description of a train ride/
the ailanthus altissima
All I did today was take a few boxes of junk to goodwill. Each room of my house is still decorated with a pile of discarded furniture, boxes, and papers, which my sisters insist on sorting through before they are thrown away. It's been raining all day, which has reminded me of the train ride from New York city to Baltimore, since the last time I traveled there the day had been like today, a mild continual rain, brightening the summer's growth. The moment the train leaves Penn station it rockets beneath the city and its surrounding water, though like on a subway train, all the passengers witness is the changing textures of a dark wall lit lightly by the interior of the train. And they may have a moment in reflection to study their face, before this falls away on some distant arrangement of marshes in New Jersey.
As always, the transformation had surprised me, and had seemed almost impossible, since a few moments earlier I had been at the center of Manhattan, sitting on the steps of the U.S. post office across from the station as they cascaded down to busy streets and complex buildings on a clear day. And here I was, barreling out of a dark cave, transported to lonely gray moors dispossessed of any feeling but nowhere. The land, crisscrossed by highways and train tracks and now unattached from the world by these thoroughfares, was a place annulled by that same feeling the travelers themselves hold as they pass it by, that of inbetweeness.
A light white green line unfolding sorted each blade of grass in my eyes as they stretched unevenly towards a disintegrating iron bridge. The train floated loftily above the scene. I felt my memory clear and a calm come from the water beads collecting on glass and their color. Directly beneath us groups of wet trash passed the cars. And telephone poles, half submerged and derelict, the messages in their wires now probably put to travel underground, made good expressive triangles.
The storm did not stop through the trip, and as we approached the tip of Maryland from Delaware lightening hit the tracks, slowing the rest of our the journey to a speed you could follow on a bicycle. It was at this pace that we passed a town in northern Maryland swallowed by floodwaters as if it was a panorama presented to us on a ride. This was a strange experience because as each scene unfolded for us in a steady roll, its description would be echoed a few times in to the cell phones of bored passengers talking to their rides waiting at the station. A house would reveal itself from the trees, the tips of its windows looking out at a water line rippling, and I would simultaneously hear my thoughts echoed: "ooo, we just passed a house that's flooded", "oh, no, there's a house now in the water", "there's some poor people who got their house flooded", as if my mind was now the entire car.
I didn't have book to read, but had a notebook a wrote down what I saw as my fascination grew and the trip slowed. The rain made the richer, especially the lights of cars, and the leaves of trees, though nothing was brighter than the cracked layers of mud where the water had torn away from the earth to create a new channel. These ran alongside and between the tracks, where the flow had cut the deepest, and showed bright orange and red pigments coloring the water one shade duller than themselves as it ran between the verdant tangle of midsummer brush made strangely vivid by the rain.
I realized the trees which grew by the tracks as well as a great deal of the brush beneath were the same plant, the ailanthus altissima, a weed with leaves that, like a fern, spread away from the branch in perpendicular rows. I remembered a decade ago my father had told me to pull its shoot from beside our front porch, and last year I finally removed it by chopping at a twenty foot tree all day with an axe.
The altissima gave the landscape which passed by our train an almost tropical or prehistoric look as it weathered this storm. It is an evasive species, one which has been creeping across the coast of North America for hundreds of years now, brought from Europe where it was carried by merchants in the 16th century to feed their silk worms, and where it grows just as strongly today, beside the train tracks, freeways, and trash heaps of England, France, and Spain.
Though the tree can grow anywhere, thriving in soil polluted with motor oil, antifreeze, sand, gravel, and whatever else is excreted by cities in to the land in which they lie, the silk worm the trees used to feed, a creature which forms a moth as white as a ghost, is very particular and dines only the leaves of the ailanthus, which it must find the most delicious of all substances. The transformation of the leaves as they pass through the body of the worm, the unlinking of the joints of the chemicals and the reshaping of their pieces, does not produce the smooth silk which we are familiar with, but a coarser, stronger fiber rarely used today. Though there is ample food for the silk worm, it cannot survive the climate which the ailanthus bears so gracefully. And to find a piece of silk nearby that the creature would produce you probably have to dig one hundred years deep in the landfills of New York and New Jersey. The only remnant of this material now is its raw unprocessed form growing and stretching from New York to the southeast coast, traveling by the same routes made and traveled by human beings.
Though we treat it as a weed, it is considered sacred in parts of India and Asia. Its name means "highest tree of heaven", and its growth adorns many Buddhist shrines. Used as a powerful digestive aid, its leaves, ground and administered, could have probably cured the Buddha, who died of food poisoning from some rotten pork.
I was considering this as we passed a thin line of them. A newly formed river running along the other side, traveling the opposite direction of the train, pulling grass along with it. It was a pretty light brown, with the white reflection of the sky on top. I saw the pebbles beneath, and the red earth which gave it its color, and broad flat stones, and a discarded carpet, unrolled.