More radio memories! (In which I describe an author interview that may not have happened)

May 21, 2018

By Matthew E. Milliken
May 21, 2018

Memory is a tricky thing. People have all sorts of odd old things rattling around their brains; or I do, at least. Sometimes, these memories are spot on. Sometimes, they may — emphasis on may — have been made up from whole cloth.

On Friday afternoon, I spent some time searching the web for information on a book, the title, author and publication year of which I was completely unable to recall.

The good news was that I had a fairly specific concept of what the book was about. The work, which either had been written by a Raleigh resident or else centered on the city of Raleigh, was aimed at a general-interest audience of readers, and it described the systems that deliver electricity and drinking water and remove sewage and rain runoff from modern buildings.

Initially, I conducted a general web search using the terms “the four utilities”book and Raleigh. However, “four utilities” refers to a marketing concept, so I changed this search term to simply utilities. I also ran similar queries in the Library of Congress’s online catalog.

I was certain that the book had been released in the United States at some point after roughly 2010, but even after applying those filters, I was left with a lot of irrelevant results.

Fortunately, after a few minutes of fruitless labor, I got a brainwave: The book I had in mind was about infrastructure. Soon after I substituted that word for utilities in my querying, I found my quarry.

In the spring of 2011, science writer Scott Huler published On the Grid: A Plot of Land, an Average Neighborhood and the Systems that Make Our World Work. It’s about how typically hidden electrical, drinking water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure enable many of the conveniences of modern life that most Americans take for granted.

So far, so good; as stated, this had taken me just a few minutes. But the next part of my search would prove to be far more difficult — or, to be precise, impossible.

I was convinced that I’d heard Huler being interviewed about his book shortly after its publication. The discussion took place on “The State of Things,” a WUNC North Carolina Public Radio news and cultural-affairs program hosted by Frank Stasio.

Moreover, I was certain that Stasio had asked his guest which utility is most essential to society as we know it. He told Stasio that buildings and the conduits that serve them are easily damaged or destroyed without adequate stormwater management.

This is an eminently reasonable explanation, but the insight struck me as remarkable. I’d never before thought of stormwater control as the key to modern life.

Unfortunately for me, after scouring the web for an hour or more, I was unable to find any evidence that Stasio and Huler had ever talked, let alone that Huler had sung the praises of stormwater management on Stasio’s show.

I pulled every trick I could think of. I dove deep into the online “State of Things” archive, eventually ploughing to its very end. All to no avail.

So… did I imagine this conversation? My memory is so vivid that I have trouble believing this to be the case. But I can’t corroborate my own story!

What can I say, folks? Memory is a tricky thing.

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