Thursday, February 5, 2015

On the Unreliability of Words, Science, Dictionaries, Poetry, and Our Five Senses


Utility poles, sometimes (but not very often) are preserved with creosote

Yesterday, and before, I've mentioned the effects that the perfume of creosote bushes (for the rest of this post referred to as Larrea tridentata for clarity/sanity, and you'll see why in a minute). Today on the commute this pile of poles reminded me that I thought that they were pressure-treated with creosote to preserve them, which made me think that the smell of the bushes and the preservative although sharing a name must be different chemicals. So I checked. But, let it be established, these poles and those bushes smell nothing alike.

At first, I was led further astray by the indication in the usual references that the smell of the bushes Larrea tridentata as well as the chemical derivative from coal tar and primary constituent of liquid smoke flavoring are, in fact, all creosote. This seemed disappointing, discombabulating, and distracting since the perfume of the bushes last night was nothing like liquid smoke (as far as I could tell or recollect) and vice versa, neither of which smelled much like these poles.

A bit more searching uncovered this site, with a thorough overview of the preservatives used for pressure treating utility poles, and it turns out that, these days, and for a long long time, the most common chemical used for that purpose is actually pentachlorophenol, followed by (less commonly) chromated coppper arsenate CCA which was banned for residential lumber use in 2003 (which I remember), and then copper naphthenate, which gives one some reason for trying to pronounce "phth". Last and apparently least these days come creosote and ammoniacal copper zinc arsenate, which apparently are seldom used.

But I've been around enough railroad sleepers and old timey utility poles to think I know what they smell like, which doesn't seem similar to either liquid smoke or the Larrea tridentata bushes. Apparently, however, and setting aside that these poles in the photo are probably stuffed full of pentachlorophenol and thus can be dismissed from this present discussion, I am not only mistaken in my memory of railroad ties and old timey utility poles, but also in my understanding of liquid smoke flavoring, coal tar distillation, and even in the poetics of Larrea tridentata

At times like this, words, science, dictionaries, poetry, and particularly our five senses and the perceptions arising from them seem to collapse and fail. All we have then, I suppose, is love and bicycles. I can grab a handful of creosote leaves, rub them back and forth, then smash them into my face and breathe deep. No words then, just love and bicycles, both of which there's just not enough of in the world.

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