The Sound of Silence
published in the Telegraph Journal, Salon
accompanied by a photo essay
It is cold and dark inside the control facility. Only one worker remains, wearing a snowsuit. He is dismantling equipment piece-by-piece.
The main entrance and transmitter rooms of Radio Canada International's shortwave transmission site in Sackville are filled with a sensation of impending silence, broken only by a deep whooshing sound emanating from the sub-basement accompanied by the cooling breeze from the overhead air exchange system. The building is at once both on and off; hovering in a liminal space between silence and sound, much like the towers outside which have since stopped transmitting, but which have yet to be taken down.
The facility doesn’t have central heating, because the transmitters generated so much electrical heat. The air exchange system was installed to keep the place cool, even in winter. Now that the transmitters are no longer operational, just a few small wall heaters in empty offices heat the entire building. In an attempt to keep the pipes from freezing, the air exchange is turned on to pump air up from the sub-basement, where the air is slightly warmer.
This is how I found the space late last January: cold, dark and semi-dismantled. For more than 60 years, Radio Canada International's shortwave towers loomed tall and stoic over the saltwater marshes; their red lights silently blinking against a backdrop of fireflies and distant stars. Thirteen sentinels of steel standing erect, as silent witnesses and purveyors of messages and music to and from far off shores.
Situated just off the Trans-Canada highway between Aulac and Sackville, along the only route between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, one cannot make the trip without skirting the edge of this monumental site. For many of us who pass it only on long journeys, the mysterious skeletal web has become a significant landmark, letting us know “we are almost home” or, perhaps, “we are halfway there.” For those who live closer to the site, it has become a part of daily life and the permanent landscape.
But what was their purpose? What did they do? And why are they coming down?
While the towers are the most impressive aspect, penetrating the sky with their red and white stripes, the tallest of them reaching 110 meters above the marshlands, it is actually the wires between them that cast all of the magic. Ironically, many of us assumed that the towers were sending out the broadcasts, while the wires were merely there for support. Little did we realize that it was the other way around, that the towers existed merely to support the wires.
One couple told their children that it was a circus school, the trapeze and high-wire students always on break whenever they drove by. How many more fantasies and musings has this majestic webbing inspired?
In actuality, this site is just as magical as any fabrication. Through the wonders of shortwave radio, these antennae once broadcast signals all over the world, to Africa, Europe, South America and the Arctic. The journey to carry information around the world is a fantastic one. Imagine yourself a shortwave radio signal: you shoot out on a downward angle and hit the conductive saltwater marsh and then ricochet upward, passing through fog and clouds travelling 100 kilometres until you hit the ionosphere. You ricochet back down, up and down, through the air across the face of the Earth. You travel from the ground to the sky, from the sky to the ocean, halfway around the globe, until you fall off into outer space, leaving the other half of the planet untouched.
Because shortwave falls off at the halfway point, the signals are often bounced from station to station in order to complete the journey around the world. As such, this site in Sackville was a key relay site for international stations on the other side of the planet, relaying transmissions for Radio China, Radio Korea, Voice of Vietnam, Radio Japan, and others.
Those of us who live here have become so accustomed to the sight of this site, that it has become banal, unbeknownst that it was the largest civilian shortwave radio site in Canada. It was situated here to make use of the conductive properties of the saltwater marshes as well as the proximity to the ocean; it is the ideal location to broadcast to four continents.
Historically, this facility was an important communications site during the Cold War. It was the first transmission site to break through the iron curtain. It is rumoured that it was, at times, a terrorist target.
It is hard to say whether any of these rumours are true or not. These towers and wires, slicing the sky into grids, spark curiosity and wonder which often results in either research or fabulation. There is, therefore, no shortage of technical information or rural myths and ruminations. The idea of this site is wrapped in a loosely knit shawl of fact and fiction woven together in a place where art, science and imagination meet for drinks.
It’s no wonder the site incited so many minds to pontification, given unexpected foreign broadcasts could, at times, in certain places, be heard coming from common household objects such as telephones, refrigerators, radiators and toasters.
External rectification, or “the rusty bolt effect,” is when household appliances or structures, such as copper plumbing, act as antennae and receivers. Such was the case for the woman who heard Radio China whenever she ran her bathwater. Another man would pick up Russian propaganda broadcasts when he opened his refrigerator. Radio static would emanate from another woman’s kitchen sink between 8 and 10 p.m. like clockwork.
People feared their houses were haunted when they heard unexplained voices and sounds coming from strange places. For the most part, however, these rogue receptions occurred as background noise on telephone lines, radios, guitar amplifiers and TV sets.
Theories abound around the invisible architectures of radio waves in the region. Many accounts claim visitors to the region dream much more vividly here, and, in some cases, in other languages. There’s speculation the electromagnetic radiation may cause people to develop ESP or telepathic abilities, and other theories that it may cause illness or health hazards.
In addition to the physical connection to the site, there are many emotional ties, as it relates to personal journeys.
There’s a deep sense of comfort many people share when, late at night, driving into New Brunswick, as they come around the corner from Aulac, and see the red lights appearing as they dip down under the overpass. The red lights offer a reassuring sign.
There are heartfelt and sometimes tearful stories of life changing decisions involving long journeys, where the sight of those red lights brought intense feelings of comfort and reassurance that resurges more than 40 years later in the retelling.
With such strong emotional ties to this place, it is no wonder the site has become a source of inspiration for artists, as they incorporate it into photographs, paintings, poetry, music and song. In addition to emotional connections, when the mind is confronted with things that it does not fully understand, it generally tries to fill in the blanks. Hence inspiration arises from a sense of emotional connection, wonder, curiosity, and a desire to fill in the blanks and to connect the dots.
It is hard to imagine the landscape without them; let alone the impact on people around the world who relied on them for accessible and affordable communication in remote areas. After budget cuts came last spring, Radio Canada International had no choice but to shut the site down, to cease Canadian transmissions, to terminate international relay contracts, and to finally dismantle the site altogether at some future date.
The very last transmission was sent to the arctic in November, but the dismantling of the site actually began long before that. You wouldn’t know it, driving past them on the highway, but for more than a year now, the dismantling process has been ongoing from the inside out. The structures, shells and skeletons are still standing as I write this, but it won’t be long before their traces are erased. The snow is gone, and the air is warmer, but a cold chill of imminent stillness continues to hover over the site as it lingers in that space between sound and silence.