IT BEGINS WITH a plaintive, minor-key whistle in the distance as a freight works its way up the side of the mesa toward our house. It becomes a solid rumble, an onrushing vibration, then culminates in the deep thrumming of the big diesels that pass only a block away, three or four or five locomotives hauling a hundred cars. Burlington Northern Santa Fe: we get used to the noise, even miss it when we travel elsewhere.

What I miss, I think, is the way the long whistles point the mind so effortlessly toward old black-and-white movies and the romance of Pullman-era travel: enforced leisure, new companions, witty flirtations, and waking to new lands in the morning.

But at night I lie awake sometimes, and I remember that these are freight trains, not passenger, and begin to dwell on what they are hauling: coal or chemicals or enough new automobiles to fill entire subdivisions. Or, as is more and more the case, boxes. Big boxes, that is, the stout crates offloaded directly from container ships at Long Beach or Seattle, labeled Hamburg-Süd or Hanjin or Lloyd or Sealand, the durable steel corpuscles of global commerce.

We live in a small house in a small city amid a huge and arid western landscape. The middle of nowhere, some would say. But the long freights pass through town 24/7, a hundred and more a day, and make it very clear that we, right here, are in the heart of the whole shebang. Those are new Saturns going out to LA; this is corn syrup from Nebraska going into soft drinks somewhere; these are plastic gimcracks and assembly-line clothes from Taiwan or Indonesia or Sri Lanka, headed for a Wal-Mart near you. This is good Chilean wine and Australian beer, too. This is global warming and the homogenization of our food supply and the misery of poorly paid laborers in sweatshops, all passing just a block away. Who knows: hidden in one of those containers could even be one of the nasty surprises the Department of Homeland Security warns us about, a red-alert firecracker crafted by maniacally pious hands of the sort used to justify our new Age of Fear. It’s the sad transmutation of the modern era, the equivalent of an alchemist’s turning gold into lead: the romance of the other and the enchantment of travel have become dull fear, pure and simple.

It’s a lot to think about, during the night, so sometimes when sleep has drifted farther away than the next distant whistle I think instead about how a few summers ago I loaded my old pickup with a bunch of heavily used wooden pallets, free for the taking outside our local newspaper’s print shop. They’d carried newsprint or cases of ink, and before that who knows what, and they’d reached the end of their lives in global commerce.
We’d just bought the house and knew the garden needed good dirt. I brought the pallets home and spent a few weekends sawing and hammering in the early summer sun. The three bins turned out pretty well, rough but durable. The doors and lids hinged. I lined the insides with chicken wire to keep out the skunks. When I was done I filled the bins with our cast-off onion peelings and coffee grounds and melon rinds and leaves from the yard. I wanted those old pallets to hold a sort of cargo once more, to transmute cast-offs into something rich and full — not romantic exactly, but just what the chard and beans and pumpkins need.

Now we lie awake at night sometimes, with the windows open, and hear the train whistles fluting up the mesa, and if the wind is right perhaps catch a soft whiff of compost or of pea flowers. Sometimes, drifting off to sleep, the mind opens a bit and reminds us that things don’t move just one way in the world. Change doesn’t happen just once. Waste becomes vegetables becomes waste becomes vegetables again, on and on and on. From where we live, the tracks run both ways, and we can choose which way we’re headed.

Peter Friederici is an award-winning freelance journalist who writes about science, nature, and the environment from his home in Arizona. His articles, essays, and books tell stories of people, places, and the links between them.


  1. I, too, made compost/worm bins out of cast-off pallets from our local hardware/everything store. My four year old grandson and I have a Sunday ritual of feeding the worms. He looks in amazement at how many worms crawl, eat, live and die in our compost.

    The school that he will attend in two years has worm compost bins as well.

    Thanks for the story and the thoughts. It is so hard to look at the story behind the goods and see the pathway that our “things” have taken.

  2. “the tracks run both ways, and we can choose which way we’re headed.”

    And the trackless landscape runs free in all directions.

    It is, perhaps, time to get out of the train and off the tracks and return to right relation with the earth under our feet.

  3. If we’re lucky and smart, trains are going to make a big comeback. Instead of burning fossil fuels in jet planes, semis and cars, hauling our stuff and ourselves by rail is the sane thing to do.

  4. Another thoughtful and exquisite piece. Thanks Peter for helping bring greater awareness of ourselves, the places we live, and our connections with the Earth!

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