Friday, June 25, 2010

Time at the Tracks

After much hesitation, I have finally resolved to begin a blog. I use the word "resolve" advisedly since, well, you know. Sometimes these things just do not have legs. For now let's just say I will try.

Recently I have been spending lots of time at a couple of sites in Durham, NC where I have been photographing railroad tracks. The two sites, one in East Durham near the old grain silos, the other near the new train station in downtown Durham, are both abandoned. The tracks have not been used in years. Ties are rotting, hardware is rusting, and vegetation is slowly reclaiming the tracks. 

I go there because of an almost lifelong fascination with railroad tracks. My childhood wanderings often led me to the railroad tracks, either along some  neglected and rusty remote spur surrounded by woodlands or across the dangerous territory of an active urban switch yard. The engines and cars were thrilling to see up close but it was the mechanics of the track that always fascinated me. 

This current project is about those tracks, the old ones. The images are close examinations of what made the tracks work and survive. While it is a series about technology, it is also a series about human imagination. The images reflect the  sculptural elements inherent in engineering solutions to technological problems. They also show the interplay between industrial production of components and manual installation of those same components. It is industrial perfection vs. human imperfection. In some sense there are ghosts of dead industries present in the images, references to defunct US manufacturers and former steel cities. Some of the older spikes might show hammer blows from some long-gone Gandy dancer while others show the precise marks of hydraulic drivers, the new robotic dancers that sing no songs but have work rhythms nevertheless. It is about  progress and decay. 

I have made a little slide show of some of the earliest images. You can find it at the Track Pix page on my website. This is only the beginning of a longer project that I hope will result in a show someday. For now the collection of images is growing and the project is taking on a life of its own.

In addition to making photographs of what I am seeing, I am also picking up little pieces of discards from years of track maintenance and track neglect. There are the railroad spikes, tie plates, track bolts, track anchors, and other odds and ends that I just pick up and bring home. Some of them have become parts of an ongoing sculptural exercise in my front yard. At some point these will be incorporated into a formal showing of photos and sculptures in some gallery or other public venue. That was a hint to any curators out there who might like to take this on.

As much as anything, this is about childhood vision. I am going back to a place I loved and seeing it all over again, through he same eyes, naive, full of wonder and fascination, but now with a sense of perspective. All the time I am hoping a real train will happen by while I am there. It never happens. Not on these tracks.

Like many kids, I had toy trains (after a certain age we started calling them "model" trains because "toys" were not cool) and all of the interest in trains that came with that youthful territory. In the real world though, I was always most fascinated with the tracks themselves. Sure the Locomotives and various cars were great, but for me the infrastructure was the most interesting part. I just loved the tracks. I used to walk along the very tracks that were recently torn up to make way for the American Tobacco Trail. I loved to walk them, even the trestle that crossed South Roxboro Street, a dangerous enterprise that has its own set of stories.  Now that is where I ride my bike. The area is built up on all sides of the trail now. It is truly an urban trail. The temptation to leave it and wander around in the wilderness is gone.

Back in the day the tracks made their way through undeveloped territory, across streams, through woods and small farms, across roadways, and even through little neighborhoods. It was far from the urban area that is now that part of Durham City/County. One could stay on the tracks and see all sorts of wildlife from snakes sunning themselves on the rocky ballast to the occasional fox or deer who always seemed surprised to see a human on foot in their territory. The tracks were something like a main trail from which one could have any number of adventures. A little detour into the woods or along a stream would always lead back to the tracks. They were the marker, the way back home.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Doing the Right Thing

I was at the Beaver Marsh Preserve, just behind Compare Foods and Big Lots in on Avondale Drive in Durham, NC just a few days ago, right after the Beaver Queen Pageant. It had only been four days since a big work event that involved a hundred volunteers from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, dozens more locals from the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, and even a herd of goats from the Goat Patrol. We had done tons of work hauling trash out of the marsh, clearing brush, disposing of invasive vegetation, building an information kiosk, setting fence posts, installing signs, marking trails, and anything else you can imagine a well kept nature preserve might deserve. The place looked really good.

Imagine my surprise when this guy drives up with a truck full of yard waste and starts to dump it right between the brand new kiosk and all the signs that say "No Dumping." The fact that I am standing there next to my parked car with a camera in my hand, seems to make no difference to him at all. So I speak up.

"Hey, you do know you are not supposed to dump stuff here, right? This is a nature preserve and dumping here is illegal."

"This stuff is biodegradable. There is nothing illegal about that."

"It doesn't matter. You are not supposed to dump anything here, biodegradable or not. People have put lots of work into making this place a relatively clean nature preserve. It is not a dump."

"If you can show me the law, some kind of ordinance that makes this illegal, I will stop. Otherwise, I know what I am doing" (He keeps unloading his truck and dragging the debris onto the bank behind the kiosk).

I put the camera to my eye and start shooting. He pays no attention.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" I ask as I keep shooting. He doesn't answer.  I get him. I get the truck. I get the license plate, I get the load, I get it all. Click, click, click. He keeps working. To be very honest, this is something those of us who care about the marsh have been waiting for, somebody caught in the act of dumping and enough evidence to establish his identity. A successful and highly publicized prosecution could be just what we needed to stop some of the dumping that is constantly spoiling the marsh. Game on!!!!

Finally the truck is empty and now he begins to try to hide his face. I keep shooting. He drives away, t-shirt pulled up in front of his face.

As he drives off, another Beaver Marsh admirer drives up and we begin to talk about how great the marsh looked. Of course I tell her about my face to face encounter with a dumper. 

Just then the truck returns. What now? I brace for trouble but somehow don't really expect anything to happen. I wait and watch. He goes right back to the dump site and begins to pull all of the debris out of the marsh and load it back into his truck. He was having second thoughts. We watch for a while. Then I go over and thank him for doing the right thing. He says he hopes this would satisfy anybody I had reported him to. I tell him that no report has been made and that the matter is closed as far as I am concerned. We shake hands, exchange names, and agree that the preserve is something to be protected. Then he asks me to take one more picture, this time with him doing the right thing.

By the way, I do realize that this might have had a very different outcome and that I was at some risk in the confrontation. I should also say that I have gone to some lengths beyond simply blurring this guy's face to disguise his identity. I did want to tell the story but I certainly didn't want to subject this young man to any unnecessary ridicule. Had he not come back, it would have been a very different situation. His real face and his deed would have been spread way beyond this little blog.