The next installment of Beatrice Page’s Landscape With Figures:
“Had to drive over to town for some things I couldn’t get in the village, and was stopped on the way when the gates came down at a railroad crossing. Just for a local commuter train, of course. If only it could have been for a long freight: So much time has passed since I’ve lived in any area where I was lucky enough to see one occasionally. In memory I can still hear the growing rumble as it approached, along with the metrical clickety-clack of the wheels as it passed, and then the fading rumble as it moved off into the distance. Such a steady, purposeful, reliable sound – suggesting a long burdensome journey carried out with uncomplaining fortitude.
I remember how I used to chant the names of the cars as they passed: Southern Pacific; Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe; Norfolk and Western; Illinois Central…whatever and wherever I happened to be. How many still exist, I wonder?
And always I watched hopefully for a car bearing the legend Great Northern, those words that gave me an eerie thrill as I envisioned the train traveling across a darkling plain (the poetic adjective feels right) whose bleakness was not softened even by snow. The darkness in my mental picture was juts dusk, not night – a sustained dusk, forever empty of sun or moon or stars.
It almost seemed to me I could hear the long-drawn-out wail of the horn at intervals, not so much a warning as an exploratory probing of the vastness and semi-dark, a sound wild and primitive and mysterious.
The word Great Northern on a far-journeying freight evoked those particular images. But almost any name or word or phrase seen anywhere, containing the syllable “north” produces a similar haunting thrill although the attendant images may vary. Sometimes I think of wolves howling in primeval forests, or of wild horses galloping across an empty prairie under a lowering sky. I think of a wind that has blown over vast distances. Northumberland is such a name, for instance. Or even words like Norse or Norwood, lacking the “th” if the meaning is still “north.”
Not only words. There are certain landscapes and objects that inspire what I call a “northern mood” but cannot describe. It contains an element of longing for something far away and long ago, something that is mostly stark, bleak, cold, primordial. A wedge of wild geese silhouetted against a grey sky, for some unknown reason, is a hieroglyph for it. So is a picture of Stonehenge. Or a bare tree under a November sky. I sometimes feel it in the music of Sibelius. Or smell it in wet lumber on a rainy day. It comes and goes in an instant and I have learned that to concentrate on the sensation, to try to seize it, is a sure way to frighten it off.
I used to try to find out if other people experienced this strange mood and what they called it. The only response I ever got was “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” (which was not surprising considering how difficult it was to put into words), or a stereotyped shiver with “I hate the cold.” So do I for that matter. The kind of cold I’m talking about has nothing to do with temperature.
Since then I have found one friend, Diane, whose eyes lighted up with instant understanding when I ventured to mention the subject. She was born and reared in Minnesota and may have descended from old Norse gods who emigrated to our northern forests when Scandinavia refused to harbor them any longer.