Cell Phone Trees

Perhaps you’ve noticed them in your neighborhood – tall, oddly stiff trees that appear seemingly overnight, with a ring of mysterious metal rectangles visible through the branches. Depending on the surrounding landscape, they might resemble pines, oaks, palms, elms, cypresses or cacti. Their bark can be textured or mottled, and their leaves are appropriately spiky, delicate or bushy. These trees can withstand 120mph winds (as tested in a laboratory in Texas) and heavy snowfall. They are disease-resistant and do not require sunlight or water.

“They’re actually greener than regular trees,” claims Dennis Gabrick, the president and chief executive of Preserved TreeScapes International (PTI), a major manufacturer of replica trees. PTI started fabricating trees and other foliage in the early 1980s for malls, casinos and hotels. In 1998, a cellular consulting firm asked if it might be able to conceal a mobile phone tower inside a tree. After determining how to make its trees weather resistant, PTI now distributes several hundred mobile phone tower trees around the world every year.

PTI’s headquarters, located in a strip of corporate campuses north of San Diego, is a hive of craftsmanship and lush artifice. On a tour with Gabrick he pointed out men casting brown polyurethane into branch moulds, pressing patterns into bark along a trunk and gluing leaves on to branches. Palm trees in various phases of construction lay on their sides, a square hole cut into their bulbous topknots for transmission equipment. Piles of stiff fronds were stacked nearby, ready to be placed.

Gabrick takes pride in the realism of PTI’s trees. Taking out a photo album of the firm’s products in situ, he pointed to a picture of a row of Italian cypresses and asked: “Which one is the cell phone tower?” It wasn’t easy to tell, although, under scrutiny, one appeared taller and more rigid than the rest. One of PTI’s on site outdoor trees even hosted a determined woodpecker, which bored through the polyurethane bark to make a nest.

Since our built landscape has long been choked with telephone poles and electrical towers, it seems peculiar to care, now, about disguising a tower here and there. Yet, mobile phone towers have garnered a fair amount of protest on aesthetic grounds. To counter this, PTI manufacturers provide sample boards with a square of bark and a leafy branch to sway reluctant citizens at town hall meetings. The lifelike camouflage usually pacifies protesters since everyone wants clear reception.

Of course, trees are only one way to sneak in a mobile phone tower. They are also installed in church steeples or water towers and behind billboards – a fake landlocked lighthouse even hides one in Staten Island, New York. Perhaps we’ve finally reached a saturation point of artifice, what with the endless miles of concrete and asphalt, malls, tract housing and McMansions covering our built environment. Think of this as a different kind of reforestation occurring in our suburbs.

After all, it’s “greener”.


Published in ICON magazine.

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