Two constants in my very young life: art and railroad tracks.
Those still fascinate me.
The environment around the tracks is a weird little world of its own, no matter where.
In the northwestern corner of Ohio, the tracks form a peculiar ecosystem that shifts subtly from place to place. Certain kinds of life thrive there, along the tracks, and it changes depending on whether you walk the tracks by an open field, through the woods, near a stream bank, or over the complex of streets and expressways that circle and slice into the heart of the city.
The same holds true here in the southwestern Mojave, except the developed land is an exurb more than a city/suburb/rural complex. Here, nearly all of the land along the I-15 corridor, from the Cajon Pass to the land north of Apple Valley, consists of expanding exurbs. These are formerly rural areas that have been the fast-growing fringe of high desert cities, running northward on the Interstate. At least 350,000 people now live in a handful of small towns, cities, and exurban areas, detached from those cities, with open high desert landscapes between them.
I often see coyotes and small mammals, many birds, and reptiles at the railroad tracks near our house.
The art. I’m not an artist, really, although I think I see with an artist’s eye sometimes. I have an artist’s tendency to be distracted by things flitting across and near my supposed field of focus. The unexpected. Or the usual in a peculiar light. It keeps me open, not knowing what to expect.
I want to create a landscape wherever I live. The word agriculture comes from Latin root words meaning “cultivation of the land.” In fact, comparative linguistic reconstruction indicates that the Indo-European root word for agriculture is related to words for both “tillage” and “worship” (See Wendell Berry, 1996, p. 87). It is hard to ignore the shared place of ecological connections and spirituality in food production. When you garden or farm you naturally feel a connection between the “art” of agriculture and the place you dwell along with the cycles of the season.
Mansanobu Fukuoka illustrates the same point when he says, “Farming used to be sacred work,” (1978, p. 113). It is an artful and even spiritual vocation embedded in the natural world. Farmers and gardeners have the opportunity for deep awareness of the natural environment and they have an opportunity to embrace land use practices that are bioculturally skillful and creative. Art.
When we did our “eco-art” workshop at Rainshadow Farm, I was enchanted with our “farm art.” Some of the participants didn’t immediately “get” what we were doing; in the end, everyone was happy with the art they produced in collaboration with the soil.
The painting and drawing that I did as a young person helped me make sense of the world. No definitive answers were ever delivered…but a little sense might be made of this or that corner of an unknown universe. If not…I would at least have a finished product, a representation of something, to show to other people and use as a means to get their insight.
One last thought. I always used to see the tracks as a way to get going. Right now I need to think about where I’m going to get going to. Life is sweet but life is short. I’ve spent the last two years returning to myself
in spite of because of some pretty big obstacles. I’m returning to myself. I’m returning to the tracks and to the art.
Berry, Wendell. (1996). (3rd ed.). The unsettling of America. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Fukuoka, Masanobu. (1978). The one straw revolution. New York: New York Review Books.