It’s a rainy October Saturday. This week under the pandemic has been insufferably dystopian, with all kinds of preposterous news. After slowly making my way through Saturday morning I manage to drag myself out of the post-workweek daze for a walk under the trees, despite the rain.
It’s not raining very hard but there’s a steady drip, drip, drip that falls from the leaves on the trees above me as I leave the parking lot on the west side of the bridge. I make my way down the trail that winds under it, alongside the canal and the railroad that run parallel to the river as they flow along their triple paths towards town.
There is almost nobody else on the trail. It’s nice, not only because I am craving solitude today, but because in many places the path is narrow. When I’ve been on this trail in fair weather there are often bicycle enthusiasts speeding past on a regular basis, but today is too wet and muddy for these athletes, and for a couple of hours I have the trail mostly to myself, as I walk along the canal in the rain.
For a half mile or so the path is narrow. There is a chain link fence along my left, marking the southern boundary of the city’s beloved arboretum and gardens, and between this fence and the canal is a narrow strip of land that varies from as narrow as ten yards wide to perhaps thirty yards wide. The trail also rises and falls, and at times it’s slippery – I have to watch carefully as I walk along.
It’s still early October and the leaves have only just begun to turn. A few brown leaves are strewn here and there along the path, but for the most part trees still bear most of their summer green.
On my left the path now jogs alongside the arboretum’s Japanese Garden, and I peer through the chain links occasionally as I walk along, through cypresses and cedars and a bit of bamboo to the pond, bridges, and tidily curated pathways and loveliness of the Japanese Garden. I see visitors posing for photos, strollers, but the garden is not crowded – it’s raining, after all. A few Canadian geese paddle around the pond. I walk on.
Soon the path widens and runs like a dirt road alongside the canal and suddenly I hear the train approach from the west, behind me.
It’s not long before the train roars into sight and speeds ahead of me quickly, barreling down the track on the other side of the canal pulling car after car after car.
The passage of the train is like a concert for me alone, in an amphitheater nearly a half mile long and a hundred yards wide. The railroad track is the stage and the canal amplifies and resounds multiple layers of drones, hums, roars, and rattles that build upon each other, it’s a Tangerine Dream soundtrack, or a railroad symphony by Vangelis or Jean-Michel Jarre. Underneath these pulsing groans the passage of steel wheels grind across the rails, a rhythmic rumble that pushes forward relentlessly like a hiphop beat, or like my own heartbeat as I walk along.
There is something deeply incongruous about what I am witnessing: it feels surreal to walk along the idyllic footpath surrounded by trees and open water, while being simultaneously pummeled with this overwhelming mechanical din.
The sounds quickly become very loud – if I were walking with a friend, we would have to shout in each other’s ears to be heard over it. But I’m alone today, and I marvel at the train’s recital. Like an orchestra, it has an overall sound of its own, the “sound of the train”, but also like an ensemble the thunderous clamor it produces is composed of many distinct, individual tracks, almost all of which pulse and hum rhythmically, yet somehow without ever aligning into a coherent beat. They all play in different meters, at different tempi. I listen as I walk along the canal, watching the open container cars full of coal speed by.
Drip, drip, drip. There is no tree cover for me here, and my shirt has gotten pretty wet by now, but I don’t care, a hat keeps the water off my face and out of my eyes and I am enjoying the train concert, which has been going on for ten minutes or more now, echoing off the canal and blasting in every direction with the volume of a rocknroll show.
Except there’s no crowd. It’s just me, by myself, walking along in the rain. Now I near the end of the amphitheater, and the width of the canal tapers to its narrowest, bringing the footpath and the train track to the point where they are closest (and where the concert is loudest). A sustained, high pitched whine, like a flute played by a demon, enters the mix, at first imperceptibly, but growing in volume and intensity very slowly and insistently, the longest, slowest crescendo from hell that quickly passes double, triple, quadruple fortissimo but doesn’t stop growing in volume until it has overwhelmed and obscured almost all of the rest of the train symphony and I suddenly realize that it has almost come to the double bar: the engineer has put on the brakes! and indeed the dozens of cars full of coal have slowed their passage and nearly come to a halt, which they soon do as the entire cacophony quickly fades and expires like the last breath of a dying monster.
