Walden Pond is the Galapagos Islands for English majors. The transcendental musings of Henry David Thoreau are rooted in his experience there, and those writings made him something along the lines of America’s version of William Wordsworth, both of them having limned the place where not town and country so much as human and nature meet, overlap, do battle, make peace, conspire.
The pond stands as a place to witness where Thoreau conceived of the American experience in terms that continue to resonate, in matters practical (in terms of ecology), political and poetic. We visit Walden to stand where location informed one of the country’s great philosophers, where Walden became Walden. Philosophy is heady stuff, and place helps to make it visceral — even if falsely so.
What I didn’t recall until I read the essay “Walden + Railroad + Sound” by Penn State York professor Michael Jarrett is that a railroad (the Fitchburg) ran “right beside the bank of Walden Pond.” In the essay, Jarrett quotes Thoreau scholar Robert D. Richardson, Jr., to the effect that Walden “was anything but peaceful. … One could see the new railroad from almost any point on the pond.” I haven’t read Thoreau’s Walden since shortly after college, when a friend’s fascination with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self Reliance sent me back to the work of Emerson’s peers — and in my imagination, it’s the pond itself that is the focus of Walden. But of course, the rail is repeatedly mentioned in Walden. Thoreau informs us: “The Fitchburg Railroad touches the pond about a hundred rods south of where I dwell.” It’s just nostalgia and a hazy memory that turn Walden (and, thus, Walden) into some sort of idyll.
Railroads have long been a source of fascination for Jarrett, and in this essay he dives deep into how Thoreau’s wrestling with the rail’s presence has meaning for us today, as we wrestle with a new imposition of the man-made upon our senses, in the form of lives increasingly mediated by digital media; the essays traces the line between literacy and post-literacy. Jarrett’s also much more appreciative of rails than was Thoreau, who wrote in Walden: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”
Jarret doesn’t just ride the railroad; he kicks back and listens to it. At the very end of the essay, he quotes a member of Kraftwerk: “As soon as you travel in a train, you’re in a musical instrument.” That’s a perspective he took to heart. Using the sonorousness of the train as a starting point, he created a mixtape to complement the essay. The hour-long track (yeah, double meaning understood) combines the subdued groove of a song by the Austrian jazz trio the Necks and a field recording of a rail journey (MP3). Jarrett writes of the audio experiment:
Elemental stuff, my remix–a mash-up really–relies heavily on a field recording I made, while in British Columbia, riding Vancouver’s SkyTrain. I hear the loud hum (or, maybe, it’s a pleasant roar) of “the world’s longest automated light rapid transit system”as a giant Buddha Machine.
The mix has many elements: the Necks’ slow burn of a rhythm, the lulling rattle of the rail, the mechanical action of the train stopping and starting. If any single element can be said to stand out, to jar, it’s the human voice. A woman is heard, but in a series of passenger instructions that feel no less automated than does the train. Men, however, are heard on several occasions ranting at an uncomfortable proximity. In the audioscape that Jarrett has yoked together, rail, automation and song are one; it’s humans who interrupt. What would Thoreau make of that?
Jarrett’s train tune, 60 minutes long, is built on a Necks track called Drive By, which was released in 2004 as a single-song album. No doubt he was attracted to the Necks piece for that extended playing time; for its opening synthesized tones, which resemble the pings of public-transportation turnstiles; for the hypnotic nature of its steady pace; and for the Necks’ own employment of field recordings. Heard during the original are what sound like waves, crowd noise and insects (the latter being another form of crowd noise, I suppose).
The full essay, in draft PDF stage, is available, fittingly, at emerson.edu. Oh, and I can’t take credit for the “Thoreau Listening” pun — that was the subject line of an email Jarrett sent to me. Visit his home page at yk.psu.edu/~jmj3. Check out the Necks at thenecks.com. And (re)read Walden at Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org) or in annotated hypertext form at thoreau.eserver.org. Back in December 2005, Jarrett participated in the Disquiet.com online discussion “After ‘Thursday Afternoon,'” in which he, science fiction writer Richard Kadrey and musician Robert Henke (aka Monolake) compared notes on the great Brian Eno record, another album that consists of a single track.