Thoughts on the forest

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In the comments on a previous post about progress on the Lynn Valley forest, Mike Cougill asked:

With the addition of the trees, how are you and your guest operators adjusting to the view?

It’s a great question and I felt the answers deserved more prominence on the blog, so I’m copying them from the comments on that previous post into this post.

To start the ball rolling, here are my impressions as the layout designer and builder:

This area has developed rather quickly. It’s gone from a very spare scene dominated by grass to a forest…

That said, I planned from the beginning that this area would be forest. I felt it would offer me a different modelling challenge than the open areas of Port Rowan and St Williams. And when operating, I’ve always envisioned this area to be full of trees. Therefore, my perception of the area hadn’t undergone much by way of adjustment.

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Hunter Hughson operated on the layout a couple of weekends ago, and offered these observations:

The new forest makes a huge difference…

When I most recently operated on the layout, I felt that there were three distinct locales emerging on the layout – Port Rowan, Lynn Valley, and St. Williams. One very important factor contributing to the realism of the layout is that the entire train is within a single locale while work is being done there. For instance, work at St. Williams involves stopping for waybills and spotting cars on the team track accordingly. The locomotive and train never move into the next scenic space do any of that work. The same is true for the Lynn Valley and Port Rowan locales.

Each locale is comprised of a number of intimate scenes. The Lynn Valley, where Trevor has most recently planted trees, serves to break up the flat farmland/flatland scenes of St. Williams and Port Rowan. The locale is comprised of a number of engaging and well-planned vignettes. The branch line operating speed affords the crew some time to enjoy the subtle variety. None of this feels forced or rushed because the landforms, river bed, and forest canopy are comprised of natural and familiar lines, colours and textures. The visual effect of all of this is amplified by the soundscape, featuring cicadas and a range of bird species.

Trevor was still in the process of building and planting trees, but it was clear to me that the Lynn Valley is in the process of being transformed from a transitional space between two locales to a locale with its very own strong sense of place.

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Chris Abbott, who took part in last weekend’s operating session, used the question posed by Mike to make some observations about the role of trees in every locale my layout represents:

Port Rowan’s trees, which most properly dwarf the trains, provide an analogue of urban canyons with its silent looming structures – but in bright green & gold instead of drab brick, grimy cinder block, and rust splotched corrugated iron. The semi-transparency of the delicate foliage allows the simulated sunlight to vividly dapple the equipment as it rolls through a lush countryside strongly reminiscent of the rural setting of my boyhood home.

The effort of accurately capturing the lackadaisical droop of the willow and stark white of the birch trunk (amongst a myriad of other details) instead of the vague and unsatisfying caricature presented by popsicle sticks and garishly dyed reindeer food is a welcome visual treat offering rich texture and depth not present on the vast majority of layouts in this or any other age.

Currently, the actors enter the stage through an evergreen curtain to trundle along the edge of a hinted-at vast field of tobacco (a crop prominent at my childhood locale), cross the distinct separation provided by a wide public road, and stop under an almost ethereal canopy providing shade to the St. Williams station platform. The arrival of the train greatly entertains wide-eyed children peeking from their impregnable treehouse nestled in the boughs above a tidy row of neighbouring homes.

Returning once more into the full light of day, the equipment arrives at the St. William’s siding – parenthesised as it is by the grove encompassing the station and the bold edge of the Lynn Valley’s forest. Shunting activity is greatly eased by depicting only gently rolling terrain and a low stand of corn between operator and track.

Continuing on towards the Lynn Valley, the train plunges headlong into a shadowed tunnel of leaf laden, arched limbs to quietly disappear behind a stand of massive trunks, affording only tantalising glimpses of our lead player as it rounds the broad curve therein. Bursting back into the light only moments later, it coasts over the low trestle spanning the tranquil river.

Our protagonist drifts along as it approaches the water tank, largely ensconced by a towering backdrop of primeval forest stretching off towards a dark and foreboding distant sky. More winding water under the girders of a characteristic bridge leads the eye to a herd of cattle obtaining refreshment from the flow and respite from the harsh sunlight in the cool shade of the trees edging the river banks.

Itself replenished, the train surges forward once more, thumping mightily over the aforementioned bridge deck, exiting yet again into the stark brightness of the summer’s day. Wending its way through a reverse curve, it approaches the organised splendour of an orchard of apple trees which, in appropriate contrast to the wilds of the virgin forest and in consideration of the manual gathering operations of the time, is pruned to permit harvest via step ladders and a ubiquitous pickup truck.

Once through the orchard, wide expanses of low grasses (studded liberally with wildflowers and hiding an array of local fauna) offer excellent and unimpeded access to the (relatively) extensive trackage of the Port Rowan terminus and its associated rural industries.

While it remains for more trees to be added to this end of the layout, careful placement will retain access to all necessary points of uncoupling while likely creating yet another scenic break between the team & coal track areas, and the station & Co-Op zones proper.

The addition of the trees to date has already created, to my mind, 7 visually distinct zones on the layout. If the terminal peninsula were to be visually split, (as suggested above) there would then be 8 such zones. Quite an achievement considering the small footprint of the benchwork, all without resorting to the threadbare artifice of diving through backdrops or making mountains out of molehills.

It’s interesting to see how different people interpret the same scene – and I’m pleased by how my friends are reacting to the evolution of the Lynn Valley. Hunter and Chris have done an excellent job, I think, of analyzing the role of the forest – and they’ve definitely picked up on the design goals I had in mind for the forest when planning the layout, which tells me that my plan is working as it should.

Hunter, Chris – thanks for your thoughts on this. And Mike – thanks again for asking the question!

10 thoughts on “Thoughts on the forest

  1. One reason why this is the only model railroad forum that in check daily is because you regularly give the philosophy of why you are doing something, why you are adding this particular thing in this spot. To me that is the main reason your layout has a reason for existing and looks it, rather than just being bit of track with various scenic aspects added here and there.

    it is something that I hope to do with my own railroad and has always beeen part of my planning. As mine is a freelance model it was important for me to create a history and even some people to explain why my riaroad does some things a bit different then other narrow gauge of the period.

  2. Excellent description of how you have separated scenes in a very limited space and created the feeling of distance between scenes that seems real. With your permission, I would like to copy your scene-to-scene philosophy on my layout.
    Phil Gliebe
    Waynesville, Ohio

    • Hi Phil:

      There’s no need to seek my permission. But be sure to do what works for your own goals, layout space, etc.

      Every layout has its own personality. What works for one layout may not work for another. Your mileage may vary…


  3. Well, not copy, but leave space for scene breaks similar to what you have done. I’m modeling Northern Wisconsin, so pine trees work for me, and I’ve got a yard scene, an intermediate industry and a junction to connect, in a similar footprint.
    Philip Gliebe

    • Ah – I misunderstood.

      Still, no need to ask for permission! I’m flattered that others are getting ideas from this blog.


  4. By the way, I must compliment you on how you wind up your layout visits with a trip to a local establishment for dining, conversation and liquid whole-grain beverages to quench your thirst! That is a fine way to recap the day’s activities!
    I wish I lived closer!

    • Hi Phil:
      Thanks. Yes – I usually try to turn get-togethers and layout visits into social gatherings – and food and drink are an important part of that.
      Toronto’s not that far – and there’s lots to do here.

  5. Trevor, Chris and Hunter,

    Thank you all for such thoughtful responses. I wasn’t expecting them.


  6. Hi Trevor, I agree with the other comments and like the “feel” you have created
    of a rural setting; nothing is rushed and the railroad has intruded on nature, but does not dominate the scenes. Great work! Cheers, Gord

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