Now it’s quiet and I’ve come to the end of the track: here a wooden walkway has been built, broad enough to accommodate the bicycle enthusiasts. It’s a considerable construction, and includes a wide ramp without stairs – this is very wet and slippery, treacherous in fact, and I carefully haul myself up the steep incline, gripping the railing with both arms. No bicycle could make its way up this ramp today – I lose my footing more than once. When I finally get to the top I find I have reached a fork in the trail: to the left, the ramp continues uphill and leads to the street, while to the right, the wooden walkway comes to an end and the path enters the bamboo thicket.
I have been here before. This small thicket of bamboo is somewhat bigger than the stands of bamboo I have seen in a handful of yards in neighborhoods around town, but not really big enough to be considered a grove, not yet, not for some time I suppose, if it were allowed to grow without limitation. There are perhaps a few thousand stalks huddled here on a small rise above the canal, and the path jogs up and down as it passes through the thicket. One can hike through it in less than a minute, but I don’t just push on: a bamboo thicket is comparatively rare here, on this continent, in Virginia. This is one of the highlights of this trail; in fact, for me, it’s the main attraction.
I wonder how it got here. Did someone plant it? Is it a colony from a stand of bamboo in the arboretum, established by a spur of subterranean tendrils sent to explore lands beyond the chain link fence? I wonder. It would be a long journey underground, a distance of a quarter mile or more, from the bamboo I saw in the Japanese Garden to this thicket. I imagine the first green sprouts emerging from the ground here, mysteriously, just bamboo bursting through the ground spontaneously, a hemisphere away from the lands from whence it originated, plant emissaries from the East. How long ago was it, ten years? Twenty? Forty? I have no idea how long it would take for a bamboo thicket like this to spring forth from the earth. I know it grows very fast compared to native species in Virginia, here in the New World, which is not really new, nor is it a different world – we live in just one world – but still a different part of the world with a different history from other parts of the world, including the parts of the world bamboo comes from.
Some might say that bamboo does not belong here, it’s an invasive species, we should eradicate it, stamp it out! but I am glad it’s here, that I am standing here right now, in this thicket.
The light is different here, surrounded by the tall stalks, who are so much straighter, so much more erect in their reaching for the sun than the native trees and bushes everywhere else around. It’s a greener light, a light that has bounced off hundreds of the slender jade pillars before it reaches my eyes, and I stand still for a few moments, just breathing and taking it in.
There is no one else here.
Standing still, I breathe a few quiet breaths, surrounded by the thicket on all sides.
I have never seen another human here, other than companions who were walking the trail with me, and today I don’t see any animals, either. I wonder what our native animals make of these plants, so different from everything else they know, alien plant sentinels bursting through the ground like green rockets in slow motion, do the squirrels dare each other to scamper through the bamboo thicket, as if such an alien place vibrant with life could hold mysterious untold dangers? I don’t know what kinds of animals live in bamboo thickets. In China, giant pandas live in bamboo forests, and eat bamboo, but this is not China. I think about this for a moment, and imagine a giant panda ambling along the path ahead of me, but no panda materializes. It’s a small thicket anyway; any respectable panda would likely make a quick lunch of the thicket and move on.
After walking the length of the thicket, up and down the little rise and fall of the trail as it passes between the giant green needles straining skyward, I turn and survey the thicket from the other side, then slowly walk back. There is a house up on the hill above but it is pretty far away, out of earshot, and mostly I just feel alone here, right now, serenely alone with the bamboo.
I wonder if others will find this bamboo thicket to be a place of serenity and peace too, and bring small offerings or tokens to express gratitude and reverence for the spirits that live here, for the spirit of the thicket. It would not surprise me to catch a glimpse of a spirit house lurking at the edge of sight, tucked away behind the green stalks to one side of the path or the other. Maybe some day I will come here and find signs that others have come and found peace here too, flowers or totems or more whimsical monuments of reverence, or dolmens or stupas. Maybe over time the bamboo thicket will expand to become a grove, a destination renowned throughout the region, the only bamboo grove in city limits, a symbol of peace and serenity for all, a place of pilgrimage. Giant pandas will come from China to visit.
Or maybe it will stay just like this, a small unadorned bamboo thicket overlooking the canal by the railway, one can walk through it in less than a minute. I look around one last time, and head back toward the bridge.