Listening to trains (Walden 81)

We’ve already learned that we don’t ride upon the railroad, it rides upon us. Today, as part of the “Sounds” chapter, Thoreau talks about hearing the train passing by. One arm of Walden Pond was cut off by a railroad embankment, so the tracks weren’t far away.

“The whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter, sounding like the scream of a hawk sailing over some farmer’s yard, informing me that many restless city merchants are arriving within the circle of the town, or adventurous country traders from the other side. As they come under one horizon, they shout their warning to get off the track to the other, heard sometimes through the circles of two towns. Here come your groceries, country; your rations, countrymen! Nor is there any man so independent on his farm that he can say them nay. And here’s your pay for them! screams the countryman’s whistle; timber like long battering-rams going twenty miles an hour against the city’s walls, and chairs enough to seat all the weary and heavy-laden that dwell within them. With such huge and lumbering civility the country hands a chair to the city. All the Indian huckleberry hills are stripped, all the cranberry meadows are raked into the city. Up comes the cotton, down goes the woven cloth; up comes the silk, down goes the woollen; up come the books, but down goes the wit that writes them.”

An abandoned Rock Island Railway bridge in Wilderness Park, Lincoln, Nebraska, now used by bikers and hikers.

An abandoned Rock Island Railway bridge in Wilderness Park, Lincoln, Nebraska, now used by bikers and hikers.

“…when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it. If all were as it seems, and men made the elements their servants for noble ends!”

You can hear Henry’s ambivalence about this powerful new invention. To understand him, you have to put out of mind any nostalgia for trains, any sense of them being quaint and old-timey. To him they are new, modern, and of awesome power and speed, and he understands clearly (as he demonstrates above) how they are changing the economy and the world. He is awed, but uneasy.

We know that feeling, don’t we? We live in a pretty fast world ourselves.

But even today the sound of a train in the woods is an awesome, unsettling sound. Just outside the city where I live is a stretch of river bottom called Wilderness Park, a wonderful area of thick woods along Salt Creek. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway runs nearby, and now and then you hear — and feel — the freight trains rolling by, a mile or two long, often pulling coal cars full of Wyoming coal bound for power plants.

Burlington Northern train passing by Wilderness Park, Lincoln, Nebraska, last November.

Burlington Northern train passing by Wilderness Park, Lincoln, Nebraska, last November.

You can’t see the train but you feel its size and weight and power as it passes. Today’s big diesel locomotives are far more powerful than the steam engines of Thoreau’s day, but I think the feeling is the same. All around you see nature, and you hear the birds and the wind in the trees… and then you sense this unnatural force pulsing through the woods, as if the trees were insubstantial, and you feel the clatter of steel wheels on steel rails, and it just keeps coming, minute after minute… until finally it stops and the quiet returns. But everything feels somehow smaller and more fragile, more ephemeral.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)

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