Warp and Woof

Posted by George Hamlin
on Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The website dictionary.com defines this idiom as follows: 

The essential foundation or base of any structure or organization; from weaving, in which the warp — the threads that run lengthwise — and the woof — the threads that run across — make up the fabric: “The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are the warp and woof of the American nation.”

Using the technique of weaving, it’s possible to construct works that are both evocative and long-lasting; tapestries being an example.  These can depict scenes in great detail, both historic and current.  And as the tapestry ages, the current eventually becomes the historic, assuming the tapestry is preserved for posterity.

While the pixels we make use of with digital photography aren’t weaving, per se, they accomplish essentially the same mission, particularly when they can be seen by others, either via electronic means, or when printed on objects, paper being a common choice.

Indeed, due to the ease and availability of printing from digital photo files, virtually anyone can engage in this act, even at home.  So what do these individual tapestries tell us, as they preserve moments in time?  What textures do they reveal?

Take a look at this recent (January 15, 2020) shot from White Post, Virginia, on Norfolk Southern’s “H-line”, the former Shenandoah Division of the Norfolk & Western.  There’s lots of texture here, some of which hints at both the past and the present.

The most obvious example of previous times is the portion of a commercial/industrial building seen at the left, paired with what’s left of the industrial siding used to serve the facility.  Once, even small towns such as this (and White Post is a very small town), generated traffic for the railroads passing through them. 

Hope springs eternal, since the property bears a sign stating that it is “Available for Sale”, although thus far, there don’t seem to be any takers, and even if there were, it would be likely that motor vehicles would be used to service the new business, rather than rail cars.  In the odd event that proves not to be true, some track maintenance and the addition of wheel stops would be in order, at the least.

The mist adds an emotional component to the scene, in that it keeps the larger context surrounding the scene somewhat mysterious; you probably can’t see it here, but there’s an automatic block signal in the distance displaying the green light of a “clear” indication for northbound traffic.  Slightly more visible are milepost 49 (from Hagerstown, Maryland) and a sign on the opposite side of the tracks indicating the start of a “test mile”. 

In reality, the overall context of the rail scene here is quite positive.  In the 1960s, for example, this portion of the Shenandoah Division saw the passage of three manifest freights in each direction.  Today, with the NS using this as their main artery for traffic between the northeast and points south, on peak days there are now five pairs of intermodal trains plying the heavy welded rail on this line, along with a remaining pair of manifests; in total, more than twice the number of through trains fifty years ago. 

Furthermore, quite a few of these now utilize DPUs (distributed power), and their length often exceeds that of the typical passing siding on this line five decades previous: virtually all then were in the range of 5 to 6 thousand feet.  Thus, there is a reason for the signal in the distant mist, as well as a need to use, and therefore, to check, locomotive speedometers.

This tapestry indicates that, in addition to looking at the clues that are visible, it’s also helpful to have knowledge of current operations to understand the scene in a broader context.  On the surface, in many ways, the quick impression of this location isn’t that different from fifty years ago, although I suspect that an N&W employee of that era returning to this place after a “Rip Van Winkle” experience would find it very difficult to understand why loaded coal trains now traverse this territory heading south, and not north…

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