Train tracks cut through rock beds as I follow them, placing my left foot on wooden plank then my right on the next. The railroad ties are a little too close together to establish a normal pace, and instead I find myself marching along the rails, staring down at the gravel that supports the track. Looking down, all I see is railroad: metal tracks, wooden ties, gravel support. My brain knows it should process this image as urban, and maybe it’s the bird songs coming from the trees nearby, but I can’t help but find the ways that the railroad could be natural.
The metal comes from ores formed by geologic processes. The rocks come from the strata that support’s earth history. The ties come from trees. When I look up, all I see are trees, shrubs, and over-grown grass taking root on shale-y hills. Wind howls through this man-made path, and I wonder what this area looks like as a train’s metal body passes through.
About forty years after the construction of the Genesee Valley Canal, in 1877, the waterway fell out of use and was officially abandoned. Three years later, in 1880, the canal was bought by Genesee Valley Canal Railroad. The canal, then, was unsurprisingly became the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad in the 1880’s
What’s interesting about this time period, as a nature writer, is that it could be identified as the border between the Holocene, a geologic time period starting after the last Ice Age and characterized by the development of human civilizations, and the Antrhopocene, an unofficial geologic period of time characterized by human caused mass impact on the planet. Some argue that the Anthropocene could have started during colonization or after the testing of the first atom bomb, but many point to the industrial revolutions as the start of the Antrhopocene. That is to say, this time period between the construction of the canal, followed by the construction of the railroad could very well be the boundary between two geologic epochs. Between human involvement with nature and human dictation of the natural.
At the start of the canal, in the 1830’s, some people suggested that a railroad be constructed instead of a canal. They thought it more efficient and a better investment, however, the answer came as a result of funding (as it often does). At the time of this initial transportation debate, New York state was publicly funding canals due to the success of the Erie canal and railroads required private funding. The lawmakers went with the publicly funded option, but just over forty years later, the canal was being abandoned and the land was sold to private companies for the creation of railroads.
“The tables show that this has been the most expensive of any of the lateral canals. The amendment of 1847 prohibited the sale or lease of any of the canals, but this one adopted last year removes this restriction and allows them to be sold. They have become almost useless by reason of the multiplication of railroads in every direction. After the present year they will be abandoned except the Black River, which is required to feed the Erie with water. The state treasury will feel the benefit of the abandonment.” — Livingston Republican [Geneseo, NY]. 25 January 1877.
By 1882, the Genesee Valley Canal Railroad had been built and was running from Rochester to just above the New York/ Pennsylvania border, nearly a one-hundred-mile route. The track was generally laid on the towpath of the canal, except in occasional areas where the turns of the towpath were too sharp for a train to take or if the actual land was too steep or unsafe for a railroad to be constructed there.
As a researcher, I found it difficult to trace the actual ownership of the railroad and the land over time. Private owners often seemed to fall on hard times, causing them to sell the land from one owner/ company to the next owner/company. Those sells, as well, did not always consist of the entire land of the railroad, but only portions of it. Regardless, the railroad was functional and farmers in the rural areas of Western New York used it to transport their products to Rochester and or into Pennsylvania.
The railroad, parts of it still running today, creates an unusual intersection between the man-made and nature. Railroad tracks are not generally intrusive to the eye, and standing by them I couldn’t complain that it was altering my view of the landscape by much. At the same time, it was. The railroad followed the curves and bends of the land like a river might, but the tracks, built up on piles of cobbles, feel out of place. They felt almost like an intrusion, as though a train would come through and throw off the sounds of the environment by whipping wind through the small valley and grind wheels against metal track.
I don’t feel this way about canals or roads, which is maybe strange. Those are quieter transportation routes in a way. The canal makes river-like noises which are expected in nature. Even cars passing can feel natural in the way they did when I was a kid, playing under trees in my front yard. These are learned sounds that I can associate with being outside. Trains are too novel for my ear. They sound like something that should be in a movie or a theme park— somewhere where loudness is expected.
This is all to say, while we explore the idea of what is nature, it’s important to acknowledge what definition of nature we have in our working memory. Mine is one where trains sound like intruders but cars do not. Mine is also one that dislikes loud noises in general and finds nature, usually, to be a place of relief from those loud noises. If I take out the noise aspect, though, it’s easy to picture railroads as natural. The curve of track feels like it matches the curve of a meandering river. The materials— wood, metal, and rock— don’t impede much into a surrounding environment of shale slopes topped with trees. Maybe nature is a mixing board, and we’re the mixers, who are sliding keys to find what we think nature can and can’t be.
Livingston Republican [Geneseo, NY]. 25 January 1877. pg. 2.
“Railroad History.” FOGVG. http://fogvg.org/gvg-history-2/. Accessed 15 April 2018.
Kipp, David L. “Locking the Heights: The Rise and Demise of the Genesee Valley Canal.” 1999.
MacFarlane, Robert. “Generation Anthropocene: How humans have altered the planet forever.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/01/generation-anthropocene-altered-planet-for-ever. 1 April 2016. Accessed 16 January 2018.