I had mentioned in the last post about Martinez that there was a part of the rail I really couldn't get at. This is ok for the purposes of this project, because I'm more interested in the places where there is *life* by the rails, and the part I couldn't walk was mostly refineries, and then a drawbridge (!) and then some more track where there just wasn't enough room to get out of the way of a passing train without rolling down a steep grade. Sounds dangerous, right? That's why I'm not doing it.
You may, however, notice, that there are some big ships in the background of this photo. This is the famed "mothball fleet" of navy ships that are out of use, and just sit in the bay. I have heard it said that they leech toxic chemicals into the water, which I don't doubt but also don't have documentation for it. In any case, they are huge and fascinating, and we wanted to get closer.
[Then we played the fun photo game of taking photos of one another at the same time. Aforementioned question from earlier post: if it's fun, is it research? Guy Debord and the Situationists would certainly say 'yes,' for the record.]
Until a few weeks ago, I thought that what I saw from the train was all mushy wetland. But a friend in my program, Aubrey, is a research assistant on a project about fishing in the Delta and she did a presentation with maps in which I realized that the Delta is really a series of channels and "islands," some of which are submerged during certain times of year. So there's a lot more dry land than I had imagined.
Also, one of the engineers I spoke to some time ago had told me that the rail was run through the wetland because it was a straight line into the central valley from Contra Costa county, but that the weight of the rail and the accompanying crushed rock was causing it to sink, making it so they had to periodically add more fill to keep the rail above water making it heavier and so forth...
Back to the photos in a moment (of which there are many) but I'd like to also reflect on the sense experience of the rail this particular time. As I get closer to actually compiling this material into a thesis, I think a lot about the place of the body in research. Lots of research, esp. in the social sciences, can be done through secondary data sets, and because many researchers are somewhat lazy, they never go out into the field at all. I find this to be a shame, because I believe that education is about being with the world in the world, and from there trying to make some sense. The body is integral to this process, as are emotions, yet many disciplines are still obsessed with what goes on in our heads -- I think a lot about how to transform academic practice and performance to challenge this problem.
This leads me back to the particular senses I was noticing on this day of walking, those being temparature (which shifted quickly, esp. when the wind picked up or the sun came out), and my sense of smell. There is a very familiar smell to me at this point of creosote and crushed rock, which is all rail everywhere. But also the wetlands smell strongly of things decomposing, and sometimes this was mixed with whatever is coming out of the refineries and industrial spots all around.
and nothing much else.
This would seem inconsequential, except for that it brings up the issue of how what we like affects what we see. That there is fennel growing by the tracks is as much a part of the scene as anything, but how is this indicative of what gets documented?? How does the researcher's (my) aesthetic affect what is here?? Big question.
As it turns out, the path doesn't go all the way to the boats. It ends in a clearing (no pics! oops!), and as
e were standing there, I felt all of the sudden really strange and sad. A pretty indescribable wave of emotion. Not sure how to account for it, except to report it.
Lefevbre (1974) - one of my favorite theoreticians as of late - does account for this somewhat:
"... in every society, absolute space assumes meanings addressed not to the intellect but to the body, meanings conveyed by threats, by sanctions, by a continual putting-to-the-test of the emotions."
I should no longer be surprised that people use these marginal spaces all the time, that secrets are kept in spaces where people don't often come close, but I am still amazed. I also think about the ethical problem here, of uncovering someone's spot and posting it on the internet (though it would certainly take some doing for a reader to find it.)
I can't decide if I find this more or less creepy than the big pools of water near the refinery that were being pumped into the bay, of which I *do* know the source.
The birds were actually a real point of interest in walking through the delta when I thought of this project. Perhaps in an upcoming walk, I will get out on the path early enough to see them in the earlymorning when they are more active and visible.
I have mentioned that railroad right-of-ways often become the tracks for other pathways too. Sociologist Bruno Latour discusses this at length in his website, Paris: Invisible City. I will probably dedicate some airtime to it in my thesis as well.
I wonder about what we are led to believe about "national security" and "code orange" when petroleum pipelines are so easy to just get to.
(This shell will become more important later.)
