Paying Attention Bill McDonald’s
September 2018 - Volume 18, No. 9
Iron Lines in the Wilderness
My father loved railroads. I’ve always known this, but never had the occasion to ask why. Yet it was just the other day, while pondering a few of his photographs it came to me.
I myself was born in the far northeast corner of Colorado, on the Union Pacific Railroad and the South Platte River. The little town of Sedgwick never made it much beyond a population of 600, and even now can boast only a few hundred souls. But for some reason still, when I’m out walking, I’ll stand in the middle of railroad tracks and allow my eyes to see those straight iron lines disappear into the landscape. I think I’ve always done that. Maybe I was born to do that. Maybe everybody has.
Then we moved into the mountains, Kremmling, about a hundred miles west of Denver. Again, I’m sure it was imprinted on my psyche that it was the railroads and then the highways that opened up that wilderness for humankind - I myself being one of them.
It was on a return visit to Colorado, when I was still young, I remember through the trees on the side of a mountain, seeing a steam engine climbing the rails, with golden sparks shooting out from the struggle of iron against iron as it slowly pulled its cargo up the grade. Like a fourth of July sparkler writ large.
I’m one of those folk that can put Gordon Lightfoot’s Railroad Trilogy on “repeat” and listen over and over to those lyrics and the hypnotic rhythm of his tribute. Then it can take hours or even days to get that music out of my head.
It seems to me that most who love railroads, love the massive machinery, the magnificent engines or the streamlined passenger cars, the visual rhythms of railroad yards and even the magnificent slowness of trains disassembling and assembling, while a human being somewhere watches and directs the “traffic.”
I myself remember in my youth my back pressed against the depot wall as those huge steam locomotives thundered by - seemingly only a few feet in front of me.
What I see in my father’s railroad photographs isn’t so much the machinery, it the rails themselves. They run straight where nothing else has run straight. There’s a sacred dance between the straightness of the rails and the erratic wilderness they penetrate - a sacred geometry.
Somewhere I picked up the lovely saying:“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.The most beautiful distance between two points is the shape of a woman’s body.”Both of those are elements of that sacred geometry that interweaves the railroad and nature. It’s said that in nature there are no straight lines. That’s why I’ll always seek a window seat when I fly - so I can see those ‘lines’ upon the earth below.Highways can have intersections and sharp corners.Railroads can’t. They’re the ones with large smooth curves as they make their way through the wilderness around them, be it urban or mountains, forests and deserts.
Now I realize, after all these years, it’s the sacred dance of that geometry that my father loved - and photographed.
In the wilderness there are no straight lines or inerrant gentle curves.
Until the railroad came.
As the photographer he ever was, he saw that.
It captured his attention!
And now again, my own.
That’s the same mysterious transformation from the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis to the Heavenly City in the Book of Revelation - of which our own existence is an intrinsic part.
Yes Yes Yes!
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