Today I am going to New Orleans, on the train. I’m doing it just for the hell of it, really, and to write; a more detailed explanation of my “writing on the train” project can be found here. I have actually never ridden a train other than steam engine excursion trains in the US before, even though I adore trains immoderately. I am writing this while riding, ensconced in queenly comfort (compared to an airplane seat) and having just fetched my breakfast from the dining car. We left the Atlanta station a little while ago and the chi-chi elegance of Buckhead pretty much instantly gave way to industrial concrete and metal interspersed with lush dense greenery, the urban desolation of Atlanta. The elder bushes are in bloom (I picked some flowers and made some tincture the other day) and I’ve spied many out the window already, along with mimosas, magnolias, and lots of kudzu.
I’m conscious of the irony of talking about place while traveling, deliberately displacing myself. But the flora and landscape I can see out of my window are deeply familiar, and will remain so for hundreds of miles; ecologies are large. Human places are more constrained but are created by confluences of forces including human needs, the natural setting, and human technology as an expression of a particular location and time. For example, New Orleans is where and what it is because empire-building Europeans saw the mouth of the biggest river in North America and thought “trade route.” It was used that way before they showed up, of course. It is the biggest port in the Western hemisphere still.
Atlanta on the other hand famously exists because that’s where the railroad lines crossed. It was and is a center of trade as well, but the forces that made it a crossroads were literally forged by human hands, rather than being carved out by Gaia following her own purposes. We are never more than two steps away from her, of course. Our places are always encompassed by nature, rooted in ecology, and we forget that at our peril. But standing in the center of a city like Atlanta, overlooking the river of iron that still runs under Peachtree Street next to Five Points, or working (as I have done) in the old warehouse row that is now one full story below the current street level and known as Underground…that is to say, completely surrounded by the works of human hands reaching down below the surface and up into the sky…one might be forgiven for losing focus for a minute. But then the herons and hawks and many trees of Atlanta are always there to remind you, if you pay attention. The city built at the convenience of human technology paradoxically is also full of wildlife.
Speaking of wildlife, we are nearing Alabama and the central time zone. Less kudzu out the window, more pine trees; still plenty of elder bushes and lush forest, interspersed with farms and sleepy towns that have downtowns built mostly in the 1910s, each a specific iteration of a pattern I have seen all my life. Nothing out the window looks unfamiliar yet, but it is all strange; I’m coming at it from a different direction, passing through on the train.