The Porous Surface

“The Friendly City” is a weekly column about walking in Harrisonburg that will run during 2024. Each week, your friendly correspondent, writer and teacher Sofia Samatar, will reflect on a walk in our city. 

In the Friendly City, March has many moods. It’s not just that it comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, as in the proverb. March is a grab bag of textures, featuring extremes of hardness and softness that seem unrelated, as if they’re happening not at different times but in different countries. There are bright, pale, golden days, when the atmosphere is as flat and dry and clean as a plate glass window, and other days, cottony and gray as a cat’s fur, when the budding trees appear to be bandaged in the damp wool batting of the sky.

Today is one of those soft, drizzly, chilly days. I’m wearing my gloves and boots, but the daffodils trumpet from the yards, these gilded bugles, the heralds of spring, their color so intense it seems to ring out like a sound. Underneath them, peeping up in their bright yellow, striped, and purple gowns, the crocuses add their children’s chorus. I am going down to the creek, Blacks Run, a hardy stretch of water that twists stubbornly through the city, finding its way to Cooks Creek, the North River, and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.

Blacks Run is a creek with grit, both metaphorical and literal: it’s tenacious and dirty. Peering over the bridge at Rock Street, I watch the shallow, slaty water flowing over the stones, coiling around clumps of grass, Styrofoam cups, cartons, and plastic bags. Local legend holds that the name Blacks Run has its origin in filth, since the water ran dark in the days of the tannery that used to stand downtown, where the parking garage is now, dumping tannins and other chemicals into the stream. In the 1990s, sewage was still being piped straight into Blacks Run. In 1996, I read, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality declared the creek impaired. Since then, restoration efforts and a community cleanup campaign have made some improvements, making Blacks Run attractive to ducks and even a few fish.

The creek hasn’t fully healed. It’s still impaired, its water sickened by fertilizers and waste, but the ducks flock to it. As I walk along its edge, a huge drake flies up from under the bridge, then touches down on the water, its jeweled head upraised. The brilliant white of its throat is a fleck of silver in the gloom. I think of the iridescent head of a drake as its most dramatic feature, but between the green head and brown back, in this corridor of drab water and leafless trees, it’s the pure white throat that strikes the eye. To follow the creek, I walk through a parking lot behind an apartment building, finding more ducks squatting placidly on the pavement. Soon their families will be stopping traffic on Liberty Street, where a line of sluggish cars, creeping forward by inches and honking their horns, is a sure sign of spring.

Dumpsters. Trash spilling into the creek: plastic bottles and forks, chip bags, an old pair of jeans. Then, at Liberty Park, a rain garden on the bank, where a signboard explains how the garden filters water before it seeps into the ground, reducing pollution and erosion. “This mimics the natural system in an area before it is developed with impervious surfaces such as sidewalks, parking lots, and roofs.” Most of the time, I walk on impervious surfaces, but today I’m trying to follow the porous surface. What could embody this quality more fully than the creek, so open and responsive it forms a circle of ripples for each drop of rain?

Blacks Run ducks under the street, so I cross to find it on the other side, then suddenly it disappears again beneath the tarmac, popping up on the opposite side, so I cross again. The creek dances with the street, making a pattern of hardness and softness like March weather. Now it wriggles under the old Wetsel Seed Company building, its progress hampered by broken bricks and bags of garbage, aluminum cans glinting where it disappears in the dark. I think of the annual Blacks Run Clean Up Day, when volunteers collect tons of refuse from the stream. The project’s website informs me that lots of tires are thrown into the creek: 25 tires were extracted in 2019, while in 2021 the haul included 13 tires and a “hair salon hairdryer.”

Friends and neighbors, I ask you—who throws a whole salon hairdryer into a creek? Was it a prank? Sabotage by a rival hairdresser? An outburst of cosmetological rage? Musing on this, I notice I’ve lost Blacks Run and am now walking along the railroad track without a creek in sight. I round the corner, glimpsing the courthouse clock tower with its sea-green roof, the statue of Justice lifting her scales in the rain, and the replica of the domed spring house that once marked the spot where fresh water welled out of the ground, making this place livable: the source of the city.

I have read that they used to called it Big Spring and Never-Failing Spring. When the replica of the old gazebo was put up in 1995, a sign warned residents not to drink the water. Now I can’t even find the path of that water, just the red neon sign of the bail bond agent and several parked police cars. Can I approach an officer and report a missing creek? But then I remember where to find it: it will resurface, pungent-smelling and littered with beer cans, in the alley where a restaurant hangs baskets of flowers over the water.

Strange beauty of a length of muddy fabric curled around a stone. Farther on, behind the bike shop, a thick crop of white daffodils. At the old ice house, now turned into shops, the creek is dotted with islands of dock leaves and flourishing green sedge. I cross a patch of wasteland behind some apartments and find myself on the railroad track once more, watching the creek flow away where I can’t follow, underneath the lumber yard where the Rockingham Milling Company building rises, a shadow of its nineteenth-century splendor, gazing wearily across town with its shattered windows.

Why do I love to stand here, where the walls that channel the creek are lined with graffiti, where my foot almost drops between the railroad ties, where a rotting wooden fence leans crazily, where the water of Blacks Run is so foul and sorry, bubbling brown at the edges? Maybe because the porous surface asserts itself powerfully in this place of rust, abandonment, and decay. A ruined dignity rises from these neglected things, a silent admission that no surface is truly impervious.

I think of the poet Lucretius, who wrote: “Nothing exists but has a porous texture.” Lowering my hood against the thin rain, I watch Blacks Run slip away toward its destination in the bay—dirty, derelict, impaired, alive.

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