With summer drawing to a close, I took the opportunity to ride the Amtrak Coast Starlight from Albany, Oregon to Union Station in Los Angeles. I’d never taken the train for such a long trip, 28 hours each way. On such a long trip landscapes pass by, fixed in their space but transient in the rider’s experience. Each moment on the train creates a snapshot of the land. Being a rider is significantly different than being a driver on the interstate – not having to worry about truck traffic frees the mind to wander. As my mind wandered, four snapshots of human interaction with the passing terrain leapt out at me.
The trip starts in Albany, Oregon. Seat of Linn County (‘The Grass Seed Capital of the World’), Albany quickly gives way to the rural Willamette Valley. Sheep, hay, and grass seed accompany the rider all the way to Eugene. In Oregon’s third city the tracks turn southeast to climb the Cascades through the Willamette and Deschutes National Forests. The transition from an agricultural landscape to a logging landscape is abrupt. Evergreen stands of varying ages blanket the landscape along with clearcuts and a web of logging roads. The Willamette played a part in the bitter spotted owl and old growth forest controversies. But, to a layman’s eyes on the train, the forest looks like a forest, not an historically controversial landscape. In this case, the train delves into the depths of environmental conflict but also shrouds it with the trappings of a scenic landscape. One hundred years ago, Einstein used the train to teach physicists the hidden truths of relativity. Today, as the train runs through the forest, it teaches us the often hidden truth that aesthetic beauty can obscure the extent of human alteration to an ecosystem. Continue reading