It was a slow afternoon. I had been working hard around the house — something I am loath to do — but things had finally come to a halt. I was sitting around, minding my own business, trying my best not to be bored, but lacking the space, tools or inclination to do something pleasurably constructive. It happens to us all. I decided to go for a walk along the rail tracks near the house. I like “running the rails,” although there is no running in the heat and I’m not exactly hopping the boxcars like Woody Guthrie, although I do like to launch into a verse or two of “Hard Traveling” as I walk. The tracks are perfect. They are for the most part quiet. And when the occasional train does deem fit to disturb the peace, it is wonderful to stand 10-feet away as the giant heaves and squeals its way past. The magnitude of its lumbering bulk fascinates me as I watch the wheels strain under its weight, the wooden struts creaking.

On this day there is no train. As I walk, the railroad ties always just the wrong distance for a decent stride causing me to adjust, sometimes reaching, sometimes short hopping to stay on the flat surface instead of the loose stones, I see a pile of bones. At first, just a couple, but a few ties down, more. Then a solid grouping. I take photos. I always take photos of the tracks. Some days it’s the oily wood. Some days it’s the shapes of the stones. It quickly becomes apparent that today it’s bones. I am barely 400 yards farther down the tracks when I see a couple of jaw bones. A few feet farther, a lovely spine. Ooh, look, a lovely intact skull.

I begin to wonder about these animals. I wonder about the scatter pattern. I have seen many busted carcasses and watched over days as they decay. But these bones are spread along the tracks. The dispersal pattern is different with each one. I know that scavengers pick over the bones, dragging them along as thy pick over the meat. Others quickly degrade through heat before ants and other bugs pick the bones clean.

And they are clean. The oldest bones, bleached by the sun, are the purest white, the most pure white I have ever seen. The kind of white I strive for in my paintings. Not a lot of it, but a few smatterings enough to suggest… what? Purity? Innocence? Death? Why is death, in Western culture, designated as black when in the East it is white?

I like the idea of white representing death. It is the color of the bones on the track. The death of these animals (almost all possums, from what I can tell. Which, by the way, are my favorite animals but that’s a whole other story). I take some comfort from the randomness of the bones. Life is random after all, why not death? We take such pains to spend ridiculous amounts of money to organize our deaths. The right coffin, the right burial plot, the exact hymn at the service. Some take ashes and spread them to the winds, but that is still arranged, and one has to get permission to spread Uncle Frank’s ashes in the bunker at his favorite golf hole.

What if my body was just left on the tracks, where I loved to walk, for the scavengers to pull apart, and the bugs to pick on, and the sun to bleach until my bones are the purest white? Maybe, when my bones are the whitest white my artist friends can grind them up to make paint. That would be kind of cool. But I’m sure there’s some city ordinance about that, and besides, some living person would probably object.

So, I guess I will content myself with a photo essay to honor my wildlife friends who sacrificed themselves on the altar of transportation. I salute you. You reach out to me and say, “Once I was as you are now, one day you will be as I.”

2 thoughts on “Rail Track Memento Mori: A Photo Essay

  1. I love it, Andy! I think it’s possible to donate your body to the forensic anthropology program at Texas State and they will put it out on their property somewhere and study what happens to it. I’ve always thought that would be kind of cool.

    1. Thanks, Donna. I have thought about that recently. After donating all the bits that can be useful to others, I am totally open to the forensic route. Anything to avoid the prohibitive costs of a funeral.

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