Tuesday, October 2, 2007

What Am I Modeling?

Railroads are intensely interesting to me. Modeling is intensely interesting to me. It should therefore come as no surprise that I am a model railroader, and have been since the mid-60s. But what specifically am I modeling, and why is it all so intensely interesting?

Ed has previously explored some the many kinds of modeling that we do. Some choose to recreate the day-to-day operations of a line of interest. Some wish to accurately represent a railroad and its setting with no desire to reproduce its operations. Others have no inclination to remain faithful to any real railroad, and simply enjoy seeing model trains in action. These are but a few of the many possible flavors of modeler.

I've had a hard time classifying my modeling. While I am generally reticent to pigeon-hole myself, recent forum discussions and blog entries have had me pondering the meaning and purpose of my modeling efforts. Presently I am sitting on a commuter train bound for New York City, and as I have on nearly every such trip I've taken—which is a great many, since at one time I commuted to the Big Apple for several years—I am passing the time by studying the railroad.

I see countless disused spurs, bridges, industries and other railroading artifacts—so many that it's often depressing. For example, I am right now passing a big old factory complex near Newark, a sprawling sea of crumbling brick laced with a cobweb of rails buried in dirt. I wish I'd brought my camera. But this is a business trip, and I prefer to travel as lightly as possible, so I have only my laptop.

Perhaps it's just as well that I am without camera; I might otherwise be focused on taking photographs. Instead I'm focused on my feelings as I study the world outside, and recording them in near-real time. As a result, I'm coming to a better sense of my modeling passion: I want to bottle the bittersweet, melancholy mood I experience as I take in the remains of that great icon of the industrial revolution.

It explains why my last layout had so much abandoned track. I rationalized it as a means to heighten the realism of a modern-day setting; yet, for practical reasons, we all model things selectively, so why would I choose to include so much of something most modelers rightfully consider a waste of precious real estate? Because it supported the mood I wished to capture and convey.

My last layout also featured a vast factory complex, all abandoned save for a small recycling center staked out under an old transfer crane. One of the recycling center's most prominent features was an enormous pile of palettes, which was inspired by one that I passed on my commuter trips. The factory was an amalgam of many such places in and around Trenton, not far from where I lived.

A favorite activity of mine is chasing down old rail lines. I get a little thrill when I spot a strip of trees marking the path of a long-abandoned right-of-way, and then find it on an old map. For a long time I harbored a desire to render a map of New Jersey that detailed the condition of every rail line that ever existed in the state, all supported by field research. After a while, I came to realize that this was a much bigger task than I was ready to tackle, not to mention that I'd probably be eternally frustrated not being able to model everything I found.

I also have this inexplicable attraction to abandoned factories. Anything from a few telltale foundation stones peeking out from beneath the brambles in a wooded lot to enormous brick mausoleums housing the rusted remains of machinery—I'm drawn to them like a moth to candles. And if the factory was served by rail, all the better.

Thus the recurring theme of my recent modeling has been a depiction not of what was, as in period modeling, but of what remains. Somehow, owing to my singular personality, seeing things that are still standing is more evocative than seeing things the way they used to be. It's as if I'm an archaeologist (which I might have been in an alternate life) preserving artifacts as they are just before the dig or the reconstruction.

I'm not a rivet counter, but I enjoy modeling things with lots of rusty old rivets, and doing so as realistically as possible. I'm not married to modeling a particular railroad, but there are a few real roads that attract my attention because of where and when they ran. I'm not much interested in operation, but I do like learning about it, if only to get a feel for what used to take place among the weeds where I'm standing. I'm not much closer to comprehending why this is all so for me, but at least I've connected some of the dots and finally become better aware of what exactly I'm modeling.

I am modeling a mood.

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