Eye in the sky

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UPDATE (July 29): According to a new article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the derailment in northern Pennsylvania was caused by speeding down a steep grade — the sort of thing that could have been prevented through better policing. 

The main east-west railroad line in the eastern United States, connecting Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and Chicago, runs past the bottom of our mountain. Our only access to the outside world is down a mile-and-a-half-long road to a public railroad crossing that serves nobody but us and our visitors, railroad employees, and occasional train photographers. On the other side of the tracks, a hundred yards of township road lead to a one-lane county bridge across the river to the highway beyond. Fisherman, teenagers swimming in the river, drug dealers, and people involved in, shall we say, other kinds of activities frowned upon by polite society, all use the township road and the small patch of woods between the tracks and the river.

The day before yesterday, my brother Steve had just gone out the gate and locked it behind him when a train came along. While he waited at the crossing, he decided to go check out a stand of vetch about fifty feet down along the tracks to see if there were any good beetles on it. Just as the first train was clearing the crossing, another train came thundering through in the other direction. He was still congratulating himself on his decision to make good use of his time when a railroad policeman pulled up.

“What’cha doin’, buddy?”

“Uh, I’m an insect collector. I just thought I’d check out these weeds while I waited for the crossing to clear. How did you know I was here?”

“We saw you in the satellite pictures. We’re on high alert, and we’re under orders to investigate anything that looks the least bit suspicious. Homeland Security and all.”

Steve explained who he was, and that we lived here.

“So that was you we saw walking into town along the tracks last Thursday?”

“No, that was my brother Dave.”

Steve asked if they bothered to interfere in any of the various shady activities that go on the other side of the tracks. No, but they were very aware of them. The railroad dick chuckled about watching people get naked in little clearings in the woods, never dreaming that someone might be watching from above.

When Steve reported this conversation to us later that evening, I think we each had the same, conflicted reaction. On the one hand, it’s a shame that the authorities feel we have to invest so much time and money protecting ourselves from terrorist threats at the same time that they turn a blind eye to so many social and environmental ills that a little bit of money could go a long way toward easing. And while Norfolk Southern was keeping an eagle eye on its main line, just last week a branch line in northern Pennsylvania saw a derailment that resulted in the spill of 47,000 gallons of sodium hydroxide into one of the state’s best trout streams, killing every living thing for twenty miles downstream. “The cause of the derailment remains under investigation,” says Norfolk Southern. This is the kind of thing that can and does happen around railroads, terrorists or not.

Further, in the view, I think, of all Plummer’s Hollow residents, the increasing militarization and privatization of domestic so-called security bodes ill for the long-term survival of the republic. “Homeland Security” already sounded like a cover for creeping fascism to us, so you can imagine how thrilled we were to have direct confirmation of our fear that we were in fact being watched — and not even by people on the public payroll.

On the other hand, as conservationists, we abhor the runaway expansion of the highway system with all its attendant costs in pollution, habitat fragmentation and economically unsustainable patterns of human settlement. It takes 100 times less diesel to ship freight by rail than by truck. If the government ever decided to shift taxpayer subsidies away from the trucking and petroleum industries and back to railroads, I think we’d all cheer, despite the cost to us in terms of added inconvenience and danger.

As I mentioned, we live only a mile and a half from the tracks. We have a pretty good idea of the kind of nasty stuff that goes by our crossing on virtually a daily basis. A major mishap or terrorist strike could easily render Plummer’s Hollow — not to mention all of Tyrone and vicinity, home to more than 5,000 people — uninhabitable. And in the event of such a disaster, given that our only access is across the tracks, how would we evacuate?

So you can understand why, the next time I have to walk into town, if the sky is clear, I’ll be looking up and giving a big, friendly wave. Nobody here but us chickens.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

17 Comments


  1. Trains have loomed large in my life, and to think they might be watching me the way I’ve been watching them all these years….Wow.

    By the way, I’ve been past your place dozens of times, although not in the last ten years. If only I’d been paying attention (or photographing via satellite), I could replay a visual memory your mountain. I wish I were as attentive as the railroad bulls.

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  2. Not knowing if Steve has a tendency for pranks, I confess I only half believe him. Are you sure this isn’t an elaborate joke?

    Or is this where we really live now…

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  3. Never attribute to malice what could more easily be explained by stupidity.

    Homeland Security can’t do shit about stupidity.

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  4. Patry – Thanks!

    Rebecca – Well, if you’re heading east from Tyrone, the very next spot where they blow the whistle is Plummer’s Hollow. (But only one train a day stops at Tyrone, so you’d most likely have to keep an eye out for that, too.)

    “Railroad bull” – that’s the other term I was groping for!

    Carmen – Thanks for stopping by. I enjoyed checking out your blog just now.

    Curt – Sorry, Steve wouldn’t make something like that up. I’ve known him for forty years, and believe me, I can tell when he’s slinging the bull.

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  5. Zhoen – I agree. Homeland Security is unlikely to prevent accidents from happening, but you never know.

    But of course the War on Terror and the creation of the HS department is itself a bit of a disaster, in my view. And I would argue that it resulted more from stupidity (ignorance, gullibility, crowd-following) than from malice. But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be too comforted by general bureaucratic incompetance, either. I think there are more foxes guarding henhouses now in the U.S. government than at any time in the past century.

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  6. (Hmm. My last comment seems fairly incoherent, even to me. Bad sign.)

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  7. Hi Dave, well, that’s what I thought you might say – that it’s no joke – unfortunately.

    I think I followed your comment about the war on terror and HS dept. and agree about ignorance, gullibility, and crowd-following. I do think a lot of people wanted revenge too though, in a malicious way. But more than all those things, I’d say fear is the primary mover. An unhealthy amount of fear (of anything not American) – and the fear still looks to be driving the country into a ditch. Just my perspective.

    Enjoyed the post. And I like the idea of waving up at the sky at this point.

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  8. Agreed about fear and the desire for revenge. I don’t tend to feel either emotion much, so I forget about them. (Ignorance, gullibility and crowd-following, on the other hand…)

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  9. I’m with you on the railroad subsidies. We’re crazy not to go to something like Germany’s support for its railroads. But then, like Jack Benny, I’m still a Whig.

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  10. Now you’ll have to add a verse to “Big Rock Candy Mountain” concerning spy satellites.

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  11. Dave, you know things have reached a new low when a guy can’t even sneak away for a moment to piss behind a beech tree without the nagging thought that someone somewhere is watching and, at the very least, snickering away.
    The freedom to pee at one’s pleasure will soon be a lost pleasure at the rate this homeland security bullshit is proceeding along its merry path.

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  12. Peter – I must confess I know nothing of Jack Benny or the Whigs.

    Karen – Not to mention “This Land is Your Land”…

    Alan – Actually, I’ve never much cared who might be watching. I like to act as if I’m as free as I think I am – in the sense at least of the old German folk song, Die Gedanken Sind Frei.

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  13. One perennial plank in the U.S. Whig party platform was to spend money on internal improvements, especially on railroads.

    Part of Benny’s shtick was being a fuddy-duddy. Someone asked him about his political affiliations, and he responded that he was still a Whig, saying that he found it difficult to switch parties.

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  14. Thanks for clearing that up, Peter. I consider myself a fuddy-duddy too – still haven’t accepted political parties, the Industrial Revolution, the European Enlightenment…

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