I went for a long walk last Saturday to get away for a few hours from the stress of continuous COVID-19 coverage. My route took me south, along the rail trail linking Lindsay with Bethany – a journey through serene woodland and wetland waking from its winter slumber.
As I briskly walked along the muddy path, the sun piercing through the trees lining either side of the trail, I studied my surroundings and thought about two things in light of the current crisis.
First, was the air of abandonment. A once-bustling transportation corridor now silent, the few relics of man-made infrastructure slowly being reclaimed by nature. Opened in 1912 to facilitate the movement of grain from the Great Lakes to Montreal, this line finally gave up the ghost in the late 1980s; the rails lifted and the creosoted crossties carelessly cast aside to rot; the shrieking whistles and associated clatter of passing trains passed into history; the conversations which once transpired between people travelling this very route vanished into the mists of time. Today, it is but a shadow of its former self.
Looking at this quiet landscape, I was reminded of the pictures currently coming out of places like New York City – a bustling metropolis brought to a standstill, the cacophony of man-made sounds muted. We aren’t used to seeing our streets silent, our vital social and economic infrastructure as quiescent as an abandoned rail corridor, with the chirping of birds, the rustling of trees, and the rushing of water from the spring runoff being the only sounds making their presence known.
The silence, as the cliché goes, is deafening.
The second thing I noticed on my walk were the ancient line poles dotting the west side of the trail; their wooden cross-beams silhouetted in the sky, an occasional glass insulator glistening in the sunlight. For years, these poles carried telegraph wires, which hummed with activity day and night as people from far and wide communicated with one another through Morse code. Each dash and dot translated into a message purveying news both good and bad. With changes in technology, the telegraph lines were cut, leaving the poles looking strangely isolated from one another.
Passing each pole, I thought of what a blessing communications technologies are, especially in these times. We now have far more options on hand than our counterparts did a century ago, when the telegraph wires between Lindsay and Bethany were buzzing with messages. We have Facebook and Facetime, telephones and text messaging, Skype and Snapchat. But we are social creatures, and in our bones we know that these options, amazing though they may be, are but a pale shadow of face-to-face, human-to-human contact. Even the telegram “hot off the wire” was no substitute for that familiar face descending from a railway carriage into a crowd of waiting family members huddled together on the station platform.
And so we wait for the world’s major metropolises and small communities alike to bustle with activity again; for main streets to throng with pedestrians and cyclists; for school hallways to be alive with the chatter of young people; for theatres and restaurants to re-echo with conversation and laughter. In the meantime, we stay in touch with one another using a smorgasbord of communication technologies at hand, knowing that these are but substitutes for the real thing: said Corinthians, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, then face to face.”