the work, selling the couch, finding the cat. I hope their hopes have been fulfilled. . . . Move on . . .

MUSIC “Serpentine” fades.


SCOTT: You have been listening to Hidden Language. Music for today’s episode is provided by Dana Boulé, Marcel Pequel, and Luciernaga. Our theme music by Jay Varner.  For a list of episodes, transcripts, and show notes, be sure to visit hiddenlanguagepodcast.com. If you enjoy this podcast, please spread the word using whatever language you see best fit. . . . Oh, and one more thing. We found Boheme. She never left the backyard.



Tim Ingold’s book Lines: A Brief History was published by Routledge in 2007.

I refer to the first edition of Jonathan Anderson’s Understanding Cultural Geography: Places and Traces, also published by Routledge, in 2010.

Our friends at the podcast 99% Invisible produced the story “Right to Roam”, about walking through private land and the right to trespass. Producers for the podcast also crafted the episode “Mine!”, which looks at contentious ownership — such as my questions about who owns utility poles and easements.

Music was provided by the following artists through Freemusicarchive.org, with the respective Creative Commons licenses.

“At Dawn” by Dana Boule. CC BY-NC 4.0

“May” by Marcel Pequel. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US

“Serpentine” by Lucienarga. CC BY-NC 3.0 US

In Memoriam

While producing this segment — ten years after Boheme had her day’s sojourn in the backyard — she passed away at the age of 16.

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