Treetops in the distance seem to march forward in the same direction as the train

This was always so fascinating in my childhood memory of riding a train and gazing the passing view outside the window. The distant trees eventually go past us but the emerging trees that take their place still move forward. Years later I discovered, of course, that the distant scene recedes more slowly than the foreground scene and create the illusion that it is going forward. The forward motion is only relative to the passing scene nearer the foreground that go flying past by.

From the ship moving away from the harbor, the town seems to recede, as Galileo observed, though it is the ship that is in motion and not the town. So the sun seems to move around the earth but actually stands still. When the train on the adjacent track next to the one you are on starts to move you feel that your train started to go backward, as does when an express train alongside your train overtakes it.

Even with a full understanding of the mechanics of vision and motion, these phenomena are intriguing; they intrigue me immeasurably. Any phenomenon that contradicts sense perception disorients us; and trying to understand it gives us a sense of wonder. I still find marching treetops a bit mysterious and gazing at them a bit magical. They make me a child again.

This is one of the things that give me a special pleasure riding trains. We can see marching treetops while riding a car, too, if we are not driving ourselves. But in the passenger seat of a car our sideview attention is distracted by the view ahead that the train does not provide. One can ride a bus and experience marching treetops as well; but it is different. Our view out of the window of a bus is geared to take the scene diagonally perhaps because the front of the bus is constantly in our consciousness; and it lacks the insistent clickety-clack of the train that supplies a rhythmic sound effect to the marching scene.

The train also runs close to the embankment on which the rails are laid whereas a wider shoulder is allowed for the highway on which cars run. So, the view down an embankment overlooking an underpass, a winding road with little houses, or a deep ravine, gives a bird's-eye view, like an architect's model. I found such a view thrilling as a child and still do. I think of such views of intersecting lines and spaces as an architectural drama.

There were two different ways of going by train from our house in Tokyo to the outer city where my maternal relatives lived. The third way was by bus. One of the courses by train required changing the trains; these were suburban trains, and the two lines crisscrossed at the station where I changed, one running on trestles and the other on a curving underpass. I loved the geometry of this arrangement and the view one could have of the arriving train on the other line as I got off the train of the first line. I still remember vividly the spatial drama of that place, and that may have been my first awareness of spatial geometry underlying architecture beyond the sculpture of toy blocks. I also learned the names of all the stations on these lines by heart in right sequence, the basis of my cataloging habit. It's the game I still play in my weekly train ride to and from New York.

I started communting by trolley when I entered the fifth grade in the new school a good distance away from our neighborhood. The ride on the steep embankment along the moat of the Imperial Palace was particularly thrilling, sometimes riding on the tread and hanging on the handle bar as one does on the San Francisco cablecar. My special delight was always the shifting perspective as the trolley coasted on its winding tracks. Tracking shots made every view interesting -- hills, meadows, ponds, and rows of ordinary houses, even roadside debris, dilapidated buildings, and weed-covered back roads.

The commute in my high school years took an hour each way every day. It implanted in my body a special sympathy for the rumbling sensation of the train ride which is missing from the ride in a motor vehicle.

Today, in my weekly commute to New York, I take a suburban train from Philadelphia to Trenton and change to New Jersey Transit to Penn Station. This stretch takes two-and-a-half hours. It takes longer than the Amtrak but costs much less. The fact that it runs more slowly and makes many stops on the way, is, so far as I am concerned, an asset rather than a liability. The fact that it rides less smoothly is a special attraction. Then, although I habitually read on the train, it is comforting to look up occasionally to see the view out of the window and to have the visual experience that transports me back to my childhood. Far from an inconvenience, a train ride for me is still a treat. I have never lost this strangely firm and deep affinity to train rides.



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T. Kaori Kitao, 11.20.02