Here, Even kneels down to listen to the tracks after a freight train has passed by. It's this really subtle high pitch, which I imagine has to do with the way the train wheels make the tracks vibrate.
A man working in that yard spotted us and said hi. It continually amazes me how friendly people are, and how they almost never ask what I'm doing by the tracks or how I got to (the often odd place) where I'm standing. He told us that the trailer comes out for parties and such.
We walked on.
This was reassuring because though I had seen it on the google map, we didn't have a copy with us. In fact, the Rand-McNally map that I had with me had an inlay of a different map in just the place where we were walking because it is *so* inconsequential on a road map. And though I know that maps are constantly imperfect representations, issues like this don't ever stop provoking my curiosity.
At this point, it also became clear that Evan and I had different ideas of what we should and shouldn't do. I was interested in marching right up to the house (and others we would see) and introducing myself and chatting with the people there; he was not. Evan, however, wanted to climb on the freight cars stopped on the tracks (forthcoming) and I wanted nothing to do with them.
I also got to thinking about the extent to which the rail opened this area up for development. Behind us were these warehouses with a big empty lot between. These three photos give an idea of how big the space is.
Looking at the land, it seems quite like the rest of the delta in the parts where it hasn't been built up. So is this lot empty because the land is expensive? Or is it simply difficult (soft, sinking) land to build upon?? On the way back, the view made it even more apparent how strange it is to put industry right here.
We kept walking and found more signs of use.
This struck me as terrifying -- certainly as soon as we got inside, the thing would start moving and we'd be whisked off to Nebraska or something. I still find freight cars beautiful, but I really don't have any desire to climb on them or get near them. I guess I mostly think of trains as dangerous these days.
To what extent are the tracks part of the land that these people use daily? On the other side of the tracks from their house, someone (perhaps the current occupants) had planted a palm tree and a plum tree (back to smell -- this was in full bloom and smelled fantastic.)
Once again, noone asked how we got there, or what we were doing there. This strikes me as strange. Also, as a white man and woman, clearly we had some advantage in people worrying about us being there.
This is actually really too bad, because from the train I was really looking forward to just walking up to these buildings and talking to folks. This is somewhat another example of how perspective is so much shifted from the train -- the huts seem to butt up right against the tracks and invite you in. Not so.
And if you're interested, you can link to the google map of this walk. Turns out it was only about 2.5 miles. It felt a lot longer.
At this rate, this walk will take longer than the time I have. Time to hustle. (In fact, lots of people warned me against this problem -- the scope of this project simply being too big.)
So we headed back on the road (not the highway) that runs parallel to the tracks back to the car. I hadn't counted on this -- hot and dry and pretty boring.
Evan, being a scavenger, found this exciting. I wanted to get back to the car.
From the road, the warehouses seemed to overwhelm the landscape.
I was pretty fascinated at these attempts at human touches on the landscape. This warehouse is so huge and boxy, but flowering plum trees were planted just in the path where people come in and out of the building:
Then we were in a landscape one almost never walks to: the freeway on-ramp. Evan and I were both quite curious about where this man on a bike came from (as people must have been about where we came from!)
We figured there must be a bike laying around the warehouse where he works, and people take it up here to get lunch or go to the convenience store.
Finally, Evan hitched us a ride for the last 1.5 miles back in a truck with a man who had a cardboard hauling business. I was debating whether or not to include this detail here (as hitchhiking is generally thought of as unsafe, and some readers - my mother among them - might worry.) I decided not to censor it in the end, esp. because I doubt many people read this far. :)
The very last thing we saw, nestled in among the warehouses, was this old train car painted pink-ish. I have seen a number of these along the way (most notably in Martinez by the train station), and my immediate tendency is to ask theoretical questions about them, along the lines of Baudrillard's "System of Objects."
Clearly, it's just a cool thing to look at or climb on. But its "coolness" is derived mostly from the fact that it used to serve a purpose and now it does not. This is endlessly fascinating to me.
And in case you're wondering what Baudrillard thinks about this:
"The tense of the mythological object is the perfect: it is that which occurs in the present as having occurred in a former time, hence that which is founded upon itself, that which is 'authentic'." (The System of Objects, 1968:79)